“My house stands at the edge of the earth. Together, the house and I have held strong against the churning tides of Fundy. Two sisters, stubborn in our bones.”
My home in Scots Bay during restoration work
Just over a decade ago, I packed up everything I owned and moved from the north side of Chicago to an old farmhouse on the Bay of Fundy. While exploring an unfinished room over the kitchen, I discovered the walls had been sealed with seaweed and horsehair plaster and then covered with newspapers. Each layer of paper dated back to a different era. Advertisements for 1930s appliances were pasted over pictures of the Hupmobile Coupe…cars and washing machines gave way to testimonials for Lydia Pinkham’s female toners and home remedies.
Every time I turned a new patch of earth for my gardens, I uncovered a small relic of the past. Medicine bottles, bits of broken china, and even an old silver-plated serving spoon. The spoon had been used so much that the edge of the bowl was worn right down to an angle. As I stood at my kitchen sink washing the dirt out of the wheat-stalk pattern in the spoon’s handle, I began to daydream about the woman who must have held it so many days of her life. I imagined her standing over the cook-stove, stirring, testing her work, giving tastes to a husband or child as they passed through the kitchen.
By the following spring I was pregnant with my second child and as word spread around the community that I was looking for a midwife to assist in a home birth, my neighbours began telling me tales about the history of my home. Surprisingly, the house had once belonged to a turn-of-the-century midwife, Mrs. E. Rebecca Steele. She not only traveled to other homes in the area, but she also opened her home to the women in the community as a birth house. She took the women in, saw them through labour and delivery, and then both mother and child would stay at the house for a week or more after the birth.
A trip to a nearby nursing home brought me the privilege of meeting Mrs. Steele’s adopted daughter, Mary. Her first words to me were, “My mother died when I was three days old. My father couldn’t take care of me of course, and there was no one else to care for me. The midwife, she couldn’t have babies of her own, so she took me in.” As our conversation continued, Mary took a piece of paper from her pocket, carefully unfolded it, and began to read to me the long list of names of all the women who had given birth in her mother’s house. It was Mary’s voice and her memories that led me to write Kitchen Ghosts (a documentary for CBC Radio’s OutFront) and eventually, The Birth House.
Much thanks to Dick Miller, (CBC documentary producer extraordinaire) for his encouragement and guidance along the way.
I hope you enjoy hearing the real-life voices that inspired The Birth House.