A Home Birth

A Home Birth


By Elton Camp

            Standards of responsible childrearing were far different in the Old South.  Parents rarely discussed sexual matters with their children.  Not infrequently, an adolescent girl was taken by surprise by her first menstrual period.

            “Maw, I’m hurt.  I’m bleedin’,” Miranda’s first daughter cried out shortly after turning twelve years old.  She wept in fear.

            “No, hit’s jest somethin’ about all girls,” she stated with a calm voice.  “I’ll show y’u whut t’ do.”

            After the mother supplied the necessary assistance for her upset daughter, she gave no further explanation.  In fact, Miranda had little information to share.  So it’d been when she was a youth.  To speak about such matters wasn’t fitting. 

            Calves and piglets appeared regularly.  The parent’s casual comment went, “Th’ cow fount a calf.”  Unless they happened to witness a birth, the explanation went unquestioned by the children.   Somehow, each ultimately learned the truth, often from older children. 

            When the expectant mother of a family began to experience labor pangs, the youngsters were sent away to stay with relatives for the duration.  No reason was given beyond a family visit.  They weren’t told to expect a baby brother or sister upon their return.  The older ones eventually figured it out. 

            “Maw’s gonna have a baby,” Leamon whispered to the other children. 

            They were in a wagon on the way to an uncle’s house.  He knew that it’d been about two years since the birth of Leon.  Howard was six years old.  Leamon had noted his mother’s expanding waistline.  After covert consultation with an older pal, he affirmed his maturing concept of human reproduction.  No longer could he be deceived. 

            The older girls knew that he was correct, but maintained an embarrassed silence.  The younger children either ignored his conclusion or looked at him with pity for his ignorance.  As with animals, the explanation had always been, “Yore maw fount a baby.” 

            Miranda, in the manner of rural women, hadn’t consulted a doctor.  She received no prenatal care, special diet, or precautions.  Her life went on just as when she wasn’t pregnant.  A granny midwife would assist with the delivery. 

            “Milas, send fer Miz Parsons,” she urged.  “Hit won’t be long.” 

            The woman came promptly.  Milas retreated to the front porch to wait.  Five births had been uneventful.  On other pregnancies, the couple had produced a stillborn child and Edgar who died a few months after birth. 

            The sounds he heard this time were unlike anything in his experience. Something was seriously wrong.  Yet, he made no move to comfort his wife.  Birthing babies was women’s work.  Milas took out his pocketknife and began to whittle on a length of wood.  A pile of chips accumulated on the porch in front of the swing.  A neighbor drove by in his wagon.  The two exchanged raised hands in silent greeting. 

            “Oh, Lord, have mercy!” Miranda screamed in agony.  The outcry was followed by moans of pain.  The midwife tried to reassure her.   The placenta had implanted across her cervix.  Miranda was doomed.  After a piercing scream, all fell silent within the house.

            Mrs Parsons stepped out onto the porch.  “I’m sorry, Mr. Mile, but Miranda didn’t make hit.  Nor did th’ baby.” 

            Milas showed no emotion.  “I thank y’u fer yore help, Grace.”

            The newly widowed man drove his horse and wagon to a neighbor who did carpenter work.  “Jake, Mirandey died whil’ ’go,” he said.  “I need y’u t’ make up a coffin.”

            The deal concluded, Milas drove the wagon to his brother’s house to pick up his motherless children.  He gave no thought as to the best way to break the shocking news.  Women sometimes died having babies.  It was a part of life.

            When he called them to the wagon, he said bluntly, “Young uns, yore maw’s died.”  He offered no assurances or comfort beyond, “It wuz jest her time t’ go.” 

            The family climbed aboard for the trip home.  For a bit there was only silence.  The two younger children hadn’t comprehended the fearsome news.  They began to laugh as they played with a shuck doll in the floor of the wagon.

            “Stop thet, boys,” Bertha ordered.  “ Ere y’u deef?  Didn’t y’u heer whut paw sed?”

            The two girls sobbed as the wagon jolted along the dirt road toward their home.  Nothing would ever be the same again and they knew it.  The two older boys said nothing.  Boys weren’t allowed to cry. 

            Later in the day, women in the community came to help prepare Miranda and her baby for burial.  They dressed and laid them out in the coffin in the front room.  A black cloth covered the table on which it rested.  One of the ladies periodically bathed the corpses’ faces and hands.  The rural custom of “settin’ up” all night with the body was followed.  The family didn’t sleep.  Friends dropped by to tell good things they recalled about Miranda.  Neighbors delivered food for the bereaved family.  Because no embalming was done, burial took place at Rock Springs the next day. 

            The funeral service lasted nearly an hour.  Despite being September, the temperature was in the upper eighties.  The church was almost unbearably hot due to the blazing sun on its tin roof.  The pews were hand-constructed of bare wood.  Their seats had no cushions and the backs angled a bit too much forward for comfort.  Worn songbooks stood in racks on the backs of pews.  The windows were raised, but no cooling breeze developed.  A picture of what they imagined to be Jesus hung on the wall above the pulpit.  The representation, rather than being a vigorous young man, was of a thin, weak looking person whose features, except for a beard, were more feminine than masculine.  A nimbus, a circle of light, was around his head. 

            The minister praised Miranda as a faithful wife and mother.  He quoted at length from Proverbs Chapter thirty-one.  That section of Scripture describes the characteristics of an ideal wife. 

            “She wuz a fine Christian wom’n,” he said.  “Even now she’s lookin’ down from heav’n.  She’s seein’ us ez we com’ togither t’ honor her.  Life eternal air herran.”

            Later, the parson offered an conflicting idea, “In th’ comin’ day of jedgment, our dear depart’d sister will rise from th’ grave ’long wif’ all th’ honored dead ’n Christ.  Oh, what a glorious day that’ll be.”  Nobody seemed to notice the blatant contradiction of his earlier statement.

            “Yet, thar air here ’mong us sinners who has yet t’ b’ saved.  Ye sit thar smugly thinkin’ we don’t know who ye air, but God knoweth.  Ye cannot deceive Him.  Ye trod th’ broad road thet leadeth into destruc’un.  Damnation ’n hell, whar th’ worm dieth not ’n’ th’ far air not quenched, lays afore ye.  Repent whil’ there b’still time.”


            The minister’s voice became louder and more frenzied.  Veins stood out on his forehead.  His face reddened.  He mopped sweat from his forehead with a white handkerchief.  Cries of “Amen” rose from the congregation.  That the service was a funeral, and not a revival, seemed to be momentarily forgotten.  The preacher closed the service with a long prayer.  In a final act of tribute, all present filed directly alongside the open casket at the front of the church.  Several women paused to weep. 

            Burial took place in a hand–dug grave near the center of the cemetery. To each side of the site were tiny graves that contained Miranda’s two other babies.  The just-born child was buried with her.  For many years the site was marked only with a brown fieldstone. 

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In the Old South, most babies were born at home. Occasionally tragedy struck.
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