Louise DuBois was a stout, matronly woman with a stern look and a commanding voice that could be heard a mile away when she gave it full rein. But she had a heart made of pure gold. She had no qualms about taking charge when the occasion called for it. That morning was an occasion that called for it.
Julia had managed to feed the men their breakfast before Louise got there, but she was close to exhaustion afterwards. Not a morsel of the breakfast meal remained that could go toward the midday meal coming up next. Work on the farm in those days was extremely hard. A farmer had to consume between 6,000 and 8,000 calories a day in order to have the energy needed to do the work. A large man might need to consume close to 10,000 calories a day.
Julia was just starting to clean off the table outside on the lawn when Louise pulled her spring board up to the ice house in back so that it would not be in the way. The two women had not seen each other for more than a month. Louise had been up north helping a niece with a new baby. "Yoo-hoo, Julia." Louise called as walked into the yard. Julia seemed listless to her.
After embracing her warmly, Louise pulled back and placed her hands squarely on Julia's shoulders. She tipped her head first to the left and then to the right as she studied Julia's face intently. Then she dropped her right hand and placed it on Julia's abdomen. "You're in the family way." She announced. Julia nodded yes. In those days pregnancy was referred to in delicate terms such as that.
In 1900 half the babies were delivered by doctors. The other half were delivered by midwives. Louise had been a midwife for over twenty years. She knew all the signs. Yet, it was not unusual back then to find a married woman of child bearing age pregnant. It was almost a given if her youngest child was a year old or more. Indeed, Julia went on to give birth to a boy, Armond, the following January in the dead of winter with the ground covered in lustrous snow and Louise present to assist in the birth.
"Morning sickness?" Louise asked as she started to gather up the stacks of dishes on the table.
Julia brought her apron up and wiped the sweat from her brow with it. "Almost all day I am sick and want to throw up. Everything tastes odd to me. I get tired easily." She replied.
"Let's get you in the house, child, and get your corset off. You need to rest a spell. And the children? Where are the children today? "
"My sister Rebecca is watching them. She's taken them down to the creek to look for crawfish."
The Corset. It had been around for centuries. Although it often provided support for the mid section especially the back, its main purpose was to prepare the female figure to receive the fashion of the day. So, the corset form changed with the fashions.
A woman living in Julia's time wore her corset everyday just as today's woman wears her bra everyday. A woman back then hoed the garden in her corset. She did the laundry wearing it. She prepared the meals all corseted up. It may have been a matter of propriety to wear a corset and inappropriate, perhaps even seen as immoral by some, to go without one in public.
Regarding pregnancy, it was considered inappropriate, even immoral, to be seen in public if you were pregnant and showing. The longer a woman could wear a corset while pregnant and conceal that fact, the longer she could be seen in public before the baby came. But Louise advised Julia that day not to wear her corset during the pregnancy, because she had heard that there was a growing concern in the medical community that corseting up could harm the developing child in the womb. In fact there is reason to believe that some women, upon finding themselves pregnant back then and wishing they weren't, tightly laced their corsets in order to deliberately cause a miscarriage.
"But there are chickens to cut up and fry, Louise." Julia said as she struggled with her corset.
"Now, never you mind about the chickens or anything else. I'll manage just fine in the kitchen without your help. You just rest."
"I don't feel right about leaving all that work to you, Louise."
"Lands sake, I'm fit as a fiddle. The Pelletier baby isn't due for 'nother week yet best I can figure and I'm free as a bird today. " Louise replied as she helped Julia get back into her dress.
With Louise close behind, Julia came down the steps and walked out onto the screened-in porch off the dining room. She eased into the rocker that David's mother had given her earlier in the summer. Julia had whitewashed it and set it on the porch in the corner by the hydrangea bushes.
"I stopped by the Boudreau farm on the way here and Zelia sent you a big pot of beef stew plus several loaves of bread for today's dinner meal." Louise said as she placed a small pillow behind Julia's head. "She said to tell you she's sorry she could not come here herself and lend a hand," her voice trailed off as she headed for the kitchen, "but her youngest is all a mess with poison ivy and her man is down on his back again with something."
"That was kind of her to send the stew." Julia called to her from the porch. "I'm sorry to hear about her man being down on his back again."
Louise chipped a few pieces of ice off the block of ice in the ice box. She drew water from the hand pump at the kitchen sink and carefully washed the saw dust off the chipped ice. Then she plopped the ice in a glass of water and walked back out to the porch with it. "Besides my pies, Julia, I brought along some of my pickled beets and a kettle of ham and beans too. Why, dinner is almost ready for the men."
Louise handed the glass of water to Julia and said, "This should cool you off right nicely." Tucked under her arm was a Sears, Roebuck catalogue she had grabbed off the table on her way through the dining room to the porch. "Here, Julia, look at this while you rest." She said as she handed over the catalogue to Julia.
In the evenings by the light of a kerosene lamp Julia would comb the pages of her Sears, Roebuck and look at everything a person could buy. Augers. Bailing wire. Oil chandeliers. Commodes. Divan couches. Chewing tobacco. Shaving soap. Plum pudding. Rolled oats. Vanilla extract. Chocolate. Men's dancing shoes. Ladies mufflers. Ladies ribbed drawers. Bustles. Buckles. Butcher's apron. And on and on. It was like touring a fantasy land of goods.
Julia wanted to take the twins to the new photographer in town to get their picture taken for their fourth birthday. So, she was particularly interested in what Sears, Roebuck had to offer in boys' clothing. She found an outfit for the boys which she favored. It was inspired by the Little Lord Fauntleroy fashions of a few years earlier. The shirt, or blouse, had a wide ruffled collar to it and long sleeves with ruffled cuffs. She decided upon a big floppy bow, too, in a red plaid for the boys that went under the collar and tied in front. At the time these bows were especially popular in America. Julia used her egg money to pay for the twins' outfits.
While Julia rested out on the porch, Louse busied herself in the kitchen finishing up some of the dishes Julia had started to prepare for the dinner meal. She glanced out the window at one point and then quickly called to Julia "Well would you look at who is comin' up the lane, Julia." She wiped her hands on her apron. "Sweet Lord, it is Marie Chouinard...and she's wearin' a hat of all things. Must be thinkin' it's Sunday."
Marie Chouinard was tall and thin with a mouth that rarely turned up at the corners and usually laid in a narrow abbreviated line right under her nose.
Whenever she spoke, the tip of her nose wiggled like a rabbit's nose. This made it difficult to take seriously whatever she was saying if you were looking right at her. Prim and proper, she was always snooping around looking for something that did not meet with her approval and she usually found plenty that did not meet with her approval. Despite Marie's shortcomings, Louise managed to get along with her and even liked her although at times Louise was forced to set her straight about certain things.
Louise rushed out the kitchen door to greet Marie who was struggling to carry two large wicker baskets. "What have you there, Marie?" Louise asked cheerfully.
"Oh, I thought Julia could use some spiced peaches and pound cakes for the men's meals." Marie replied then added snidely. "I don't suppose she's done much cookin' for the men with all those youngins runnin' round."
Louise shook her finger at Marie playfully, "Now Marie, let's not start that." She said. Louise knew where that was coming from. Marie had given birth to only one child, a boy, who died from pneumonia when he was three years old. That was twenty-five years ago. After the boy died, bitterness set in and never left Marie. It determined her attitude toward everything.
Julia was standing in the kitchen by the sink trying to wash some dishes when Marie walked in. "Oh, Marie, I am so happy to see you." She wiped her hands on her apron and went up to Marie. The two women embraced.
"Well, I know how hard it is to feed a bunch of farmers at harvest time, and I thought you could use some help Julia."
"What are you doing in here, Julia?" Louise squawked when she came through the kitchen door from outside. She set a basket down on the table. "You get right back out there on that porch." And she took Julia by the hand and led her through the dining room and back out onto the porch.
When she returned to the kitchen, she found Marie examining the curtains hanging in the kitchen window. "I wonder when the last time was that these were washed." She remarked as she fingered them.
Louise rolled her eyes and walked toward the sink. "Marie, help me wash up these dishes here, would you. And take off that hat, please."
The two women proceeded to work side by side at the long, trough-like sink covered in a sheet of metal. Marie leaned toward Louise and said quietly, "I see that Julia is not wearing her corset."
"Yes, that's true." Louise replied. "She's in the family way and exhausted right now. I advised her not to wear her corset anymore until after the baby is born. It could harm the baby, Marie. That's what the doctors are saying."
"I'm sorry, Louise. I try not to be judgmental, but...it is not right. It simply is not right. It is immoral, I do believe, to go without your corset in public." Marie replied smugly. "And here with all these men about on the farm today. When the other ladies hear about this, they will be shunning Julia for certain."
Louise began to vigorously pump the handle up and down on the hand pump up at the sink. Water gushed out. "MARIE," She bellowed as she pumped, "I'VE A GOOD MIND TO REMOVE MY CORSET THIS VERY MOMENT RIGHT HERE IN THIS VERY KITCHEN IN FRONT OF THIS VERY SINK. ....AND WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT THAT?"
Marie stiffened as she stood back. Her face glowed red. "Huh,...well.....I never." She muttered.
Julia heard the commotion coming from the kitchen, but just about that time she saw Rebecca running up the road toward the house from the creek with the baby on her hip and Eugene and Albert close behind her.
Rebecca leaped onto the porch steps and swung open the screen door to the porch. "The twins. They've disappeared, Julia. I can't find them anywhere." She said breathlessly. Meanwhile the humming of the threshing machine in the distance could be heard.
I know everyone is eager to find out what happened to the twins, and I was hoping to reveal that in this installment, but it got too long and I ran out of mental energy. Next time, I promise you will find out.
Forever there has been a sisterhood of women to help each other out like these women were helping Julia. In any group of women, too, there is bound to be a Louise and bound to be a Marie. I am sure these stereotypical women existed in Julia's group of women back then.
In researching Sears and Roebuck, I found a site devoted to their 1902 catalogue. I was amazed by the variety of things that one could purchase through this catalogue. If you are interested, you can purchase a CD of the 1902 Sears Catalogue