Groton, September 1666
Some herbs, like comfrey, grew plentifully everywhere, tolerated hot summer sun without withering, and remained green all winter. A mild comfrey tea never lost its efficacy, either. One mature leaf boiled in water would relieve head and chest cold symptoms for hours. Others, especially those that were not native to Massachusetts, or rare plants, needed special treatment. Suzanne dedicated one corner of her home to this pharmacy. She’d used boards to fence the nook and mark it off-limits for her children. Bundles of drying herbs, cloth bags filled with medicinal roots, leaves, berries, hips, and stems hung from the rafters or sat on shelves out of reach. Today, she stooped to spoon water into wooden flats of shoots that were too tender to survive in the yard. Joanna Morton had sent her the seeds from her own supply, and Suzanne was eager to produce the salve from the mature plants. I can’t remember if I kept the recipe, she thought. I’ll need to check my notes. Can I plant these now, or do I wait for a week? She measured the height of the seedlings against her thumb, testing a stem. Weak, it bent without springing back. Better wait.
“You need another week, I think,” Suzanne said to her burgeoning seedlings. She couldn’t help herself. When she went without human company, plants, animals, trees, even furniture took on life, objects for conversation. She was about to clean up her mixing bench when she heard a familiar voice through the window.
“Suzanne, Suzanne, are you home?”
Suzanne opened the door, delighted at the visitor standing there: Abigail Willard, the minister’s wife. “What a wonderful surprise; come in!”
Abigail handed her half a dozen ears of corn, and Suzanne laid them on the table. “Thank you so much.” I’ll roast them in coals for dinner, she thought. We love corn on the cob. She salivated imagining an ear of it slathered with butter and salted. I must be hungry.
“I hope I’m not intruding,” Abigail said. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be home, but I thought I’d chance it. I know midwives can be busy.”
Suzanne laughed. “You need not apologize. You alone have visited. I have yet to meet Groton women. Without the meetinghouse . . . well, I miss Sunday sermons and companionship. I’m not good by myself. I need people, you see.”
Put at ease, Abigail missed no details in her hostess. “I see you’ve been gardening,” she said.
“How did you know?” Suzanne said, startled. Is she clairvoyant, like my sister?
Abigail’s eyes crinkled in a smile, and she gestured and nodded at Suzanne’s hands.
“Oh.” Suzanne stared at her own grime-creased knuckles and blackened fingernails. “Of course! You have keen eyes, Abigail.”
“Thank you,” Abigail said pertly. She had already caught sight of the plants growing in the corner. “Are these the herbs you use for medicine?”
“Yes. Come, I’ll show you.”
“Thank you. My mother taught me a few. We always kept comfrey and rose hips for colds. With so many children, she needed to know medicines. And she taught me how to make an ointment from camphor, while she could still get it. Mixed with rosemary and bay leaves, it soothes chest congestion.”
“Camphor! It’s rare in the colonies, precious even.” Suzanne refrained from asking Abigail about her brothers and sisters. Everyone knew that Reverend Sherman had sired the largest family in Watertown, well over a dozen children. It struck her that Abigail’s mother would have had little time to teach her much with eighteen on hand.
“That’s what she said. But I know so little. I would love to help you if you could show me more.”
“You could help me put these trays out.” Suzanne pointed at the flats. “I can’t transplant them yet, but I’d like them to get full sunlight in a few days.”
Abigail eagerly bent to inspect them. “What are th
“Yarrow. I make a salve of the flowers and leaves to treat bruises and bleeding wounds. I have some flowered already. I’ll use this second crop for seeds.”
“Oh, excellent. Living at the edge of nowhere, it’s important if I’m to take care of my family.”
Abigail’s voice grew tense when she voiced the word “family.” Suzanne could not help but notice. Her intuition told her Abigail had other reasons for coming than learning herbology. At her most discrete, Suzanne asked Abigail, “are you planning on a large family?” I’ll broach the subject, she thought, give her an opening.
“It seems that is the case, planning or not.” She blushed. “I couldn’t say in front of the menfolk, but I think I’m with child. If mother was here, she would know what to do. But she’s not. Can you help me?”
Suzanne smiled, taking both of her hands. Poor Abigail, she thought. I know what it’s like to miss a mother. I miss mine, too. And Joanna! With no one to talk to, she must be frightened. “That’s wonderful! Of course, I will help. Yours will be the first Groton baby I deliver. And I can show you some home remedies, too.”
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