October 28, 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, the estate John bought while still in London that was such a disappointment to her upon her return. It was nothing like she remembered it as a child. It seemed smaller, somehow, and sadly neglected. John, disappointed with the soil, had dubbed the place Stonyfield. Now, with its fine additions and gardens, the home is rather grand and fertile.
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 death 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 came. And all those years away from John—those marks are there, too, around the eyes that 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 younger sister, Betsy Cranch; 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 of us 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 months and 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 April 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. Otherwise, as Abigail might say, a perfectly good story will go to waste.
Read Chapter Two
May 18, 1775. It was a bright May morning in the North Parish. I had been fighting tears since waking with the dawn. I milked and fed our cows, then fed my husband, Jeb, to whom I had been married but eight months. Then I prepared his sack, and Thaxter brought Star, our horse, around to the front of the house. He was busy gathering his things and so did not notice, as a young man set upon battle will not, that I could not look at him for fear of breaking down.
He was heading to Cambridge, where he would join Colonel Prescott’s regiment. The bloody events of Cambridge and Lexington were fresh in our minds, but we didn’t speak of them. I kept my face turned to my tasks: filling his flask with cider, cutting a goodly morsel of dried beef, measuring out the preserves.
“Lizzie, have you seen my cap?” he called from our pokey little chamber upstairs.
I espied the cap upon the kitchen chair before me, but said nothing right away. The sooner he was ready, the sooner he would leave me with only the roaring sea for my companion.
We had come to housekeeping on this parcel of land given to Jeb by Josiah Quincy in September of 1774. Jeb’s mother was a cousin of Colonel Quincy; he had given us the farm as a wedding gift. Josiah Quincy was also Abigail Adams’s uncle. And so, in a sense, I was related to that illustrious lady.
We arrived to discover the splendor of our situation: our parcel had been carved out of a three-hundred-acre estate called Mount Wollaston, upon which Colonel Quincy had newly built a large home. This beautiful, rolling land stretched all the way from the road to the sea. Our parcel, closer to the shore than the Colonel’s house and slightly to the east of it, contained wooded acres, hay fields, and pasture. We had to clear the land surrounding the cottage-garden plots. Close by our cottage stood several sheds and a barn, all in great need of repair. Winter in Braintree had made Jeb and me intimate by its very harshness. We had not enough wood despite Jeb’s efforts, and he was obliged to wade through shoulder-high drifts of snow up the hill to the colonel’s house. The old colonel had suggested Jeb take what he needed without coming inside to ask.
But Jeb did not like to make free use of others’ labor. Only in the direst circumstances did we ever impose upon that connection, although Ann, the colonel’s wife, often left parcels on our stoop, for which we felt gratitude and shame in equal measure.
And so, borrowing as little as we could, we slept by the fire in our kitchen. We had a window there, and, oh, what a view we had! How many hours did we spend lying together, looking out that window across the dunes and toward the sea? On days when the wind blew from the northeast, the pungent aroma of the colonel’s stables wafted over us. The stench always made us laugh.
In the parlor—a grand word for what it was—we had placed a settle by the fireplace. Its thick plank top folded down for ironing. We lit the fire in this room only for company. Parson Wibird stopped in every week after meeting to see how we were getting on, which was kind of him. We were still adjusting to our new church. The parson was a gentle but—Lord, forgive me!—somewhat ridiculous man. He had a stooped and wiry frame, and when he listened to us his toothless mouth hung open so long we thought he would drool. We often saw him riding bumpily down the lanes in his rusted curricle. Oh, he was a gentle, kindly soul, but in our youthful eyes that made him all the more laughable. He is gone to his Maker now.
I was happy to lie close to my Jeb in the darkness. From time to time, we heard the drunken groan or whistle of Thaxter, our field hand, making his way to the necessary behind the corn shed. Though we would have been sleeping one moment earlier, upon hearing Mr. Thaxter smack blindly into the necessary, missing the step and cursing, Jeb and I would burst out laughing.
Thaxter, a man of perhaps thirty-five who looked ancient to us, was an odd fellow content to spend his days alone, especially if he had a good bottle of rum and a pouch of tobacco. He was willing enough to work if you asked—much like an old ox reluctant to take a step without a whip. On loan from the colonel, Thaxter was meant to be a temporary fixture in our young married lives. But, finding himself quite content in the little shed behind the necessary, he stayed for several years and soon blended into the landscape like the opossums and groundhogs that crept about by night.
Jeb touched my face by the firelight and teased me that I’d be quite fat by spring, so frequently did we obey the holy command to go forth and multiply. And all around us was silence, save for the crackling embers, the ocean’s roar, and the howling of the wind.
Now, as he readied to leave, I hoped and prayed I was with child. I was naive enough to believe that the Lord would not take a father from his unborn child. Jeb descended the stairs and espied his cap upon the chair. “Here it is.” He sighed with exasperation, then looked at me.
“Oh, Lizzie.” He smiled and came to embrace me, but I rejected his touch. I had no wish to fall apart then. I wished to give him all my strength. Feeling me reject him, he merely laughed and said, “Oh, you’ll miss me, all right. I know you better than you think.” With a tender smirk, he hoisted his musket and gear over his shoulder and strode out of doors, where Thaxter had readied our beautiful Star, a sprightly Narragansett pacer.
Jeb hoisted himself up, and I handed up his sack. I had filled it with everything I could: cheese, oatcakes, bilberry preserve, good dried meat, and a leg of chicken left over from the night before. Looking up at him, I had to shield my eyes from the sun.
“You are tan,” he remarked, looking down at my arms. “May you be a good little farmer while I’m gone. Watch Thaxter doesn’t drink all our rum.” He smiled. Everything he said to me in those days had an ironical tone, for we were both quite new at this farming business and still felt ourselves to be play-acting at it. Jeb and I had grown up in staunch British families surrounded by city comforts, right on Cambridge’s Tory Row.
He looked back at me thoughtfully and tenderly as he slowly turned Star toward the path to the road. “You’re a strong woman. Oh, how I love you, Lizzie Boylston!” And with that, he blew me a kiss. Star began to trot quickly down the path.
What? Was there to be no tender embrace? Did he think I was made of stone? Did he think I could bear it without at least a final kiss? Why should he think so? Because I hauled bushels of corn? Because I delivered healthy babes in the dead of night, with no help save from ignorant servant-girls? Because, bored and shut in as a girl, I had read my father’s library? Shakespeare, Dante, Ovid, St. Augustine—of what use were they to me now? I wanted to cry out that I was soft inside and could not bear it.
“But I’m not! Jeb, I’m not strong!” I cried after him.
Sensing my agony at last, Jeb slowed. He turned Star around, leapt off him, and came running into my arms. He kissed me then. I reached up and with my fingers touched his soft face, barely yet shaven, and his soft curls, which I had pulled back with a piece of my finest homespun linen.
“Oh, be careful, my love,” I said.
“I will,” he whispered. “Indeed, I have no wish to leave you.” He lingered about my neck, kissing it tenderly. I felt his fingers move toward my bosom.
I might be soft, but he could not afford to be. I pushed him away. “Up you go, soldier.”
He tore himself from me, mounted Star, and gave me a salute. “Yes, sir.” Then he nudged Star with his knees and disappeared up the coast road toward Boston.
When he was truly gone and I could no longer hear Star’s hooves upon the ground, I sat myself in the open doorway of the kitchen garden. The chickens, thinking I had something for them, came pecking at my feet. But I had nothing for them except tears.
Within moments, the enormity of my solitude wrapped itself around me, and I felt quite done in. I had no one in the world now. No one save his family, whom I ardently disliked. My own mother had died of the throat distemper in the terrible epidemic that hit Boston in 1769. And my father, who had been a judge in His Majesty’s court, had fled to England at the start of the Troubles. A man of great secret sympathy for the Cause, he had intended to return once the Rebels had been “put down,” but he caught pneumonia and died within a week of landing there. Finally, there was my brother, Harry, who had joined a privateer ship that fall, just after Jeb and I moved to Braintree. I knew not whether he lived. I missed them all unspeakably now and felt heartily sorry for myself.
To shake off my gloom, I stood and wandered about my too-silent house. I entered the dairy, a small room to the right of the kitchen, to gaze upon my medicines, which lined the wall shelves. “Witch’s potions,” Jeb called them. I ran my fingertips over the jars and vials of powder, potions, and poultices. Senna, manna, Glauber’s salt, snakeweed. Here’s rosemary. That’s for memory. Of what use were they to me now? None could bring back my Jeb.
He wrote me every day from Cambridge, and I wrote him back. I nearly borrowed a horse and rode out to him. But Jeb would not have liked that. Conditions, while they were to get much worse, were already bad. The water was putrid, and our soldiers, who were drinking cider all day, were dirty and unruly. Many were sick, he wrote. The canker rash was everywhere, and some also had the bloody flux. No, I could not ride to Cambridge. It would have pleased me to do so, but not him. I was just learning to be a woman—to give pleasure freely and to take it when offered in a loving way. But I was also learning to defer. My Jeb was no bully; he was the best of men. To defer was the lot of womankind.
Then, in the second week of June, I received a message that made me shiver: rumor had it that his regiment would soon be marching to Charlestown. The Regulars were poised to fire from Cop’s Hill, and they must be held back.
I can tell you no more at present. But know that you are dearer to me than anything in the world. I will write from our new camp.
I heard nothing further. I wrote once more, but I knew not whether my letter had reached him. All the while, I had hoped and prayed I was with child. Then I began to bleed, late and profusely, and suffered terrible cramps. I lay in bed feeling ill all that hot June day, and did not realize that I had fallen asleep until a loud noise woke me.
Read Chapter Three
June 17, 1775. At around four in the morning, our entire parish was awakened by what sounded like a terrible explosion north of town. I bolted up in the darkness. I felt the blood that had pooled between my legs during the night but could not stop to wash myself. I lifted my chin to force the tears back into my eyes. No time for tears. He has no heir, I thought. I changed my pad of cotton, wishing desperately to steady my shaking body by a cup of lady’s mantle tea, but was driven abroad by the thunderous noise.
It was a long mile’s walk to the base of Penn’s Hill from Mt. Wollaston, but that was where everyone was headed, as it afforded the best view of Boston. I recall figures passing me in the darkness—vague, shadowy figures, some still in bedclothes and others with torches. The tanner and Parson Wibird, Brackett the innkeeper, and the Cranches—and me, a young wife among many, though some had babes beneath their shawls. We all headed through town to climb the hill.
And, oh, how I prayed it was Boston under siege, not Cambridge or Charlestown. At last I found myself atop the hill where many others stood watching in awe and terror, whispering or quietly sobbing. I did neither that I recall; I merely stood there in the hellish torchlight, feeling the rumble and watching the flames shoot up higher and brighter. There was a rumble of fear upon that hill, too, mixed with that of the cannons. Occasionally, a cry pierced the darkness. Young children clung to their parents’ legs while the older ones ran about, excited by the commotion. I didn’t speak but only watched smoke form above Charlestown, gray against the black sky. Somehow, I knew Jeb was there.
As the sky lightened, I noticed a woman standing by my side with her arm around a small boy of about seven or eight. She, too, said nothing, spoke to no one, but merely watched in horror, clutching her child.
Someone with a torch passed by, and in that momentary flicker of light I saw that it was Abigail Adams, wife of our delegate John Adams, with her eldest boy, John Quincy. When our eyes met briefly, her face softened in recognition, but still I saw she could not quite place me.
“Jeb Boylston’s wife,” I offered. “Elizabeth. Lizzie.”
“Oh,” she said, surprised. “Of course. We met several months ago, I believe, at meeting. We are related. I’m Abigail, and this is Johnny.” Johnny looked up at me from under his mother’s arm. “Is Jeb not here?” She looked around.
“No, he is there—” I nodded in the direction of the smoke “—with Colonel Prescott.”
Suddenly, there was a terrible crack. It sounded close, like lightning hitting a tree. I could feel my knees buckle beneath me.
“Are you hurt?” Abigail fell at once to her knees, searching my person. “Where? Where is the wound?”
“No, no.” I shook my head, endeavored to stand. “I feel—I have this feeling…” I sobbed into my shawl, unable to voice what I felt. What I knew. I struggled up. “I must go,” I said.
“Go? Where do you plan to go at this hour?” she asked, thinking reason had left me, as indeed it had. All around was darkness, save for the hectic torches blurring swaths of firelight.
“I must go to him.”
“There?” She nodded toward the smoke over Charlestown. “You know that’s impossible.” She placed her arm around me. “Oh, dearest, I know what it is like to be separated from your beloved. But you must bear it. There is nothing else to be done. Tomorrow…” She sighed. “Tomorrow we’ll know more, perhaps.”
“But I will not bear it,” I rudely replied. “I must go, and go now. I will borrow a horse of Colonel Quincy.”
I moved away, certain she now thought me a most unpleasant woman. I began to walk down the hill toward home but soon felt a hand press against my forearm.
“If you really must go, then take John’s mare,” Abigail said. I shall never forget the way she said “must.” There was no irony in her tone but rather a kind of acknowledgment, even resignation, born of experience. “Tell Isaac to accompany you. It will be faster that way and far safer. Go to Cambridge. They will have news there, if anyone has.”
I hugged her to me, grateful to have made a friend in this darkest hour.