About a decade ago around Thanksgiving, I had seen a story on PBS about an 18th century midwife, named Martha Ballard, who kept a meticulous journal about her patients, treatments, weather conditions and everyday events in her life. The entries were written from a very pragmatic perspective, direct and to the point. Yet, in one particular passage , which the show emphasized, her tone changed. She recorded the night her barn burned down and in the middle of the story’s account, she interjected a rather strange statement concerning the tragic event with the erupting destruction it incurred. She mentioned , out of the blue, that her daughter had turned 18 that day. Normally, from our modern viewpoint, that would seem a distant thought during the onset of flames and charring timber. However, this was the 18th century and a lot children died under the age of one or if not that early, by five. So in a season when fruit and crops where gathered, when leaves flamed in color but held a brief time of bloom, this birthday celebrating her child’s entrance into womanhood was miraculous, a gift from nature and God. And though part of Martha’s farm was destroyed, she still recognized this offering of life and acknowledged with awe and gratitude, her girl’s full growth into a bride and future mother. And on this day of thanksgiving, I realize that despite the setbacks, sorrows and challenges we struggle to survive, overcome, there are the blessings of being alive and interacting with those we love and need. This poem is about Martha Ballard and her daughter from a reflective stance. She is standing in front of her rebuilt barn and reminiscing about that night in October when everything seemed lost and yet found through a sudden realization, Hannah’s adult presence.
( Memory of October, 1790)
The barn extends its length
from road to hilltop
overlooking the river.
rests on the edge of twilight
wearing a season patched by leaves.
A cloak of rags,
the foliage reminds me
of one I grabbed in another life
watching fire turn
this building to skeletal timber.
I stood silent
clutching a quilt, hearing livestock
trample the fence — but thought
only of my daughter’s age.
She had turned 18 that day
fair, tall enough
to pull herbs from the kitchen ceiling.
Her arm reached long and smooth
like a shaft of moonlight through the room
whenever she prepared
supper late and birds were hushed
in the field by evening’s shadow.
I felt chosen.
Her life had flourished
beyond cradle to dower chest,
a young bride
waiting to build her first home
while part of mine
was burning down.
At that moment,
nothing mattered but Autumn
offering Hannah, who had grown
to harvest womanhood.