Nurse of Sarah Orne Jewett, Recalls Happy Memories of Her Famous Patient
by Florence M. Dunnack
IT WAS in January of 1909, on my first case, after a course of intensive training to fit me for nursing, and in the Beacon street home of a lady suffering from an injured knee, that I was asked conversationally, if it was not a very interesting life, this living behind the scenes (bed room!) of Back Bay Boston.
My answer was glib, and as "Oh, yes, very" nonchalantly fell from my lips, I prayed my manner was half as casual and convincing as I tried to make it.
The recalcitrant machinery of the knee remedied, the last bandage on and off, I trudged off at the end of ten days convinced in my youthful enthusiasm that nothing would be too difficult in the profession to which now I belonged.
It seemed too good to be true that another unfortunate needed me, and at once, but I was scarcely back to base when I was hurried off to a new address--148 Charles street. That address of which I was to read much and hear always for the remainder of my days, carried at the moment no magic--nothing whispered that a wonderful experience was to be mine nor did I realize my good fortune Sunday evening as I was ushered into the Fields home, famed for many years for an international hospitality.
Miss Sarah Orne Jewett was to be my patient for night duty, they told me.
My youth, my entire indifference to everything but the sick room, my adherence to rigid rules and strict regulations amused the household, but a freedom of speech and ready appreciation of a joke went far toward balancing a sad lack in other regards and between Miss Jewett and myself was quickly found a bond of understanding which endured.
There are excellent portraits of Sarah Orne Jewett and some are nearly perfect likenesses. They lack only the gentle smile that came with speech, and a flash of animated interest from beautiful brown eyes.
The cold of that January and February, 1909, the storms thru which I often plodded; my descriptions of the dingy, little street cars often smelling to Heaven of garlic and other odors not so easily classified from which I sometimes emerged; the early evening walk when nights were fine, along Newbury to Arlington and then across the gardens to Charles; my hurried rush up the steps at 148, my wait at the top in fear lest some monster of the dark seize me before Margaret swung the door wide with a big smile of welcome--each and every detail must be gone over with Miss Jewett. How she laughed and how her smile lingered as we made ready for the night. It was my lucky--or was in unlucky--fate to look less even than my age in those days and once, adjusting a cover when I thought her sleeping, she opened half an eye murmuring, "did you say you were fourteen."
But what a lasting bond of friendship was cemented. What affectionate interest of her generous nature was mine when chancing one evening to ask how my mother dared let me wander around alone in Boston she learned that like herself, I was born, "raised" in and loved with all my strength the good old State of Maine, that I remembered James G. Blaine's death, had heard Thomas Buchanan Reed speak, that I knew anemones and dog-tooth violets and had heard Julia Ward Howe read her "Battle Hymn of the Republic!"
Oh! how, then, we talked!
Automobiles had not then made the easy transit we now so casually accept as a part of living. There were a few to be sure, but certain it is, they did not then block streets in little towns whose names were scarcely known. So our travels thru New England had been limited to train travel but each could tell of driving here, there and everywhere in Maine behind some dappled gray or beautiful chestnut.
One evening, off on a conversationalamble as usual, we nearly met disaster in our path of mutual interest. Having covered the lands of Maine with adjectives we turned to the waters there-of, and came at length to speak of rivers. She had ventured to [admire?] the Penobscot - or was it the Androscoggin -- and, quick as a flash, I blurted "not prettier than the Kennebec!"
"Oh no," she laughed "certainly not prettier than the Kennebec".
"Little Kennebec" she called me, always, after that. Mrs. Fields, then growing old and not herself too well, must be told and add her laugh to ours, sharing her dear Sarah's amusement.
The fire on the hearth burned low. Day and its wearying routine disappeared. We made ready for sleep, and as the household slipped into quietness, with our voices now very low we talked of summer, of garden plots, of lilies and lilacs, of mignonette and mint, of stately hollyhocks and border
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satisfaction that we both knew lady delights and trailing arbutus that we had from time to time found the lady slippers and had known happiness in fields of wind-swept daisies.
And there, wrapped in darkness, Little Kennebec kept vigil while tired eyes closed and there was surcease of pain and discomfort. "Such a healthy, happy childhood to remember," she would murmur, settling down to sleep.
But now the sun mounted higher. Gorgeous sunsets over the Charles held us enthralled. Snow melted, and Easter came and went. No longer was it dark when the door swung open for me at 148 Charles.
There was talk of going home, which meant the old home in South Berwick where the "Jewett girls" had played as children.
Plans once outlined went speedily forward. Complicating details were finally at an end and one April day, down the stairs once echoing to the footfalls of Thackeray, Dickens and Whittier, was carried a woman whose charm and gracious presence, whose flawless writing had made her, rightfully, one of that charmed circle.
On slowly they moved past the drawing-room, its shades up to overlook the river, on past the alcove where had come into being her exquisite stories of New England and where now by the window, her desk waited vainly her return.
Reflected in a long mirror, past which she was carried, was the dining-room. Here she had dined with Longfellow and with Holmes and added her gifts of expression graciously, while Annie Fields had presided as hostess with a faultless grace.
At last, the train trip over, ambulance and horse-drawn carriages moved us on to "Home" in the village square at South Berwick.
With what a wealth of affection was she received! The old house opened wide its arms to welcome her and her return. The big candle-lighted guest room, with its canopied bed and its crackling wood fire in its cavernous grate, added its welcome to that of the family, the friends and the household servants.
With what kindly interest did she make instant inquiries of this one or that, and how soon under her benign influence, was the old place home to us all. Her clear understanding of the problems of the village people, her sympathy with those in distress, her ability to put her finger at once on a weak spot in the fabric of routine have made her a beloved personality, the more so now that bed claimed her and contacts made were perforce thru an intermediary.
What fun she had, sending us, the newcomers, here and there. John, the coachman, must take us along the York road, must show us the view from one high hill or point out for us another. Sometimes we set forth with a pair of bays, and a carriage of state, but as often, I found myself alone in the trap, only John beside me in all the dignity of a soldier of the guards.
And returning, before my hat was off, Miss Jewett must hear every detail--if, by chance, a bit of daphne or a few anemones came in with me how the sick-room hummed with question and answer--nothing which pleased us was too small for her instant interest.
Letters came from "dear" Mrs. Howe, "Harry" James and Mrs. Ward in England, whose "Lady Rose's Daughter" was still being compared to her "Eleanor."
Days glided into weeks, spring and summer. Lilies of the valley came and went. Pansies blossomed. At each new offering of the old gardener the youngest nurse would appear with an impulsive rush!
"Oh, Miss Jewett, did you ever see such lovely things?" And her ready attention, a willingness to be diverted; a, no doubt, often concealed amusement made the days a happy memory, and the business of nursing a joy.
Before the roses had stopped blooming, before life had become, by an enforced routine, too great a burden, but not before her influence had impressed itself upon an immature and inexperienced personality, she whispered "thank you" and, while Little Kennebec kept vigil, her soul took flight and with a smile a radiant, spirit found its rest.
This piece appeared in the Lewiston Evening Journal, August 5, 1939. Presumably, it is protected by copyright, but I have been unable to locate the owner to obtain permission to reprint it. Further information is welcome; please contact the site manager.
This text is available courtesy of Colby College Special Collections, Waterville, ME. Apparent errors have been corrected and indicated with brackets.
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Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College.