WHEN I was an adolescent, the word "chaperone" became associated in my mind with the night my parents served punch at my high school senior prom, an experience truly inhibiting to romance. "Chaperone" was synonymous with restriction, a word that inevitably evoked the image of dowager aunts walking behind young lovers, their eyes alert for breaches of propriety. Perhaps when my own children become teenagers, "chaperone" will acquire the same unwelcome connotation for them. In the meantime, though, it's been with some surprise that I've discovered how much I enjoy assuming this protective role. Over the last few years I've climbed in and out of two-seater airplanes with four-year-olds, watched a newborn calf being pulled by the legs out of its mother, witnessed pig-calling contests at a local fair, and learned how to shoot an 18-century cannon with a group of fo u
On most of these field trips, I go as myself: my children's mother, just another parent, another adult. But recently being a chaperone allowed me to assume an entirely different identity for a day. As the name tag on my blue-and-white-checked apron made clear, I was "Emeretta Waters," a schoolmistress who had moved from central Maine to St. Louis, and, in the fall of 1870, was visiting home.
I took on the history of this once real person, with a name whose oddness still enchants me, because my son's fifth-grade class was spending a day at the Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Maine, and his teacher needed another adult to accompany the group. We took a school bus from Waterville and arrived mid-morning at a group of buildings set back in open fields - a mansion, a farmer's cottage and barn, a schoolhouse, a library, and a church.
A tall man with a dark beard reaching half way down his chest met the class just outside the farmer's cottage. Once we walked through the gate, he explained, we would leave the 20th century behind and become members of three families - the Bradfords, the Preys, and the Waters - who were gathered at the farm in the fall of 1870, to help out for the day. As in the 19th century, labor would be divided by gender: The boys would help him in the barn, the girls would join two women in the house.
In the dining room, we were given our new identities by "Aunt Emma," a young woman who lives at the farmhouse as its caretaker. She gave us checked aprons and mob caps, a different color for each family. A few girls went upstairs to help another "aunt" dust and make beds, while the rest of us began working in the kitchen, preparing the noon dinner for 25. The menu consisted of "boil in a pot" (a stew), cornbread, crackers, applesauce, and applesauce cake, - all to be made from scratch using recipes Aunt
Emma had scribbled on brown paper.
In the dim light (no electricity, of course, and the day was rainy and dull) we chopped potatoes and turnips, sifted flour, pounded cracker meal flat, and tried to stay in character. My "mother," Ma Waters - on the bus, a talkative 10-year-old named Jenny - ordered me around occasionally, while I surreptitiously watched to make sure that she and the other girls maintained a healthy respect for the cast-iron cookstove and its blazing fire.
Concessions to modern life were minimal, for health and safety. (The liquid detergent above the tin sink, for example, was per order of the State Health Department.) The girls expressed some consternation about the lack of toilet paper in the "privy" out behind the barn, which is how we learned the purpose of a bucket of stripped corncobs just inside the outhouse door. In the 19th century, nothing was wasted.
As I measured flour for cornbread with these sudden contemporaries, girls I'd known before that morning only slightly, I thought about the comment another parent had made earlier that week. "That's one trip I'll never chaperone," she said. "I do housework every day at home." But I didn't share her sentiments.
Working in groups of four and five, I discovered how pleasant communal activity can be. Housework isn't so isolating when there are neighbors and friends around to help out.
At noon, the boys and their teacher (who, to the delight of her students, had become a man for the day) came tramping in. They had shoveled manure from the pigsty, cleaned sawdust from an icebox, and made cider. The family "fathers" sat at the heads of the three tables and we said a blessing holding hands.
"Pa" served stew to everyone at his table; we had to wait until he put his spoon in his bowl to pick up our own. Meanwhile, everyone was learning about passing dishes and saying "please." Good manners were simply part of rural life in the 19th century.
After dinner, the girls and I gathered around the table to make dried apples. In the barn, the boys were bringing in wood and playing with the cats when the bearded man wasn't watching.
As I threaded apple slices onto a string to be hung from the kitchen rafters, I realized that one of the advantages of such a field trip is the way it cancels out distinctions: In such a setting it doesn't matter whose mother might be on welfare, whose father is in jail, whose parents are doctors, who is struggling with reading, or who is doing advanced math. It doesn't even seem to matter who is a parent.
My son and I still reminisce about this experience that was, of course, really half shared, separated as we were into different spheres of work. He delights in the irony that as a family father he sat at the head of his teacher's table, while one of his best friends sat at the head of mine. We talk about the personages whose lives were ours for the day - Emeretta Waters, the schoolmistress who moved from Maine to St. Louis, Ottis Prey, a millwright who lived for a time in Massachusetts with his many chi l
When we returned from Norlands, I called a friend who, like me, has been charmed by the unexpected pleasures of chaperoning. Her son's class is to make the same journey back into the 19th century later in the year, and I urged her to go along. "Did you know that in 1870, St. Louis was a frontier town?" I asked her. "The Waters family was terribly worried I might get mixed up in gambling."