Last week, AAS reader Jeanne McDougall introduced us to the Weld family. Today, she continues exploring the mother and daughter pair, and examines their relationship and personalities through Hannah’s letter.
During the closing days of February 1799, Hannah would have had every reason to wish her daughter back home with her in Boston rather than far-off, rural Worcester, enduring the final weeks of a rugged winter during the worrisome early days of a pregnancy that would produce, on July 6, Mary Rebecca Thomas, the elder Isaiah’s first surviving grandchild.
“I think my Dear you are remarkable well for the time (but) I hope you will take care to keep your Self so,” counseled Grandma Hannah. She may have had an informant in the household: “I am pleasd to find thay wont let you have your way in every thing,” such as “wasing dishes rubing furnitur or some such notability.” An active woman herself, Hannah acknowledged that her daughter would “long to be at work but, it wont do,” for “it is early times with you (and) you must take Great Care of your Self – gitt well and Strong then you may work as much as you please.” She further warned Mary to “take care of damp (chills) or Cold watter for in those things there is great danger,” and obviously knew the expectant mom well enough to know she “would always have her own way (a chip off the old block?).” “Danger” appears twice in the letter, a reminder of how many children in this period did not survive – as indeed, Mary’s first child, also a daughter, had been stillborn almost exactly a year earlier.
These cautions were but a prelude to the real purpose of the letter: providing Mary with a means of enjoying the company of her Boston family in a way once characterized as “vicarious,” and which we might call “virtual,” accessible to us today through the manuscript media of the period.
If you’re lucky, such a letter emerges from an archival folder expressing itself in sensory terms, affording the reader the giddy pleasure of actually seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, even tasting the moment. Hannah was that sort of writer. I grieved that this particular conversation didn’t involve music, my area of interest. But never mind.
“I don’t wonder you turned off your dog,” Hannah exclaimed, adding, “I never could nor never would lett one touch me,” because “I once had one brought me to try” but “as soon as I felt his Cold Nose and ruf Tongue I hove him down to the floor in a moment (and) never Lett him touch me again.” Now before getting your petticoats in a bunch, keep in mind that while such seeming callousness might shock us today, the maintenance of animals in a producer society was somewhat more practical, and far less fetishized, than in our pet-rich environment. But it’s the way Hannah expressed herself that invites the reader into her sitting room – you can see the hapless canine, feel his tongue, and perhaps even wish to comfort him after he’d been “hoved” to the floor like so much ballast. You have officially stepped through the looking glass.
But the rabbit holes continue to present themselves. “I receved a Lettr from (Betsy) by the Deacon,” Hannah continued, likely referring to yet another absent daughter, Elizabeth. “She had a feteuging time of it,” and “was very Sick at reding in the Sleagh like her Sister.” Having spent a lifetime coping with motion sickness, even when so much as an elevator makes too many stops, it never occurred to me that reading in an eighteenth-century sleigh might have been potentially as upsetting as doing so in an automobile. Another cross-century resonance.
There were more to come. In my own childhood on the lower Chesapeake Bay, where no one ever explains to a toddler upon eating her first raw oyster that the creature is still living (otherwise, you couldn’t safely eat it), I completely related to the discourse on shellfish. “I well tell you what says the Deacon,” Hannah confided. Quoth he: “‘I had about as (lief) take a live Frog in my mouth as a raw Oyster!’” His audience roared: “I thought thay would dy with Laughing,” recalled Hannah, “& am Sure I cant refrain from smiling every time I think of it.” Neither can I.
Hannah’s one regret was that her “tenderly belovd children” could not spend more evenings together, where times could be “very Drole.” She lived for the letters that were “all the Earthly Comfort I injoy or ever expect to while in this Vale of Tears;” she wanted nothing more than to hear that “my children are well and happy … the Suport of my Life.” And to that end, Mary, when it comes to rearranging the furniture, knock it off.
The feeling was clearly mutual. Hannah thanked her daughter not only for the comfort of her letters, but for the small kindness of a gift of apples which had “aroved” from the country, at a time of year when a city cellar might be somewhat bare. A thoughty-thing, “for which,” said her grateful mother, “you have our thanks.” Happily, the apple she bore had not fallen far from the tree, and she would live just long enough to see yet another apple share her name, when Mary and Isaiah Jr. welcomed sixth daughter Hannah Weld Thomas in 1803, eleven months before Grandma Hannah’s death on September 14, 1804.
Check back next week for Jeanne’s concluding thoughts.
Jeanne Eller McDougall is a Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Southern California, writing a dissertation entitled, “‘Fit to be sung in Streets:’ the mobilizing power of political song in pre-revolutionary British Colonial North America, 1750-1776.” She is a USC-Huntington Early Modern Studies Institute Fellow and a Michael J. Connell Foundation Fellow at the Huntington Library for 2011-2012.