Harriet Mae Briner Martin
May 16, 1893 Loysville, PA - May 23, 1987, Harrisburg, PA
In 1973 I was thirty years old and completing my B.A. at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. Women professors and students were taking part in the surging Feminist Movement. I had taken Literature & Women and Sociology of Women. An assignment in my Women & History course was to “write about the oldest woman you know.” I interviewed my grandmother, Nana, who was eighty years old. This is an excerpt from the audio transcript, edited for clarity while preserving her voice.
Peggy: Tell me about having children. Before you had Mom and Aunt Doris, didn’t you have a lot of miscarriages?
Nana: I had seven altogether.
Peggy: Did you want to have children?
Nana: Oh, yes, I wanted children, bad, bad! I was only married two and a half months until I got pregnant. I was married the ninth of December and the baby was born dead October third. She was seven months. We went to bed that night, and about five o’clock I got awake and had to go to the bathroom. I had a cramp just as if you had to break wind. That’s the only thing I had when I had your mother and Doris. Never had a thing [meaning no pain].
I went to crawl back in bed and I said, “I think I feel better now,” and as I went to lift my leg up, the water broke. I said, “Oh my gosh, something is going to happen. Go over and tell Grammy [Emma] to come quick.” That’s your grandpa’s mother, they lived next door. They were good people.
From left: 2340-42 & 2344-46 Elllerslie St view September 2021
Harriet & Irvin = 2340
Emma & Joseph Martin = 2344
We had old Doc Harvey. He lived about four blocks away from us. Irvin [her husband, my grandfather] used to ride back and forth to work with him. He was a baker then. Grammy came over, and I said, “Something came.” Poor dumb soul I was. She looked and said, “Oh it’s all mortified, it’s all black.” It had coal black hair and its eyes were closed. I don’t know what color they were. It had no fingernails or toenails or anything. It had a pretty little round face. It was a girl.
Then about one year after that I got pregnant again. See in those days you had no protection. We had nothing to use except strippers [common name for condoms]. But I had scarlet fever, and the baby was born dead. So the doctor said to be real careful and don’t have babies for a year or so.
But then I got that way the next year. We were going to Sunday School one morning, and Irvin fell down on the ice and I just flopped down on top of him. I didn’t hurt myself or anything. We went on to Church, and when I came home I urinated in the toilet and there was the baby. I was six weeks gone. Its head was about as big as the tip of your finger, and it had straight skinny toothpicks for arms and legs.
Then the next time I had a miscarriage, I was carrying a basket home from market. The basket wasn’t all that heavy. I had that one in the toilet too.
Peggy: Seeking some sort of medical explanation, I asked: “They didn’t just seem to stay in?”
Nana: My uterus was turned upside down. So the doctor gave me something to douche with three times. The first time with lukewarm water, the next with hotter, and the last time with really hot water. To heal me up inside. I had to do that every night for a long time. And he told me not to get pregnant.
Well, we were using strippers and one night when we were done, your grandpa took it off and there was a hole in it. So that was how I got caught with your mother. The doctor told me to take it easy, don’t do any hard work, just be real lazy. I had Aunt Pearl, Irvin’s sister, come over and do my cleaning.
When your mother was born I had this crampy feeling. My water broke the night before, but I didn’t know it. I was playing cards and was sitting on a feather cushion. When I got up, it was soaking wet. The next morning I took a bath. I sat on the side of the tub and took a sponge bath.
I called the doctor, and he came out at dinnertime, at twelve o’clock, and examined me. Aunt Pearl was there, and he said, “If you get any pains let me know right away, but it won’t be coming before evening.” It was twenty minutes after one and I felt something coming. I told Aunt Pearl to call the doctor, that I feel something coming. I said, “It feels like something is coming out my asshole.”
I was laying in bed. Aunt Pearl went to the phone and called the doctor. By that time your mother was born, she started to bawl just like babies do when they come out. Aunt Pearl said, “Dr. Harvey, Mrs. Martin’s having …OH MY GOD, DOCTOR, COME RIGHT AWAY. THE BABYS HERE. I HEAR IT BAWLIN’.”
It was pretten near a half hour, not quite that long, before the doctor got there. Grammy Martin put a cover over her. When the doctor came he cut the cord. She was the cutest thing.
Peggy: In those days , didn’t anybody go to the hospital?
Nana: No, nobody went to the hospital to have a baby. Then I had another miscarriage. My sister Hope was keeping your mother because we were suppose to go to Atlantic City. On the way I had the miscarriage. I was three months gone. I had pain with that one, a little bit. The afterbirth didn’t come. We came back to Rose and Charlie’s in Philadelphia and stayed a day or so. I went to the toilet and the afterbirth came. We went home and I felt better. I was all right then.
Then I got that way with Aunt Doris somehow, I don’t know how. Your mother was three years and three months when I had Doris. She had red hair and freckles. I wrote to Aunt Maggie and I said she has red hair and freckles and she’s so fat that she’s ugly. That made Aunt Maggie feel bad.
Harriet & Irvin Martin, my maternal grandparents
Margaret, my mother, born March 12, 1920
Doris, born June 5, 1923
Aunt Maggie took care of me when I had your mother, but Irvin’s brother’s wife took care of me when Doris was born. You had to lay in bed for nine days. You didn’t dare move around. On the ninth day everything was supposed to go back in shape—they used to say.
Peggy: Did you nurse your babies?
Nana: Yes. Both. Your mother until she was one year and Aunt Doris until she was nine months. They were fat and so cute.
Peggy: Once I was feeding Michael [my son] at your house when he was little. I was feeding him bananas, and you told me that when yours were little, you wouldn’t dare give them bananas.
Nana: Yes. Because you would think it would kill them. Woody Hockenshell, who wasn’t altogether baked, came by our place when I was at Aunt Maggie’s. He wanted to give your mother a banana and I said, “Oh no, she wouldn’t dare have bananas.” Now they give them to little babies.
Peggy: When did you start feeding babies solid food? Around six months?
Nana: No, not until they were about one year old. We used to feed them what you’d call pap. We made it out of cornstarch and thickened it with milk and put sugar and a little salt in it. We would start to give them mashed potatoes and gravy off the table and other soft things.
Peggy: Now a lot of babies are on solid food altogether by six months. Sherry [my daughter] was.
Nana: In the olden days, now like my mother when she worked on the farm and had so much work to do, she would pick you up and nurse you, dry you, and lay you back down in the cradle, and there you would lay until you needed fed again. Pick you up and do the same thing over again. Poor little things never got held hardly except when you nursed them. Now, oh my gosh, they’re just like toys, you play with them. That’s why they’re smart, from eating food and everything.
Nana's thoughts wander to the story of my conception, which I had heard previously.
Nana: Your mother was married in March , I guess your daddy was home on furlough from the Army, and then he went back. I think he was in Oregon at the time. How you were made was—I don’t know if your mother wants me to tell you this or not? He came home at Thanksgiving and said, “I’m going to let it go in and make a baby so you won’t be running around on me.” And so he did, and that’s how you came.
My cousin’s wife told me Doris’s husband Gail said the same thing before he left to fight in WWII. We contemplated how many babies were born as a result of about-to-be soldiers expressing the same concern.