Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.

These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.

Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military img_0936defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.

The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:

Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.

Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.

Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”

Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.

Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.

Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.

A Contentious People

PuritansThe New England Puritans were a remarkably contentious people. It doesn’t take much digging to discover that they argued over just about everything. Their early town records are full of reports of extended disputes over everything from the location of the meeting house to acceptable hairstyles. Many of the most heated quarrels were over religious practices. Though – or perhaps because – the Puritans were bound in covenant together, they struggled to see eye-to-eye. But it was not always easy.

Disagreements included:

Music in worship: “old style” (singing lined out psalms to any tune the individual wished) vs. “regular way” (singing all together in an ordered way to specified tunes).
Wearing wigs: Although many viewed wigs as “worldly fashion” the clergy led the trend to wear them. Ministers were considered the most eminent gentlemen in the colony and wigs were status symbols in Restoration England. This devolved into a small-town/big-town dispute and was part of a general debate over the wearing of fancy clothes.
Organ music: a new variation of the music controversy erupted in the late 1600s with the introduction of musical instruments in churches. For many Puritans, the organ symbolized the hated Roman Catholic services but its music was undeniably beautiful, “a snare to the soul and an uncommon danger.”
Baptism and church membership: Should “unregenerate” (ie: unconverted) children of baptized members have full church membership privileges? This was called the “Halfway Covenant” and was one of the most heated controversies of the 17th century.
Same-sex dancing versus mixed-dancing: Puritans weren’t against dancing per se. After all, it was in the Bible. But they argued over how restricted it should be and some towns forbade organized dancing, especially between men and women (which was considered “lascivious.”) When dancing schools opened in Boston in the late 1600’s, Increase Mather became nearly apoplectic in denouncing it, proclaiming that it was a “regular madness” and the Devil was its first inventor. However, when Massachusetts became a royal colony in 1692, dancers rebelled and balls and dances became very popular, spreading throughout the colony and beyond.
Christmas: early New England Puritans forbade the celebration of Christmas, and even made it a crime not to do regular work on Christmas Day. But as time went on and more and more English migrated to the colonies, and there was increased disagreement over observing the holiday.
Funerals: In Massachusetts Bay Colony, first-generation funerals were secular events; loved ones were buried quickly without ceremony. But twenty years later English rituals and practices were surfacing and people began to argue about appropriate funeral customs, including refreshments following a funeral, the use of caskets and gravestones, the presence of ministers, and the wearing of “funeral finery,” including gloves, scarves, ribbons, and rings.
Theater and plays: The theater arts were at the popular center of Elizabethan entertainment culture, but the Puritans associated it with monarchy and homosexuality. Many argued that it encouraged heresy and religious sedition.

Although the issues are different, this long tradition of arguing over local issues continues to this day and is alive and well in that emblem of New England community life: the annual town meeting.

quakers

The Congregational Way

pulpitIt’s nearly impossible to talk about the early Massachusetts Bay Colony without mentioning the Congregational Way. In Massachusetts, the ordained clergy and colonial magistrates worked together to ensure that order and Christian standards prevailed. Like England and the rest of Europe, it never occurred to the people of Massachusetts Bay that religion ought to be a personal choice. Rulers had always guided and regulated their people’s religious practices.

The Puritans were reformers, committed to purifying the Church of England. One of their most radical and far-reaching ideas was their conviction that each congregation should be independent, joined together in a covenant of believers.  Each member was responsible to every other member under the covenant they’d signed on joining. This became the system of “mutual watch,” wherein individual church members were under a religious obligation to keep their neighbors on the straight and narrow. And the church membership decided everything, including the selection of a minister and disposition of finances.

Thus, there was no authority over the local church; individual churches weren’t overseen and regulated by the hierarchy of bishops and archbishops they knew in England. This was, in part, an adaptation to the sheer physical distance between the colony and England, which meant the church hierarchy was too far away to effectively oversee them. But there were times when conflicts and other problems became too big for a local church to handle. They had to figure out a way to regulate themselves and each other.

John Cotton

John Cotton

What they came up with were “associations.” Local churches conferred with others in nearby towns in deciding theological and other issues, such as who was qualified for ministry, how to appropriately discipline church members, and so on. This was basically an extension of “mutual watch.”

In 1648 the clergy of Massachusetts Bay met to standardize church practices. The document they came up with was called The Cambridge Platform. It spelled out procedures for ordaining ministers, accepting new members and appropriate ways for churches to cooperate with each other.

The Congregational Way is still functioning in the institutional polity of churches directly descended from the Puritans – the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians, and the National Association of Continuing Congregationalists.

Some have pointed to the Congregational Way as the beginning of American democracy. It probably didn’t seem very democratic unless you were a white, male Congregational landowner. But at the same time it was more democratic than other institutions in that era. Under the Congregational Way ordinary citizens had the power to make decisions about property and finances, to choose their own leaders, and even to dismiss those leaders when they disagreed with them. And this approach to church governance impacted their way of governing themselves in their towns, in their colonies, and in the association of states that eventually became the United States.

Aftermaths

Wars have aftermaths, and King Philip’s War was no exception.  Few families in Massachusetts Bay Colony were untouched by King Philip’s War and its aftermath.  Although the English colonists considered the war over with the death of Metacomet in August of 1676, hostilities continued for years and bled into the French and Indian War.  Recently, when I was researching my family history, I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a victim of the war’s aftermath.

Indians_Attacking_a_Garrison_HouseAt eleven o’clock on the bright fall morning of September 19th, 1677, a group of about fifty natives attacked the north end of the frontier town of Hatfield, Massachusetts.  Even though the colonists had built a defensive stockade the year before, they were caught off guard.  The men were helping to frame a new house or working in the fields south of the palisade.  The natives never even tried to enter the stockade, instead attacking the houses outside the twelve-foot walls.  Some men standing on top of the new house were shot and fell; others were captured and bound.  Thirteen homes were invaded; seven were burned.  Women and children were killed or captured. The men in the fields saw the smoke and rushed back to the village, but by the time they got there, the Indians had marched their seventeen captives across the fields and turned north on the Poctumtuck path toward Deerfield.  They were bound for Canada.

Among the twelve dead was my ancestor, Mary Meekins, wife of the selectman Samuel Belding.  She left behind seven children, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

I imagine that Samuel was shattered.  He no doubt mourned the death of his wife and probably considered her innocent.  Chances are this reinforced the belief he likely shared with many of his fellow colonists – that the Indians were savages.

But there’s always more to the story.

A year and a half before Mary was killed, Samuel had participated in a savage and brutal attack on natives at the falls above Deerfield (now Turner’s Falls).  About one hundred and sixty men launched a surprise assault at dawn which left the natives reeling.  Rushing the sleeping camp, the men fired indiscriminately into their homes, and killed those who tried to escape.  Between 130 to 180 natives were slaughtered – men, women, and children, young and old.  Others drowned in the river as they tried to flee. The native village was then set on fire and all their food stores destroyed.

Even when victory is declared and a people or a nation are encouraged to think a war is over, there are always tensions simmering just under the surface – tensions that may erupt in new violence.  It takes years – often generations – to heal from war’s horrors.  As wise people have often said, it’s easy to start a war; it’s difficult to end one.  Even when it seems to be over, it probably isn’t.

First of its Kind

MR book5Mary Rowlandson’s book, The Sovereignty and Goodness of God, was the inspiration and foundation for my novel, Flight of the Sparrow. First published in 1682, the book was Rowlandson’s account of her captivity by Native Americans in 1676 during what has come to be called King Philip’s War. The first publication in North America by a living woman, it became an immediate bestseller and for years remained one of the most popular books by a Puritan writer.

More importantly, it established a popular genre of “captivity narratives” that continues to this day. Rowlandson had hundreds of imitators who followed her basic structure – a surprise attack, descriptions of the captive’s journey, and his or her eventual release – and reinforced the moral and religious significance of the events. Among them are The Captivity of Hannah Dustin (1697), set during King William’s War, The Redeemed Captive (1707), describing the raid on Deerfield, MA during Queen Anne’s War, A Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson, (1796) set during the French and Indian War, and A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison (1824).

The captivity narrative eventually spread to other cultural forms, including stage and film. We still respond to captivity narratives today in reports of hostages or prisoners of war held by terrorists or kidnappers.

One reason for the popularity of these narratives is the unspoken sexual subtext. The Puritans of Mary Rowlandson’s day expected women captives would be raped. In their ignorance of native customs, they assumed natives would find English women sexually irresistible. Rowlandson went to great lengths to point out that she was never sexually threatened in any way. In her narrative she wrote, “not one of them ever offered me the least abuse of unchastity to me in word or action.”

Hubbard book1Apparently that didn’t convince Nathaniel Saltonstall. In his narrative of the war he claimed that native warriors often raped their captives and forced the women “to satisfy their filthy lusts and then murdered them.” Benjamin Tomson even claimed that lust for colonial women had been motivated the native attacks. Even those Puritans who affirmed that natives had not assaulted captive women, such as Reverend William Hubbard, insisted that God had “restrained” them from sexual defilement.

Though no careful reader can find any hint of sexual violation in Rowlandson’s narrative, it’s not unlikely that prurient curiosity was at least partly responsible for the book’s popularity – and the popularity for the many captivity narratives that followed.

Love and Marriage Among the Puritans

PilgrimsThe Massachusetts Bay Puritan understanding of marriage was governed by strict laws and customs. Couples were required to publish marriage “banns” – an announcement of their intention at three successive public meetings – or attach a written notice to the meeting house door 14 days before the wedding. They did not consider marriage a religious sacrament, but a civil matter, regulated by the state. The officiant at a wedding was a magistrate, not a minister, a practice that continued until 1686.
Feasting was common after the ceremony, and there was always more than enough cake, rum, and “sack” (fortified wine) to go around. The marriage had to be sexually consummated to be considered valid. If a man was impotent, the marriage was annulled.

Once married, any kind of permanent separation was strictly prohibited. A man who refused to live with his wife was subjected to severe punishment, even flogging. If a man or woman came to the colony and it was discovered they had left a spouse behind in England, they were promptly sent back.

Divorce, though rare, was allowed if it could be proven that either the husband or wife had neglected a fundamental duty. The grounds for divorce included adultery, desertion, and nonsupport by the husband. Massachusetts granted 27 divorces between 1639 and 1692.

ScarletHusbands and wives were not only required to live together, but must do so peacefully. The law forbade them to beat, curse, or quarrel with each other.  Adultery was technically a capital offense, but offenders were executed rarely. More commonly they were fined, whipped, or branded. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter showcases the Puritan practice of public shaming including wearing the letter “A” and on the gallows with a rope around the neck.

Late Summer 061A married Puritan woman gave everything she owned to her husband, and focused on running his household. According to the early Puritan cleric John Cotton, her duties included “to see that nothing be wasted or prodigally spent.” She was completely under her husband’s authority and was expected to be submissive and obedient. She was not allowed to make any important decisions without his knowledge and approval. Husbands were cautioned not to expect too much of their wives, who were viewed as “weaker vessels,” both physically and mentally.

It’s tempting to wonder where love comes into all this. Actually, love was considered central to a Puritan marriage. It was viewed as a duty and an obligation required by God of all who entered a marriage covenant.

However, love was regarded as the product of marriage – not the reason for it. Love was more rational than romantic, and most marriages were arranged. Social rank was more important than affection in deciding who would be a good mate. A proper marriage didn’t start with two people falling in love, but with two people separately deciding it was time to marry and choosing someone suitable.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, the Puritans weren’t prudish, and there’s plenty of evidence that, once married, they thoroughly enjoyed sex and romance. The works of Anne Bradstreet are widely noted as good examples, as is Thomas Hooker’s description of a devoted husband:

“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes . . .”

Dismantling Hassanamesit

3One of the most important “praying Indian” towns established by John Eliot was Hassanamesit, a Nipmuc village located in central Massachusetts.  Approved by the English authorities in 1654, it was a large square of land, four miles wide and four miles long and served as a buffer between the colonists and aggressive and powerful native tribes to the west and south.  Eliot chose the village as a focus for his missionary efforts west of Natick and it was one of only two praying towns that reported building a church in which converted Nipmucs could worship.

Eliot regarded Hassanamesit as a showcase village, and wrote enthusiastically about its adoption of English farming practices and future potential.  His aide, Daniel Gookin, reported that the village “produceth plenty of corn, grain and fruit; for there are several good orchards in the place . . . Their way of living is by husbandry and keeping cattle and swine . . .”

But Hassanamesit’s location made it a prime target for both native and English raiders, and in September, 1675, as the hostilities of King Philip’s War escalated, much of the village was destroyed by English troops.  Two months later, two hundred Christian natives who had gathered there to harvest what crops were left, were surprised by Philip’s warriors.  The warriors presented a choice: join them or be left vulnerable to English raiders, who would enslave or incarcerate them on Deer Island. The harvesters made the obvious decision – to go with the warriors.

Hassanamesit was empty.

King Philip’s War devastated the native population.  By November of 1676, when the remaining Nipmucs were counted so each could be assigned to English “supervisors,” there were only 42 men and 150 women and children left.  The Hassanamesit people were grouped with the Natick residents, where they were “continually inspected” and restricted from going outside the borders of the town.  Hassanamesit still existed on paper, but it was not occupied by natives for the next twenty years.

Instead, the Massachusetts Bay colonists partitioned the “empty” land for settlement, even though the Hassanamesit men still retained their claim to the village.  In 1682 a deed was executed, selling large portions of Nipmuc land to the English.  It was signed by 22 Nipmuc representatives, but only two were names associated with Hassanamesit.  Though some Nipmuc protested the sale as an illegal transfer, the English began to build farms in the former praying town.

It was not until the mid-1690s that the native people were allowed to leave their “plantation of confinement.”   Only five of the original families returned to Hassanamesit.  Among them was the remarkable Nipmuc, James Printer.

 

On the Record

old bookReading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans.  There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records.  If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.

The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans.  Here are just three:

  1. In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some  focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts).  One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.”  Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
  2. In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
  3. On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction.  Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it.  The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.

 

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Naming the Children

BibleYou can often find them in old family Bibles – names of generations of children, often entered proudly soon after a birth. The Bible seems an appropriate place for such a record, especially when it comes to looking at the names of early New Englanders..

In my research for Flight of the Sparrow, I looked into how New England Puritans named their children. We commonly think of Puritans as giving their children strange “hortatory” names, such as “Experience,” “Increase,” “Thankful,” and “Mindwell.” But in Massachusetts Bay Colony in Mary Rowlandson’s time, the children were given traditional English names, such as “John,” “Elizabeth,” “Samuel,” and “Ann.”

I was not surprised when I discovered that oldest boys were often named after their fathers, but what did surprise me was that the oldest daughters were frequently named after their mothers. In fact, in Mary’s generation, between 50% and 75% of firstborn daughters were named after their mothers. Surprisingly, it was actually more common than naming oldest sons after fathers.  childrenMary’s mother, Joan (or Joane) White, followed this custom, as did Mary herself.

It was also common to name children after an older sibling who had died. (This practice continued well into the 18th century.) Mary Rowlandson did this.  Her oldest daughter, (named Mary), died at the age of two. When her second daughter was born, eight years later, she was given the same name.

Interestingly enough, this was not a pattern that was common in England, or in other English colonies, such as Virginia, where firstborn children were usually named for their grandparents and/or godparents. (In fact, in England it was considered inappropriate for a mother to name her first daughter after herself.) This parent-centered naming – especially daughters – seems to have been unique to New England Puritans.

Why this change?

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony wanted to worship as they chose but they weren’t trying to invent a new society. They brought most of their English customs with them to the New World. They wore English clothes, built English houses, and even considered themselves members of the Church of England (albeit “purified” members).

One scholar has pointed out that mothers who named their daughters after themselves were breaking a cultural “taboo,” and that something in their religion allowed them to defy the cultural norms. This may have been the importance of “covenant theology” in the Puritan colony, with its emphasis on the spiritual role of parents in the family. Or it may have arisen because the Puritans banished godparents from the baptismal ceremony. They connected godparenting with Catholicism, labeling it “popish” superstition. With no godparents to honor, a mother naming a daughter for herself at baptism was using one way to claim God’s protection.

One thing that became clear as I researched the first few generations of New England Puritans: social changes were almost always carved out of their religious understanding. Whenever they were in doubt about how they should act, individually or as a society, they turned to the Bible. We might frown at some of their practices, but it’s hard not to admire the fact that they always tried to stay true to their faith as they understood it.  And occasionally that faith took them in new and liberating directions that affirmed the power and importance of mothers.

Imagined Encounters III: A Puritan Childhood

One of the things I like best about writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample in which I explored Mary Rowlandson’s childhood, combining the limited biographical information about her with research I did on the experience of Massachusetts Bay Puritans.

shipShe remembered the crossing as a haze of bright sunshine and black water, dirty white sails slapping at the sky, and darkness.  The images hung on the walls of her mind like portraits in a great hall.  She was not certain they were memories – perhaps she had been told of light and bright square sails and a black sea and lying beside her mother below decks, encased in the creaking, rocking hull.  Perhaps she dreamt it.  She was two years old.

In Salem, her father’s land was six miles from the harbor, surrounded by fields and woods through which their cattle wandered.  The house was a sturdy two-room box wrapped in fresh-milled clapboards, large enough to shelter all the family and servants.  At night Mary slept in the loft on a pallet between her older sisters, listening to the forest sounds.  Owl screams and wolf howls made her shiver and burrow against her sisters’ warm bodies.  Sometimes the wind shrieked and rain beat on the roof but her father had built the house well and she felt safe.

Once Mary, pulling weeds in the kitchen garden at her mother’s direction, was struck in the shoulder by the hoof of a stray cow, and the wound festered so she lay fevered in her parents’ great bed for a week.  She remembered watching morning light trickle through the oiled paper of the room’s single window.  She remembered her mother stroking her brow with a wet rag.  She remembered thinking that illness was a luxury to be savored.  Later she learned that such thoughts were sinful.  Indolence was a particular evil, a devil’s trap she must work hard to avoid.

On her fourth birthday, as she stood in the great fireplace tending a roasting fowl, repeatedly twisting the cords so that the goose spun slowly, its fat splattered up onto her face instead of into the chipped dish she’d carefully set beneath it.  Her mother made a poultice of cooling herbs that eased the pain, but Mary would not go near the fire again for weeks.  Her mother set her to other tasks.  Her chin and left cheek carried three dark red scars that slowly faded to white.

Saturdays were a flurry of flour and heat; her mother opened and shut the wooden oven door again and again, as she waited for the fire to make it hot enough for baking.  Finally, when black soot flaked away from the ceiling bricks and the whole interior shone with pale brown light, it was time.  Mary would watch her mother scrape coal chips out with the long oven peel.  They fell gently as snow into the bucket.  Then it was Mary’s task to pass the food to her mother: loaves of brown rye bread, wheat flour drop cakes, meat pies, fat brown potatoes, and great crocks of beans sweetened with maple sugar.

Mary was seven when her father moved the family north to help incorporate the town of Wenham.  The children huddled together under blankets in a rocking wagon drawn by the family’s two oxen. Mary tended her infant sister, Sarah, between feedings.  It was not until they settled into the new house that she apprehended that her mother’s sadness was not a part of her nature, but a consequence of the loneliness she had experienced in Salem.  Physical isolation from other women was too heavy a burden to bear.

05__3Wenham was all mud and half-built houses, swine and fowl and goats clotting the streets.   But living there, close to neighbors, her mother became bright and strong.  Like a plant; responding to the summer light, she seemed to grow taller and more vigorous. “This be civilization,” she declared on a rainy Sabbath morning as the family joined others picking their way through deep muck to the meeting house.  She was smiling, though her skirts dripped with mud to her knees.

Mary remembered sitting on the hard family pew on a Sabbath morning in February while her mother wept beside her.  Wept over the power of God’s grace, which she told Mary later had touched her heart like a burning coal.  “Sin flayed me like a knife,” she said that evening, the words trembling on her tongue as the firelight glimmered.   Mary’s feet and hands were still numb with cold.  She leaned into her mother’s skirts, seeking warmth, but her mother pushed her gently away.  Mary saw that her mother was devoted utterly to God, that she loved Him more than husband or children.  She understood that God demanded she do the same, that she must model herself after her mother.  But her mother’s godliness was a mountain she could not climb.  Mary heard the story of her mother’s conversion so many times that it became a gospel of its own, a sacred if unwritten scripture, as familiar as the psalms.

From the moment she joined the church, Mary’s mother mounted a vigilant watch over her children’s souls.  Her daughters especially, for it was well established that females were easily drawn to pagan ways.  Their graceful habits often hid untamed passions.  They must be guided with particular severity lest they stumble on the path of Christian virtue.  Thus, she endeavored to break their wills, that her children might cleave to God.

Mary knew that her mother considered her particularly wild, cursed with a spirit of independence and determination.  Sometimes she said it was because of Mary’s flame-bright hair; sometimes she whispered that some corruption that had overtaken her while Mary was still in the womb.  Mary knew that she often taxed her mother beyond patience.  Yet gradually she came to understand that the challenges she presented created the very paste that bound them.

There had been a particular moment of humiliation when, at eleven, Mary had presented her mother with a collar she had worked.  “This is monstrous!” Her mother had held the collar at arm’s length, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger as if the linen were covered in offal and not her daughter’s painstaking stitches.  “Did I not set you at your sewing when you were four, just as I did your sisters?  Did I not show you with my own fingers how to make neat and regular stitches?  Did I not tell you to make more care in your stitching than in anything you do?  Have I not made it plain that a sturdy-made seam is the chief sign of a diligent woman?  And a well-proportioned embroidery her crown?”

Mary bowed her head, though a rebellious flush crept up her neck to her cheeks and she had to clench the stool seat with her fingers, lest she fly off like an infuriated hawk, all wings and feathers and sharp cries.

“This is slovenly work.”  Her mother peered more closely at the offending scrap, before tossing it back into Mary’s lap.  “Slovenly.  I want you to tear it out – every stitch – and begin again.”

Mary snatched the cloth before it slid to the floor and stared down at her work.  As if she could see anything through the burning blur in her eyes.  “Every stitch?”

“Mary.”  Her mother placed a firm hand under Mary’s chin and forced it upward so Mary had no choice but to look into her eyes.  They were the same soft gray they had always been, deceptively gentle.  But Mary knew that her mother reserved her tenderness for infants and young animals.  When it came to everyone else, she was the Lord’s task mistress.

“Mary, you are a woman near grown.  There is no excuse for slovenliness.  You shame me.”  Shame.  Her mother used the word again, surely knowing that it was as cruel as a knife plunged into the flesh, that it reduced her to a trembling, fear-struck babe.

“I’m sorry,” Mary whispered.  “I had not the time.”

“There is always time, Mary.  God provides for what needs be done.”  Her mother finally released her, and Mary’s head dropped to her chest.  Anger battled regret.  She did not look at her mother, though she was aware of her movements at the hearth, heard her fussing with the porridge, stirring up the fire, checking the corn cakes in the oven.

“Does God need embroidery, Mother?”  Mary regretted her words as soon as they were out.  She had been whipped for less.

Need embroidery?”  Her mother turned in a swish of apron and skirts and petticoats.  “Now you would blaspheme His word?  Is it not written that the good wife sews fine cloth without destroying it?  That a woman must be a crown to her husband?”

Mary longed to stop her ears.  She had heard the lecture so many times she could recite it.  It took all her willpower to stay on the stool and let her mother’s voice wash over her, like a sea in flood.  Mary set her teeth and tongue so that she would not respond again in haste and anger.  Yet even as she waited for the tirade to end, she was forming objections in her mind, promising herself that when she was married and mistress of her own house she would never sew, except from necessity.  She would hire a girl to do the fancy work; she would barter clothes-making with her sisters and friends, exchange food for mending tasks.  And she would never ask a daughter of her own to embroider anything.

“Look ye, daughter.”  Mary raised her head and saw her mother reach into her pocket and draw out her scissors.  The small silver pair that Mary’s father had brought from England after his journey to settle their financial affairs.  They were her mother’s most treasured possession; she never lent them to anyone, yet now she was holding them out to Mary.   “Take them.  Take out your stitches and start again.”

When Mary didn’t move, her mother reached down, pried opened her hand and firmly placed the scissors in her palm. Mary’s throat clenched.  She saw something in her mother’s face that she’d never seen before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was.  Sorrow?  Regret?  Some dark and nameless need?  Mary looked down at her hand.  The scissors glinted in the firelight.  She picked them up and cut away her careful stitches, one by one.

That night, Mary lay on her pallet in the loft between her sisters, pretending that she was her mother’s favorite.  She imagined that some bright morning her mother would tell her to put aside her churning and they would walk down to the river, just the two of them, alone.  Her mother would confide that she had struggled against her feeling for years, but could no longer deny her preference, that she was helplessly captive in her bond to Mary, that they were two souls so attuned to each other that it was impossible to know where one left off and the other began.