The Brief Passage of Maydeth Scott
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson


Even a short life makes history

History ignores the young. But history also lives in the human heart, not just in textbooks. A vintage baby book discovered in an antique shop reveals the short life of a lost child.





READ: The Hidden Room of Uncle Em

History is biased against the young. It glorifies those adults who make a dent in the world, both the heroic and the dastardly. The louder their impact, the more historians write about inventors, soldiers, and criminals, pop stars and politicians. The meek may inherit the earth, but they rarely make it into the history books. What historians miss, inevitably, is the impact children – and the love they engender -- make on the human heart.

And so what we call history, is often a cold and soulless recounting of dates and dollars, details and death tolls. But once in a rare while, someone like Maydeth comes along to remind us what really matters.

MaydethMaydeth Scott died just shy of her second birthday in 1930. On her last day she woke early and teased her mother to be dressed, then rode in the car with her father to pick up her grandfather, who worked nights. Back home, she ate breakfast, then helped fix breakfast for her kittens.

She played with her favorite doll, tapped on the family piano and sang a tune of her own composition. Then she climbed all by herself into her little wooden chair next to the sink where her mother was washing dishes.

What happened next redefined my family history. That’s when Maydeth’s grandfather, my great-grandfather, came in from the yard to get water for the hens. Standing in her chair Maydeth was helping her grampa work the pump at the sink when she slipped, cried out and fell to the floor. Her mother, my father’s Aunt Pearl, rushed to cradle the child and held her in a rocking chair. Maydeth spoke once, but then her head lolled back. She "twinged and writhed in convulsions" her mother later wrote.

For three agonizing days, the doctors struggled and failed. "Our hearts are aching," the child’s mother finally recorded in a journal. "Maydeth is in heaven."




I had never known Maydeth Scott until the other day when a woman left a message on my answering machine. Nancy Duphily, a professor of nursing at a Massachusetts college said she had discovered an amazing baby book in an antique shop and bought it for five dollars. It had apparently been buried deep in a stack of old piano sheet music. Most mothers begin recording the intimate details of a baby’s life, get distracted and taper off. This book was filled cover to cover.

"Are you related to Emerson and Pearl Scott of Upton?" she asked. "I was searching online and found an article you wrote about them on a web site. I think I have something that belongs to your family."

MaydethMaydeth’s baby book arrived in the mail a week later. The pale-blue cloth cover looks almost new, but the pages smell of long lost decades. A delicate wildflower is pressed inside the opening page. Someone, most certainly her mother Pearl, neatly traced the outline of Maydeth’s tiny hand, once at three months and again at ten months. There are roughly two dozen pages filled with details in her mother’s careful script – the full arc of one brief human life. The book opens with five faded baby pictures. It ends with a chilling account of the accident and Maydeth’s funeral notice, cut from the newspaper on New Year’s day, 1931, two weeks before she would have been two.

But what we have of those two years is rich indeed, thanks to her mother, and to a kind teacher from Massachusetts and to the invention of the Internet. And that’s really what this story is about. My father, who is the same age today as Maydeth would have been, remembers her distantly. He says there was always a photograph of her in an oval frame that hung in the living room of his Aunt Pearl and Uncle Emerson’s house. I remember it, vaguely, from a decade of holidays there – or maybe I don’t. But until now my father’s cousin Maydeth was a ghostly figure – a blonde child on the wall, a lamb on a miniature tombstone, a tale told in hushed tones.

Maydeth ScottNow we have her history. From Maydeth’s book we know every single gift she received at birth and on her first birthday, and who gave each one. We know who visited at the hospital – in order of appearance – and when she first came home. We have her baptismal certificate from the Upton Congregational Church. We know that Maydeth favored spinach, Puffed Rice, vegetable soup and that her favorite fruit was "na-nas". We know that Maydeth first crawled while at the old family camp at Cape Cod, where, when she could not sleep, her father would put her in the car and drive and drive until she dozed. She stood at eight months and walked on her first birthday.

Maydeth preferred to call everyone, even her mother and her 80-year old aunts, by their first name. She liked going out with her father to collect the horse and the cow, but insisted on calling both animals "cows". The same was true for a goat, but sheep, instead, were different. They were "kitties", as were ducks, and, of course, so were cats. During the only summer and fall when she could toddle, she discovered the taste of vegetables from the garden, fresh-picked apples, blackberries and thimbleberries.




baby bookThere were tough times too. Maydeth got frustrated when she was unable to get the colored Christmas balls to hang on the tree. "I can’t!" she fussed. And when one of her new dolls broke, she crawled into the big armchair and sobbed, "All sick! All hurt!". When Maydeth’s grandfather would get into a coughing spell, she would step over and pat him on the back, then walk to her mother in the kitchen announcing nervously – "Choke, water!" When Grampa scratched his hand while berry picking, it was Maydeth who wiped away the blood, applying a damp facecloth and assuring her elder – "Aw right now."

If there was a pinnacle to Maydeth’s brief career as a child, it was certainly the annual Upton Lawn Party. At 19- months she took first prize in the doll carriage parade. Her picture, with her rose-colored stroller, was featured in the newspaper and the yellowed clipping is glued into the baby book.

What we had, before Maydeth’s baby book arrived, was a family tragedy. What we have now, with the arrival of her short story, is a family memory, lovingly recorded, painfully completed and then lost for 70 years. Her mother and father have passed on. The barn has been razed, the old house sold. Maydeth’s baby book and this short essay are all the history she will likely ever have.

There was an envelope inside the book as well. I opened it, in writing this, and found a thick yellow lock of Maydeth’s hair, still curled, still glistening. A few of the hairs clung to the inside of my hand and refused to be recaptured. Others lifted off the desk and disappeared into the air. There was a small printed card in the envelope as well. It read only, "With love, for the baby."

Sometimes, and it does not happen often, we truly get to touch the past. Rarer still are the moments when the past seeks us out -- and touches back.

Copyright 2004 by J. Dennis Robinson

Maydeth Scott