From the Relief Society Magazine, 1959 –
“A” Is for Apron
Ilene H. Kingsbury
Hey, old woman, with the long white Apron!
What are you holding in it, your hands all bundled up inside?
Why do you walk along the shade of the poplars and pick your way so stoutly?
Hey, what are you thinking of at all?
Nudged from a memory, and rudely, to say the least, this aged woman, Clarissa by name, slackened her pace, squared her shoulders, and, for an instant, felt the tug of a remembered burden in her apron.
And she thought … how cold are your shoulders when it is twenty degrees below zero! How stiff are your knees with frozen fixity as you bend to push a cart! How numb is your thinking as the chill from the great river makes you and it solidify, if you stand still a minute! And that Mississippi did stop moving last night. It became a bridge of ice. Not just to hold a man and his dog, but to support a man’s wagon and his oxen. It held itself in check around a half-circle of bend, its flowing and rushing, its ceaseless toil to the sea halted in the deadly grip of winter.
Yesterday, the first Wednesday in February 1846,w as the coldest Clarissa could remember, and today, the prairie held its own for frigid bleakness. Mostly because they were not on the move, was it arctic.
The camp was nine miles out from their city called “Beautiful” by those who loved her. Quite formally on the frontier maps, it was printed Nauvoo. they named this spot a camp, not a settlement, expecting to go on as soon as their homeless, exiled band could be organized to head West. In that direction they would push to other successive noonings, washdays, and seed plantings for the late starters. There would be the tender laying away in the earth of those who no longer walked beside them. There would be repair stations and the one night’s lodge resembling an outpost of civilization – next morning only camp ashes to show the short tarrying there.
But this camp on Sugar Creek – sweet of name – bitter of memory! No habitation had ever graced its banks, no family had lovingly called its soil a farmstead. Only Indians marked its clod as a trail to better hunting. In midwinter no one challenged these hapless wanderers who delayed for a space at this beginning of their many temporary encampments.
At sixteen Clarissa’s was the strength of two. Her ailing mother called her to warm and feed the two little boys in the family. In her shivering, teeth-chattering condition, every duty tested her character for endurance and patience.
Camp one,, night one, baby one! Or may it be said babies nine at camp one, night one? Of course, Clarissa’s mother hadn’t counted on having the baby so soon. Perhaps neither had the other eight whose journey into the valley of shadow had been rewarded with the cry of protest, the quivering fists, and the nuzzling of recent birth.
Excitement, emergency, concern for the aged and the toddlers; physical effort of a day’s strain of fleeing over frozen wastes from violent danger – all enough to bring on the effort of childbirth all too early.
“Well, this is but a sampling of the season’s burden,” one old woman said.
Four sticks, head high, stuck in the frozen mud were stout in holding aloft a bark roof. four rugs, one woven and three braided, became welcomed walls to hold the sticks together, and this was their hut in the wilderness. A trundle bed, which had been slung under the wagon, was dragged to this crude shelter. The rain fell as though weeping for the courage of a woman about to greet a new soul into life. And as it fell, kind sisters held dishes aloft to catch the dripping moisture and thus keep dry their friend in travail.
Clarissa would rather have helped deliver the little one than quiet the little boys and shield them from the age-old scene. She resolved, then, to learn the art of midwifery. It would not be so hard, she thought, with arms as strong as hers, and heart as willing!
When her mother’s hour was spent, when the first cry of another son was cast on the prairie wind, when the loving sisters had hastened to their own needy families, then came Clarissa’s turn to prove her worth! From the oak chest in the wagon she unfolded a paisley shawl and wrapped it around her baby brother. She hugged him to her, and thought to keep him warm in her arms. And shivering, and trembling, and fearing she couldn’t quite measure up, she covered her mother with another quilt and huddled at the bedside for the rest of the night. A small stepstool had been left by someone as an aid to keep her off the ground, and there she sat waiting for morning, the baby in her arms.
Her mother slept, clothed in exhaustion. The two little boys, oblivious to the world and winter, were curled up in a padded corner of the wagon.
Be it cold enough – say at twenty below, and pain has no meaning!
And where does an apron come into this Sugar Creek story, this saga of one of nine on the frost-bitten prairie? But first we must consider the winter scene minutely.
They came to tarry for a month, or, should we say, they came to suffer? Underfoot, with fluctuations of temperature, their paths from one campfire to another were sloughs of mud deep to shoe tops; or ravines of running rain, or rigid mounds of frozen sod, cold as stone. The cutting winds and the glacial air pierced one’s bones and never quite left. For those weeks Clarissa carried her mother’s infant in the folds of her apron, the corners tucked into the belt, tighter cinched to stand the weight.
The little soul cried itself sick its first day on earth. Clarissa’s arms gave comforting pressure to this new person. But under the constant weight, her shoulders sagged. as she was under the necessity of moving about to keep warm, and her neck gave way after the first dozen hours, the apron arrangement seemed the all-around best for both of them. In no time, of course, kindly sisters suggested a sling from her shoulders, as some Indian mothers were observed to use, particularly when carrying older children. Or, there was always a squaw’s headboard to be considered. but Clarissa wanted this little brother to be around in front of her where she could see him at a glance. Her apron became a hammock which swayed to her step, only one hand was needed to steady the little one. the other hand was left free to tend the fire, stir the broth, button a coat for the growing boys, or prepare a warm meal for her mother, still on the trundle, slow to mend to wanted strength.
The contented babe, sheltered from prairie winds by a half turn of Clarissa’s body, thrived, slept, and quieted to her loving touch.
The benediction of each day was a triumph in endurance. At a signal, every occupation was suspended, every knee was bent, every head was bowed in prayer. A voice from each family circle raised itself in gratitude for preservation of life and promise of a brighter day. At such moments Clarissa smoothed blanket around little William, as they called him, and cinched her apron string tighter to keep him from falling out of his pouch in front of her.
For a month the routine was the same, except for the daily addition of refugees from over the river. Then, on March first, with snow, sleet, and rain falling, and tents folded for another journey, they left Sugar Creek with the ground swimming with water and deep with mud. Five hundred wagons somehow got in motion from a ground bogged with gravity. slowly the great wheels turned, caught the mud, lifted it a quarter turn, dropped it in clods to obstruct the next sodden shoe of a walker. One knew the wagon moved because the shadow cast cooled the day for a pattern of spokes and oxen and canvas top gathered taut against the storm.
Clarissa walked beside her mother’s wagon for five miles that first day, to keep warm by forward motion. She scraped away the snow to make a campfire. Alone, she could not pitch the small army tent meant for two men, so they slept in the wagon that night. Huddled together for mutual warmth, she heard someone call out the temperature at midnight of twenty-eight above zero. Sub-zero weather was over!
But the lashing winds, the frost-caked roughness, were not over. For weeks on end, as they encamped, broke it up, and pushed on again for hundreds of miles into the West, warm spring came on haltingly. And her apron, her baby brother, together, were as one with persistent pushing forward.
She carried him one thousand miles in her apron! Often, toward evening, his protesting laments mingled with the other eight of his exact age in pulsing rhythm as do crickets in an otherwise noncommital evening.
In manhood he was tall and strong and good. Then, often he rested his hands on her shoulders in gratitude for protection on the prairie wastes.
In her old, old age she habitually walked with her hands in her apron, bundled up. her only yielding to pride was framed under the enveloping folds – blotched, knotted knuckles, bespeaking endless labor. But pride actually had little chance with her. In most cases her apron covered her charities: salt-rising bread, a linsey piece, knit mitts, or a small sack of dried plums. The return home was the only empty-handed, empty-aproned one she knew.
And if the distance was four miles once a day for two months to the next settlement to nurse a typhoid-ridden family who had once befriended her mother, what cared she for that ways on the road? Wasn’t she, after all, a veteran of a thousand miles, little brother swinging in her apron, one third of a continent slipping away under her feet?