When my partner and I moved from Chicago to Nova Scotia we bought an old farmhouse on the Bay of Fundy. While exploring an unfinished room over the kitchen, I discovered the walls had been sealed with seaweed and horsehair plaster and then covered with newspapers. Each layer of paper dated back to a different era. Advertisements for 1930’s appliances were pasted over pictures of the Hupmobile Coupe…cars and washing machines gave way to testimonials for Lydia Pinkham’s female toners and home remedies.
Everytime I turned a new patch of earth for my gardens, I uncovered some small relic of the past. Medicine bottles, bits of broken china, and my favourite find – an old silver serving spoon. It was used so often that the edge of the bowl of the spoon had been worn down to an angle. As I stood at my kitchen sink, washing the dirt out of the wheat stalk pattern in the handle, I began to daydream about the woman who had once held this spoon so many days of her life, how she must have stood over the stove, stirring, testing her work, giving tastes to a husband or child as they passed through the kitchen.
By spring I was pregnant. As word spread around the community of my “condition” and that I was looking for a midwife to assist in a home birth, neighbors began telling me tales about the history of my home, which was once a midwife’s house. I was captivated by their stories. Not only had the midwife, Mrs.Rebecca Steele, traveled to other homes in the Bay, but she eventually opened her home to the women in the community as a birth house. She took them in and saw them through labour and delivery,and then both mother and child stayed in the birth house for a week or more after the birth. During this time, I was priviledged to meet the midwife’s adopted daughter, Mary. Her first words to me were “My mother died when I was three days old. My father couldn’t take care of me of course, and there was no one else to care for me. The midwife, she couldn’t have babies of her own, so she took me in.” Sitting with her at the nursing home, Mary took a piece of paper from her pocket and began to read the names of all the women who had given birth in her mother’s house. The stories from the community and Mary’s memories led to a documentary and accompanying webumentary for CBC radio.
Although I enjoyed writing and producing the documentary, I had also been frustrated in my efforts to uncover the midwife’s past. Having died in 1955, she had been gone just long enough to start to fade from people’s memories. I could find no photographs of her, and although the older residents of my community could remember her kindness and her round, matronly figure, there were no traces left of her life as a young woman. A brief account in The Berwick Register mentioned that she had once taken an extended stay in the U.S. but her only child, an adopted daughter now living in a nursing home, couldn’t guess why her mother had gone away from home in the first place. Out of my need to fill in the spaces of Mrs. Steele’s limited biography, The Birth House was created.