The Groaning Table

I have a guest post on the Slow Church blog, which is written by my friend and fellow forthcoming IVP author Chris Smith (also of Englewood Review of Books. Chris recently asked a number of friends to read, reflect, and write on Wendell Berry’s essay “Health is Membership.” Here’s my contribution.

The Groaning Table

My grandmother was born at home in New York City in 1925 – exactly the time when more and more women, especially city women, began to choose hospital over home as the place to have babies. It wasn’t that my great-grandmother was afraid of the hospital or of doctors; or that she wanted to keep the baby away from sick people who might have contaminated the hospital halls. Rather, it was that she’d heard that the hospital didn’t have very good food.

I remember great-grandma Katherine the way you remember a dream by the mid-afternoon, in random yet related pieces. When I think of her, I see first a shadowy image of her – a tall, square-shouldered woman – in a chair, which cuts quickly to a snapshot of her smiling over a plump, baby version of me in a garish vinyl seat. There’s also a 5-second clip of the two of us laughing over the black dog, Chloe, who prances and plays a piece of red blanket. And that is it. The rest of what I know is what I have been told.

She was born in the 19th century to a mother who had left Ireland in the potato famine and who then married a horse trainer that she met on the steps of the 42nd Street library. She had influenza in the pandemic of 1918; she spent a year in bed and recovered. This is a fact my grandmother will refer repeatedly to as evidence, first, that we are the inheritors of ‘hardy genes’; second, that resting in bed is the best medicine for a cold; third, that, before going to bed with a cold, you should have a hot toddy made with Christian Brothers brandy, a remedy of Irish Catholic grandmothers, never known to fail.

I want to believe all of this so much; to exist someplace where the advice to drink a hot toddy and go to bed when I’m feeling achy and congested is solid wisdom (not antiquated and vaguely irresponsible) while the advice to take some drops of echinacea and zinc and continue dragging myself through my routines is dangerous and faddish. To live in a world where a woman’s decision to give birth at home because she knows that, at home, the food will be good is sensible, not selfish.

{Continue reading the rest at the Slow Church blog…}

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2 thoughts on “The Groaning Table

  1. Nice piece.

    Nanny’s Rx also involved “wrapping your chest in wool,” which, as I stumbled across in my reading year later, reflected a 19th belief that wool had a marvelous property whereby it drew impurities out of the skin.

    Quaint indeed. But to the end I’ll swear by the bedrest & brandy!

    Hardy genes help as well…

  2. Rachel, your Dad and I are from the same generation so when we think of our grandparents (great grandparents to you and to my kids) we get to come up with some great memories of people whose ideas were still informed by 19th c. wisdom. Whether it’s wrapping a chest in wool or a slug of alcohol before bed or whatever, those things gave comfort and we know that comfort does much to bring healing. These things continue. I remember going out with my cousin one time and he had a head cold going strong so he ordered a hot whiskey. Worked wonders.

    I enjoyed your article too, and left a message over at the other site. On top of that, I wanted to say that your turn of phrase here was golden: “a jolly restoration”. It not only applies to what people did for those women who were rising from the birthing bed, but is an apt descriptor of what God has done for us as well.


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