I see a woman in a rocker. Her head is angled as toward the child at her breast. She gazes at him sleepily. It’s the middle of the night, and she has already been awake four times. But still, there is tenderness in this moment, a certain softness in her breath and in the air around them, like starlight has dusted them with golden powder.
She rocks him, little Cary, and feels his body heavy with his full weight as he drifts back off. Gently she places him in his crib and drapes the fine white blanket over him. It’s 4am, so she walks out of the house and to her own where she picks up a baby, this one still steadfastly asleep, trained to not cry for milk in the middle of the night. She coaxes open his mouth and lets him nurse. This boy, Jasper, her son.
I have not seen factual records to give me the scene above. No one in 1802 paid much attention to what the nurse did. There’s no record of how many times (or even if) Lucy, an enslaved woman, breastfed the babies of her own master.
Yet, when I sat down to write about Lucy Nicholas, I was struck by what it would mean for her to be the nurse to the slaveowner’s children. As I sat in the dark last night, just up the road from the rooms where she would have rocked these children, tended their cuts and inner wounds, fed them from her own body, I could not get past the beauty and sorrow of this image.
Sometimes this writing feels hopeless to me, like I will never find enough information to be able to tell these people’s stories, to be able to give them the respect of words. I can get too wrapped up in facts to see the story that lays right here in me.
It’s easy to think that writing nonfiction is an act of research only. I can so quickly become absorbed in documents and archaeology, studies and theories. Writing reminds me, though, that it’s the stories that matter. And I can find those anywhere.
“Lucy Nicholas – house servant and nurse.” There’s a story there.