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Four small walls, sheathed with pine, painted white. A window. A door onto the kitchen, for warmth. Two chairs. A bed, nearly filling up the room, like a bird held in cupped hands. Standing by the bed, squire beside his knight, a table bearing a Bible and a lamp. I'm certain you've stood in many such rooms.
Look out the window. That's a sugar maple. Grandfather greatly cherished that tree. Now tilt your head back and look up at the beams. You can still make out the track of his plane. He'd put it, and everything else that would fit, and his wife and baby into a wagon and set out from New Hampshire in the year 1820. He'd heard there was plenty of land in Ohio and that corn and wheat would leap out of the soil if a man merely tickled it with his hoe. When he got here, he was glad he'd brought his ax as well. Ohio was a forest. He steered his oxen along the Stillwater, halted them here, and commenced cutting trees as if he were the avenging arm of the Lord. But when he came to that maple, it so put him in mind of New Hampshire, of his mother and father and sisters, all left behind, that he let it stand and decided to build his house beside it, for summer shade. He called it his memory tree.
He hauled his straightest oaks seven miles to a mill on Pig Creek and came home with planks. Being a New Englander, he raised up a New England house, with a stone-lined cellar and a long north roof, a smoke room for meats, a loom room for weaving. And behind the kitchen, as in his New Hampshire home, a borning room, set aside for both dying and giving birth--the room my father was born in before the window glass had yet arrived.
It's not a room that's seenmuch use. But the times it has stand up in my memory more than the months and years in between. Most of my life's turnings have taken place here.
It was on a snowy morning in January that Mama whispered to Father to ride for Mrs. Radtke, the midwife. Mama's last baby had been stillborn and the one before had died at two months. Following her mother's advice, which arrived in weekly letters from Baltimore, she'd all but concealed her condition this time. She'd scarcely spoken about the coming baby. She'd sewn not one piece of clothing for it. The afternoon before, when Father had brought the cradle down from the garret, she'd silently motioned him to return it. Outside, snow streamed out of the sky. Ignoring her pains, Mama cooked breakfast for the family, then began mixing dough. It was Saturday, her baking day. While the bread loaves rose, she churned butter with one hand and sorted seeds for spring planting with the other, giving the fates no sign that she was engaged in anything other than her chores. It was hours before Mrs. Radtke arrived. She found Mama lying in the borning room, the churn drawn up beside the bed and her right hand weakly working the handle.
Her waters finally broke about noon. That very instant she heard an owl call and then another answer back. She told the midwife how strange it was to hear owls hooting at midday. Mrs. Radtke replied that they were in truth the spirits of Mama's last two babies. Her pains came on in earnest then. Mama didn't dare moan or cry out, but just gripped the handle of the churn. Then a bird, small and black, struck the window with a bang. Mama jerked. There was a flash of huge wings. Maybe it was that shock that caused her the following moment to release her baby into Mrs. Radtke's hands.
"Ein Mädchen," she told Mama. "A fine girl." Above the baby's crying, she explained that a bird who gets into the house brings a death, that as soon as she'd come she'd had Father check for any open or broken windows, and that the bird hadn't even cracked the glass.
"Where is it?" asked Mama.
"Die Eulen," she answered. "The owls. One of them snatched it right up. They're watching over you both, it's sure. Ja, ja. This child, she'll live."
It was said that I had Mama's mother's high forehead and delicate fingers. Mama picked out all of our names. As if to enroll me at once among the living, within a quarter hour of my birth Father opened the family Bible, dipped a pen in ink, and wrote out "Georgina Caroline Lott, born the 11th day of January, 1851."
Two dozen times, two thousand times, Mama told this story--for the reason that I asked for it that often. "Yes, my dove, I recollect the day quite well," she'd always begin. "Snowflakes filled the sky thick as locusts." And slowly she'd repeat it once more, while our paring knives peeled or the spinning wheel whirred. She never lost patience with my requests, I suppose because she never lost gratitude that Mrs. Radtke had been right. I had lived.The Borning Room. Copyright © by Paul Fleischman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.