May 16, 2013

Fern: mamma draws a breath of relief

Sketch of Fern by her daughter.
From collection of Smith College.
Under the pen name "Fanny Fern," Sarah Willis Parton was known for being highly opinionated, assertive, and quite direct in her weekly newspaper columns. She was also a woman, a wife, and a mother. Her column for May 16, 1863 highlighted her experience with that last descriptor, describing the difficulty of putting a baby to bed:

How many tunes have sometimes to be hummed, how many walkings up and down the floor, how many trottings, how many rockings, how many feedings, before this desirable event comes off. At last the little lids give promise of drooping, the little waxen paws fall helpless, the little kicking toes are quiescent, mamma draws a breath of relief, as she pushes her hair off her heated face, and baby looks as if nothing on earth could ever disturb its serenity.

...Until "papa" comes home, that is, arriving with a "tramp, tramp, tramp" with his creaking boots. Mamma rushes to him "with warning forefinger on her lip," implores him to be silent. Papa, however, is assured that the kind of noise he makes would never wake a baby. She doesn't argue, knowing too well that "a man is never mistaken even with regard to a subject he knows nothing about." The next day, she slyly puts a pair of slippers at the bottom of the stairs, which "dear John" (as she calls him) puts on without thinking as soon as he comes home. Still, she worries that his whispering will wake the baby. As always, he is assured he is not capable of waking the baby.

Just then the large violet eyes unclose and the little mouth dimples into a pretty smile of recognition, and "dear John," whose attention is called to it, explains, peeping into the crib, "Well now, who'd have thought it," and creaks off down stairs...

Fern, as she called herself even in her personal life, was happily married to her third husband James Parton. She had three children from her first marriage (though one died in early infancy). By the time this column was written, Fern and Parton were living with Fern's young granddaughter Ethel (whose mother, Fern's daughter, had died the year before). Fern often referred to her husband's absent-mindedness and affectionately called him "The Philosopher."

*I found this column in Fanny Fern: An Independent Woman (1992) by Joyce Warren, which remains the best source on Fanny Fern.

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