In the midst of an orgy of reading Stuart Woods books, Judy gave me this out-of-print book to read.
Marie Campbell provides an interesting glimpse into the past, the 1940s in rural Georgia, a time when there were strict lines between black and white, where in some towns the hospitals refused to treat a black person, where sometimes the only medical care a pregnant black woman received was through clinics run by the county health department staffed by a few doctors and public health nurses. Alongside the nurses were a cadre of elderly, black women – the granny-midwives – who were almost entirely responsible for attending laboring women, poor white as well as black women, and catching their babies.
Campbell remarks “I am so full of stuff to write about that it is fairly running out of my ears.” And write she did. The book, which was published in 1946, tells the stories of some of these granny midwives, who referred to themselves as “Aunt”. Some stories are heartbreaking, some poignant, some funny. These women didn’t just catch babies, of course, they worked hard on their small farms or as servants for white folks.
Says Aunt Jeanie, one of the granny-midwives:
We ain’t discriminating against white folks, but we don’t want them in the same cotton field with us. Not because they’re white, but for a better reason. They spoil all the fun. Can’t no white folks sing while they picking cotton. It’s contrary to their nature.
One of the things talked about in the books is the “gift child”, a common practice in which the granny-midwife would be asked to raise as her own a baby that the mother was not able to raise herself, for whatever reason. It was not a legal adoption.
About 6 days ago now, this rather unhappy looking baby came into the world in the usual way (the rabbit is now emerging from the brambles).
If I were a bit cleverer, I could probably come up with a great bubble quote to stick over her head. At any rate, she is called Phoebe and she is my good friend’s fourth grandchild. I had lunch with Phoebe’s mother and grandmother a few weeks ago when Phoebe was still a very large bulge.
It was something of a coincidence, I guess, that the mention of “gift child” in the book coincided with the birth of this new baby and the name that was chosen for her, because my mom’s mother became a “gift child” and the woman who raised her was named Phoebe.
The story beings sometime around 1894, when Phoebe and Warren McDowell, who had no children of their own, took in a motherless 4-year-old girl named Elsie Coldren and raised her. Elsie became the McDowell’s gift child from a father who could not take care of her or his three other children after his wife died. Elsie’s brothers and sister were scattered to other relatives, but when Elsie’s father later remarried, the children came back to live with him and his new wife, all except Elsie. She was never legally adopted, but she remained with Phoebe and Warren until she fell in love with Walter Dittemore, got married in 1906, began having babies of her own, and eventually my mother came along.
Then, the circle became complete. Warren eventually died, leaving Phoebe all alone when she was still a fairly young woman. She came to live with Elsie and her husband and helped to raise my mother. She lived with Elsie for the rest of her life, until her death in 1957. My mother has told this story many times, and I have never tired of hearing about it (but I suppose you are.. ha!)