Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Momma’s rocking chair

Frances Nadel
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

Daughter in a Rocker. H. Lyman Saÿen, 1917–1918, tempera and collage on wood. Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

January 21, 1929

Poverty lurks in every corner of the Johnson’s one-room house. Even if mother and baby survive this night, winter will continue to prey at their door. The room grows darker as the fire falters to orange ash, and I place the last log—more like a thick branch—on the pile of embers.

Outside, the wind howls along with Mrs. Johnson’s waning moans. “Can’t, Rosa,” she says. The thin mattress seems to swallow her limp body.

I return to her bedside. “Almost there,” I say. “I can see the top of the baby’s head.”

When Mrs. Johnson’s aunt, Granny Midwife, had left to attend a difficult delivery, all had seemed well enough along for a young midwife like me to take over here. Now, so many hours later, I worry something’s amiss. “One more push,” I say.

The vein in middle of her forehead bulges as she bears down with all her might. The baby’s head emerges, and the belt of fear around my chest loosens.

July 4, 1920

The Great War veterans finish their march down Main to loud cheers. It’s time for the big race, and the finish line seems miles away.

The afternoon heat wraps me in a damp cocoon. I double wind the laces around my boots, pull my straw hat lower, and hope my dress won’t get in the way. Jack Murphy, a boy my age, says, “Go home, Rosa. No dumb guido girl’s gonna win this race.”

Jack’s friend punches him in the arm. “Don’t mess with a mobster’s kid. They’ll come after you.”

It doesn’t matter that my dad won’t even litter—he’ll always be seen as a thug. And I don’t care that I’m the only girl in the race. I’ve been practicing since the spring—running every night after dinner. I’m determined to win that rocking chair for Momma.

January 21, 1929

My relief shifts to terror as the baby’s head swells and will go no further. It can only mean the shoulder’s stuck in the birth canal. After so many hours of pushing, there are only minutes between life and the unthinkable.

I grab Mrs. Johnson’s legs and fold them onto her belly. My only help is Little Pearl, who looks barely ten. “Hold tight,” I say and place the child’s hands on her mother’s legs slick with sweat. I apply pressure to Mrs. Johnson’s lower belly and beg, “Push.”

Mrs. Johnson bears down, but Pearl is unable to hold on. The baby’s head, now purple, recedes, as if being dragged back into its tomb. I swallow a scream because it won’t call my mother from the grave or bring her steadying hands to mine.

July 4, 1920

Grownups drooping in the sticky heat and kids with ice cream dripping down their arms fill the sidewalk. The mayor’s whistle releases the pack of runners, and a cloud of dust fills the air as we jockey for position. Jack and two other boys shift to block me as I try to go around. They slow the pace, so that we four bring up the rear. My annoyance turns to anger as a roll of laughter erupts from the crowd as we pass.

January 21, 1929

The fire flares, and I can see Pearl, her head buried in her momma’s neck. She turns, and her face is shiny with silent tears. “Do something,” she says.

July 4, 1920

No matter. Once we’re in the park, these boys can’t keep me back. Momma deserves a chair of her own. A place to wait for the late night summons to the bedside of a laboring woman. A place to rest after the trials, triumphs, and sometimes the devastating tragedies of being a midwife.

January 21, 1929

I would send Pearl to fetch Midwife Murphy, but I know she’d never attend the birth of a Negro baby. Granny Midwife is our only hope. Granny Midwife who holds the wisdom and strength of her slave ancestors. Granny midwife who has delivered more living babies than any doctor in Pennsylvania and taught Momma and me the importance of clean hands, clean linens, and kind words.

“Run like the wind to the Smith’s house, and get Granny Midwife,” I say to Pearl. The love for her momma will have to transport her skinny legs through the bitter night.

Pearl buttons her threadbare jacket and kisses Mrs. Johnson, who barely opens her eyes. The outside cold outside charges in as soon as Pearl opens the door. It will take more than the sputtering fire to rewarm the room.

July 4, 1920

One of the Jack’s co-conspirators says, “This is stupid,” and speeds ahead. Jack and the other boy try to match his pace at the same time they block my progress.

We pass a group of runners. I wipe the dusty sweat from my brow, waiting for my chance. Once we’re in the park, Jack turns and runs backwards. “Hey dago. Better not fall in the dirt, or you’ll get lost in the mud.”

I stumble then fall onto my outstretched hands. The rocks dig deep into my palms; the heat fixes me to the ground.

I’m done.

Jack laughs. “Told you. The disappearing dago.”

January 21, 1929

Mrs. Johnson’s chest rises slowly. I wipe her brow, and her eyes open. There, a spark of hope that I’m someone else sputters to fear then acceptance. She whimpers, and we both let the contraction that seizes her belly pass. She has nothing left to give.

July 4, 1920

Jack’s taunt finds my soft underbelly. I’m the darkest in my family—something my classmates never let me forget. It’s why I always wear a hat on sunny days—to protect my face from getting browner.

The rocking chair is a lost dream. If I stay down, the sooner I can slink away and end this embarrassment.

January 21, 1929

The door loses the war with the wind and blows open. The snowy gust slaps my face and wakes memories of Momma. Momma who believed when something wasn’t working, it was time for something new. I whisper, “Can you turn over, and hold steady on your hands and knees?”

July 4, 1920

But if I stay in this dirt, then Jack wins. A deep breath, and I rise.

I start to run, stretch my legs, and rejoice in being set free. The burst of speed creates it’s own gust of wind, and my hat flies off. Nothing feels sweeter than the air’s fingers in my hair.

It’s easy to pass the first and second pack of boys, but Jack’s well in the lead and out of reach. Instead, I focus on the huffing train of three boys directly in front of me. My lungs burn, and my whole body pulsates with each heartbeat. I force a breath in and down to my toes then break through into another world with no pain.

Only Jack stands between me, the finish line, and a rocking chair. His musky sweat fills my nose as I move closer until I can see the red pimples on his neck screaming in anger.

And then I know. He’s slowing me down. I move beside him then stretch my legs even more. The finishing line ribbon rips without a protest.

With hands on my knees, I catch my breath as the ocean roar in my ears is replaced by the noise of the crowd. Laughing. Boos. But there’s a cheer or two.

January 21, 1929

Mrs. Johnson’s thin arms wrap around my neck, and together we maneuver her onto all fours. Her limbs quake with fatigue, but she bears down with a rumbling, low wail.

The baby’s shoulder comes through, and the rest of her follows, limp and gray. Mrs. Johnson collapses to her side, and I place the newborn on her chest. We both rub the baby dry until she lets out a grunt that builds to a lusty demand for this new world’s air. Mrs. Johnson’s answering sobs release jolts of electricity in my spine.

Tonight, life was stronger than the deadly pull of winter.

July 4, 1920

Mrs. Murphy pounces after the mayor hands me the blue ribbon. “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners? Nice girls don’t run around like a mangy stray.”

January 21, 1929

The rising sun warms my back. Each step brings me closer to home and Momma’s rocking chair. With any luck, I can get fifteen minutes of rest before my younger brothers wake, hungry for their breakfast.

The creak of our front door rouses our neighbor, Mrs. Murphy, like she’s been lying in wait. She pins her long gray hair into a bun. “Did it live?”

“She, you mean. What’s it to you?” I snap, not letting her meanness sap the joy of new life.

She leans against the door, speaking to the clouds. “Can’t stick with your own kind. You’re just like your mother.”

“I hope so,” I say and go inside.

The sinkful of last night’s dishes can wait. I settle into Momma’s chair, close my eyes, and rock until I can feel her arms around me.

DR. FRANCES M. NADEL is a practicing pediatric emergency medicine physician. She has a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and has published a short story in Copperfield Review that was nominated for Best Short Story. This piece is a fictionalized account of her great-grandmother’s experience as a midwife at the turn of the twentieth century.

Fall 2023



2 responses

  1. Loved this. So beautifully written.

  2. This is so lovely Fran. You created such a vivid picture for me. I enjoyed reading every word.

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