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L. E. Hughes

Away With Words: Dusky Mothers
By L. E. Hughes
Mar 27, 2006 - 4:45:00 PM

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I recently purchased a book titled Mothers of Maine, published in 1895. According to the inscription it was given to Mary by her mother as a Christmas gift in 1896. The beautiful penmanship of that dedication and the historic antiquity of the volume is why I wanted it to be a part of my library. The entire book, the stories of those first female settlers of our state, is fascinating, but the tale I like best describes Maine’s ‘Dusky Mothers’, the Native woman of Maine named so for the darkness of their skin. Not a lot is known about them, except that they lived lives of hardship. These Native women bore most of the Tribe’s work responsibility, including the building of wigwams, tending the maize and the beans, preparing the food, making the baskets, beaded mats and even the snowshoes. On top of all this, they had complete responsibility for the children.

Busy moms from the beginning of time have found ways to keep their babies out from under foot, but not out of sight and the Dusky Mothers were no different. They built small cradles into which they strapped their babies and they wore those cradleboards on their backs as they worked.  (As busy as they were they still took the time to lovingly decorate the cradles with seashells, beads and porcupine quills.) In mild weather the Dusky Mothers hung the cradles upon the branches of trees where the babies would be lulled to sleep by the gentle breezes and out of reach of predators. To this custom we owe that old lullaby:

Rock-a-by baby upon the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock…

I imagine more than one or two babies fell to the ground:

When the bough breaks
The cradle will fall
And down will come baby
Cradle and all.

I remember the time I put my toddler in her car seat, but forgot to strap her in because my mind was on that one last chore I needed to do before we left for Grandmother’s house for our Christmas celebration. That chore was to put the last Christmas gift in the car. Before I could do that and get myself into the car, she climbed out of her car seat, over the front seat and had locked the doors of my station wagon. She then got behind the steering wheel, a bundle of joy and giggles, and pretended to drive the car. All she had to do was put it in gear and off she would have been- down over the hill that was my driveway and into the woods.

The rest of the Christmas gifts had been put into the car earlier, two dozen packages that I had spent hours wrapping and decorating with the utmost care and attention. I adorned those boxes with ribbon and bows and Holly berries.

I knocked on the toddler-smudged glass to get her attention then pointed at the packages in the back.

“Honey, do you see those presents? Those are all yours! Would you like to open them?” I asked.

“All of them?” she lisped.

“Every single one!” I promised.

She smiled at me and clambered over the seats like a chipmunk over a wood pile and began her solitary party. That kept her busy until I found the spare car key and opened the doors, but by the time I got in she had managed to unwrap every single gift and open every single box and had tossed the wrapping paper, the boxes and the gifts here, there and everywhere.  Hours of labor for this kid, again.

I should have been as wise as the Dusky Mothers, strapped her in her car seat and hung her in a tree.


L.E. Hughes is a columnist, writer and owner of Diamond Corner B&B in Stratton, Maine. She welcomes your thoughts and comments: diamondcorner@adelphia.net.

© March 2006, Lew-Ellyn Hughes. All Rights Reserved and Retained by the Author.


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