Authors: Jodi Daynard
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2015 Jodi Daynard
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle
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Cover design by Elsie Lyons
Library of Congress Control Number: 2014953297
I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.
—Abigail Adams to John Adams
March 31, 1776
OCTOBER 18, 1818.
My father once told
me I had the mind of a man. He meant to say I was a freak of nature, as was—so he suspected—my mother. But I feel no such mind within me now. Now I am soft and tired and feel like weeping, though I cannot bring forth any tears.
In death, Abigail rests peacefully. The fever that had her body trembling for near two weeks is gone. The fluid no longer rattles in her poor chest. And the telltale rash of the typhus has begun to fade on her belly.
She lies in the master chamber at Peacefield, her beloved home in Braintree. But Abigail is no longer. They say that in her youth she looked like Venus: fair and so harmonious in all her parts that men grew awkward around her. But John was never awkward in her presence. A fiery Humpty Dumpty to the laughing world, around his Portia he grew tall and handsome.
He called her Portia after faithful Brutus’s wife, but she is no Portia now. Her body, at seventy-two, has wasted to skin and bone. The assaults she bore—the deaths of Charles and poor Nabby, her eldest, who died in agony in this very room of a cancer in the breast—lie upon her as defeated folds of flesh. Calluses mark her fingers from days and years of sewing, husking, weaving, and gathering. And there are faded burn marks, too—on her arms, elbows, and palms, scorched often through the years while her mind was on other things. She hardly felt them but wondered afterward from whence they had come. And all those years away from John—those marks are there, as well, around the eyes I have shut, in lines that tell the pain of loss. I will anoint them with precious rose oil. I will put balm on her lips and hands and rub it in gently with the love I still feel and have felt for her for more than forty years.
I look out the window at Abigail’s gardens. The roses and hollyhocks are gone to sleep for the winter, but violet asters and pink sedum still line the paths. The maples have rained their gold, red, and orange leaves upon the ground. The wind has scattered them about; no one has thought to rake them. Her last sojourn into the garden had been with John, to pick apples for a pie. But in these two weeks, John has halted all work, except to feed the animals.
One day last week, she seemed to revive. And when she looked out her window across the grounds to where the orchards lay, she was appalled that the apples, bursting with ripeness, had not been picked.
“John!” she called, although Dr. Holbrook had forbidden her to speak. “Fetch John, Louisa.”
Louisa Smith is her niece, the daughter of Abigail’s brother, William Smith; she stays here in the guest room. A bright and obliging woman of youthful middle age, Louisa ran to fetch John, who, believing his wife to be out of danger, had gone to work in his study down the hall.
He came running, panic on his face.
“John”—she turned upon hearing his footsteps—“why are the apples not picked? They will rot.”
“My love, I told the boys to put off their farm work while you were ill. I didn’t want the noise to disturb you.”
“Nonsense,” Abigail replied. I thought I saw her smile faintly. “They must carry on, or it shall all go to waste. I couldn’t bear that.”
She glanced at me then, and I knew we were both recalling the summer of the terrible drought in 1778, when mine were the only apples to survive, thanks to the ingenious watering invention of a certain Mr. Cleverly.
The next day, Abigail’s fever returned, and I knew it would not spare her. She lay close to death all weekend, conscious but perfectly still. On Monday, I packed to go home, as my husband had sent a messenger with news of a sick grandchild, but she stopped me. She must have heard a change in my footsteps, because she called weakly, “Lizzie, don’t leave.”
I went into her room, sat on the bed, and took her hand. John was on the other side, and a more stricken man I have never seen, though I have seen many stricken men in my day.
“I feel I am dying,” Abigail said, “and I’m ready to go to my Maker. Except that I hate to leave him.” She looked at her husband. “It is parting from you I cannot bear.”
I turned away to hide my tears.
John kept a brave face, even managing a smile for his Portia. “We shan’t be parted for long, my love. Rest now.”
She seemed to fall into a doze. I gently took my hand from hers and went downstairs to speak with the family. Louisa sat in the large parlor next to Tommy, Abigail and John’s youngest son, now in his late forties. His head was tipped back; his eyes were closed. Also present were Dr. Holbrook, asleep in a chair by the fire, and Abigail’s good neighbor, Harriet Welsh. Upon hearing my footsteps, Dr. Holbrook woke from his doze. They all turned to me inquiringly, but I merely shook my head.
Louisa began to sob; Tommy stood up and took me by the shoulders, begging to know what had happened. In another moment, he disengaged from me as his father, barely able to stay on his feet, entered the room.
John passed a trembling hand over his head.
“I can’t bear it. Can’t bear to see her this way. I wish
. . .
” We all held our breaths, wondering what this remarkable man, our great patriot and second president, wished for as his wife of fifty-four years lay dying. “I wish to lie down and die with her.”
Tom went to his father and embraced him. Moments later, they sent for a messenger. John Quincy had to be notified that his mother was dying.
I waited upon Abigail, but she never spoke again. We all took turns spending time in her room so she was never alone. I recalled vividly our many days and years together—before she left for Europe, then afterward, when she returned much changed on the outside, though not at all within. I recalled those first hard years of our friendship, when I was a new widow and she was a widow to the Cause, with four children and not a morsel of bread for many months. Our men were dead or gone, and we had but ourselves to rely upon. It was death that first drew us together: first my husband, Jeb, in June of ’75, then her dear mother in October of the same year, of the bloody flux. We call that the dysentery now. Her mother lingered for two weeks. The children had also been ill, and John was far away, as he often was at that time.
I made her mother a dish of willow bark tea, which relieved her suffering but could not save her. And when I washed the body and dressed it—slowly and carefully, the way I had learned to do from my own mother—Abigail looked on in fascination. Then she smiled, although her eyes remained grave.
“Dear friend,” I said to her gently, “what makes you smile at a time like this?”
She turned to me and replied, “When my turn comes, I want you to wash my body like that.”
“Oh,” I said, shrugging off her comment, “I am sure to go to my Maker long before you. You are made of flint.”
But she would not be put off. “Promise me,” she said.
And by her mother’s eyes, which I then closed, I promised her. Soon I will fulfill that promise. But first let me tell you of those early days, when we were young, and the Troubles were upon us, and I first learned what a woman could be. Otherwise, as Abigail might say, a perfectly good story will go to waste.