Motherhood Past - seen through the pages of diaries

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The diaries of Amanda Patch Baldwin and Martha VanOrsdol Farnsworth, two women who lived during the late 1800s, describe motherhood as a seven-day-a-week job, with lots of overtime. ``I am tending babies, and am almost worn out with the business,'' wrote Mrs. Baldwin, mother of seven, in 1871. ``There is but little rest for one who takes care of children.''

The rediscovery of women's diaries from the 18th and 19th centuries - whether written in a neat, legible hand on sheets of stationery, squeezed between the lines of figures in accounting books, or scrawled on brown wrapping paper - has disclosed a wealth of information about the authors' daily lives. Mrs. Baldwin's diary is comparatively short, covering a period of less than seven months, and is still in the possession of David Baldwin, the grandson of its author. Mrs. Farnsworth's diary is an extraordinary 4,000-page record of 40 years, recently published in edited form as a book, ``Plains Woman.'' Both diaries are like open windows into the homes and hearts of mothers from the past.

The diary of Amanda Patch Baldwin was written in terse daily entries between Jan. 1 and July 23, 1871. It is both a record of chores accomplished and children tended and also, on a personal level, a candid chat with an imaginary friend. The busy wife and mother had little time to herself and few women friends. ``It is lonesome this afternoon,'' she wrote on a cold and rainy day in May, a day filled with washing and mending. ``How I wish I had a neighbor that would run in once in a while.''

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Amanda Elizabeth Patch was born April 24, 1834, in Weston, Mass., 30 miles west of Boston. At the age of 19 she married Samuel Emmes Baldwin, whose great-great-grandfather, Captain David Baldwin, had settled in nearby Sudbury in the early 1700s. Amanda and Samuel settled down on the Baldwin family farm. Samuel farmed the land, helped to build the county roads, and become part-time butcher for his neighbors. Amanda cared for the home and, eventually, for their seven children.

Apart from the few pages of the diary, and a tombstone in the ancient Sudbury cemetery (now part of Wayland), little is left from Amanda's life. She died in 1882 at the age of 48, when her youngest child was eight. Her son Charles, three-year-old ``Charlie'' in the diary, somehow saved the diary and later passed it on to his son, David, who lives in present-day Sudbury. Charles told his own children little about their grandmother, however. There remain no small keepsakes and no photographs.

``I have a feeling she wrote other diaries,'' said Mrs. Hope Baldwin, David's wife, ``but we have never seen them.''

After their parents died (Samuel died two years before Amanda), the children were separated and sent to live with different relatives. ``After that, everybody went his own way and they didn't keep in touch,'' Mrs. Baldwin explained.

Through the pages of Amanda's diary, one glimpses the large problems and smaller joys of typical days, the unfulfilled wishes of a devoted mother.

Her pleasures were simple ones, squeezed into busy days. ``I make candy in the eve. with the children,'' she wrote on a snowy January evening. On Feb. 14 she wrote: ``It snows fast today. I wash the flannels and dry them in the house. It is Valentine's Day and the chldren have great fun about sending valentines. How I like to see them enjoy themselves.''

On a pleasant June day, her husband took the children to a church fair and returned in the early evening. ``I go after the little ones are in bed and stay about 3 hours, have strawberries and fruit cake, candy, etc.,'' she wrote. Usually it was Amanda who stayed home with the younger children at night, while Samuel and the older boys went fishing.

The diary records trying days, filled with imcomplete chores and underfoot children. ``Damp, east wind today. I feel nervous and cross, and nothing goes right,'' Amanda wrote on Wednesday, April 19. ``I feel as though I would like to run away from home today.''

Although Amanda was a religious woman, who often thanked God for small blessings, she never attended church. Not, however, because she didn't want to. Every Sunday morning she dutifully bathed and readied the children, then sent husband, children, and hired help off while she stayed at home with the baby.

``It is a beautiful morning. Oh how I wish I was going to meeting,'' she wrote.

``Sunday is the most trying day of the week to me,'' she once lamented. ``It is hard to try to keep so many restless spirits in proper order.''

Quiet seven restless spirits she did, though, with firmness and praise. From the entries in her diary, it is easy to imagine how she would have talked to them.

``What a dear little fellow Theodore [the baby] is - he will stay with Lizzie all the forenoon and let me work in the kitchen, then he is so glad to see me when I come.''

The diary ends abruptly, with a long, last entry titled, ``Memorandum, Sunday, July 23, 1871.'' It is about Charlie, the three-year-old, who had fallen ill with the mumps and was given warm baths and fed morphine powders to quiet him, to little avail. She recorded these final words: ``His father watched with me, beside him all night. It was a hard night to us.''

Charlie survived, grew to manhood, and later presented his mother's diary to his own son. It is a brief history, filled with small, heartfelt confidence about the joys and sorrows of being a mother.

From 1882 to 1922 Martha VanOrsdol Farnsworth kept a daily diary, written in a large, confident hand in 16 legal-size ledger books. It spans her years of young womanhood on the windy, barren prairies of Kansas to her years of marriage in bustling Topeka.

``Plains Woman,'' the recent publication of her diary in an abridged form, presents glimpses of motherhood quite different from that of Amanda Patch Baldwin.

Martha VanOrsdol's mother died when she was three, while giving birth to her sister, Belle. At 14, young ``Mattie'' started a diary, recording matter-of-factly the weather, school events, and the unkindnesses of her stepmother. A year later, she left home to live with neighboring families, earning her board by tending their children. At the age of 21, she married a handsome young mail carrier and settled in Topeka.

The diary entries of Martha as a young wife are exuberant, sometimes melodramatic. She enjoyed reading the popular romances of her day and, perhaps, saw herself as the heroine. Into the pages of her diary she poured the joys and heartaches of her daily life.

When her baby daughter was born in January, 1892, she poured out her joy: ``Today, at 12 minutes past 1 o'clock P.M. my precious `wee girlie' came to her mother. The dearest, sweetest, little treasure ever a mother had. The blackest hair and the blackest eyes, big and round and full.''

Martha devoted herself to her baby and husband. One can imagine her quickly jotting in her diary, between chores: ``Wash and iron and bake, made beds, sweep and dust, wash dishes, do mending, milk and churn, look after chickens chop wood too - I wonder if a woman is supposed to kill herself for a man....''

Martha often carried her baby while she worked, so that it wouldn't cry. ``Such a lovely day,'' she wrote in March, ``that mother and baby went out to walk about and see how Spring is coming on. Baby dear is getting so heavy....''

By April, however, she had discovered a two-fold solution: ``Garden-making time ... and when I go out to work in the garden, I take little girlie along, in a big clothes-basket on wheels and `old black Joe' lies beside her and watches her while I work. He is a faithful old dog.''

For Martha, brimming with love for her litle ``sun-beam girl,'' the days of motherhood were few. In June, after a sudden illness, the child died. ``Oh! the emptiness of my arms, the loneliness of my heart,'' she wrote, simply.

``I am all smiles to friends, that they may not be pained, to see my sorrow, but God knows, how my hours of the night are filled with tears, while others sleep,'' she wrote in August.

Her husband did not comfort her in her grief. Early in the marriage he had started drinking, and in November, 1893, with his faithful wife by his side, he died of consumption.

``God knows the tears of my heart and the prayers of my heart for this man,'' she would write. ``... I washed a very large washing this morning ... putting things away and burning many more, that I may have no reminder of my unhappy life.''

If Martha had chosen to end her diary at this point, there would remain a touching portrait of young motherhood with its brief periods of overflowing happiness and deepest sorrows. She wrote for 28 more years, however, up to the year before her passing in 1924.

In 1894 she married Fred Farnsworth, a kind and thoughtful companion. Although she could have no more children of her own, she ``mothered'' numerous children: foster children, the boys in her Sunday School class, which she taught for over 10 years, and Juvenile Court children, which she and her husband welcomed into their home at Christmas.

In actions and words, she expressed again and again the words she had once writen as a young mother: ``I do not see, how anyone could help loving children.''

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