Saturday, June 9, 2012
this missive: pulverized scabs
when abigail got down on her knees with her head bowed low, it could easily have been assumed—given the circumstances—that she was about to pray, that she was yet another whispering supplicant begging for a merciful god to save her children from a deadly epidemic. but the fact of the matter was she was on her knees searching—the praying would come later—bending over the floorboards muttering about the piece of thread she had inadvertently dropped—and the physician urgently needed—for the planned inoculation against smallpox in her boston household.
abigail adams made the decision in favor of inoculation on her own; her husband, john, was on a diplomatic mission overseas and already inoculated. besides, she knew he believed in its benefits. his wife was determined to take the risk of having herself and their four children deliberately infected in the hope of causing a mild case, rather than wait in fear for the disease to attack with its full fury.
by candlelight, after the children were tucked safely in bed, she inked pages and pages to john, unburdening her soul of doubts and fears and daily dramas, sometimes adding her dry humor or a quip about the shortages they suffered in 1776—god grant that we all may go comfortably thro the distemper, the phisick part is bad enough i know[....] a little india herb would have been mighty agreeable (suggesting john should place an order and get the damn tea home in a hurry)—until her hand ached and she put down her quill. her nights continued to be sleepless.
such a simple thing, and yet how frightening, this new medical procedure called inoculation: drag a piece of thread through the pulverized scabs and pus from the sores of an infected person, make a tiny incision in one who is healthy, and dip the bacteria-laden thread into it. done. wait for the arrival of pocks.
fat dispatches—paper covered with the sometimes blotchy markings of her dense script—held abigail's hopes and dreams and insecurities—and, at times, her deep loneliness and despair; they contained the passionate expression of her copious thoughts which ranged across the war and the children and the news of scabs and fever, but also other endless details from the management of her home and farm: the buying and selling of livestock, hiring help, construction projects, purchasing seed and equipment, planting and harvesting, drought and flood. details, details.
in past centuries, these missives were bound and sealed with wax and came to rest in the belly of a ship's wooden hull, sailing months upon the sea in the hopes of landing safely in europe or some other distant place.
i don't have a quill—but i have a keyboard. as i write i wonder what would abigail make of a keyboard? what would she think of my online missives—of all our online missives? would she think oh how i could have written! and exclaim oh, how wonderful! to have my thoughts and my news passed on fresh, not dreadfully outdated, by using this unimaginably timely mechanism, and to know that one's words will not be lost to the bottom of the sea but will be read and understood and that someone, hopefully, will find they matter and be glad to read them.
our words—the many, many viewpoints describing the funny, sad, reflective, exuberant, poignant, interesting, happy, thoughtful, crazy, introspective slices of our own lives—don't encounter the old dangers of mail delivery that awaited ships sailing on the high seas, or the perils pony express riders ran into crossing the great plains and the high sierra, or even the small problems of the modern day postman or UPS employee who must also brave weather and, occasionally, barking—and quite possibly biting—dogs.
in our century, words are mostly safe. in this, our unusual correspondence, the written tradition lives on and our "letters" journey free and easy, zinging across incredible distances through cyberspace where, in fact, there is no such thing as distance. instead of sinking or burning or being lost forever in a snowy mountain pass, our missives are transmitted instantaneously for the whole world to see. the snippets of our lives—the rendering of these astonishing pieces of minutiae, these bits of pulverized scabs—remain intact.
hit the orange rectangle and it's done.
you see? isn't that something? this missive—and yours, too—has already arrived.