Friday, July 18, 2008

the same boat

IMG_3262
Now updated with link to video!!!!*

In those bright and cheerful corners of the internet that glitter with baby dust and shimmer with sticky vibes, we'd probably be called something like due date buddies or New Year's Mamas. There's Patti and Antigone and Doc Grumbles and me, all expecting babies right around the same time. Though "expecting" puts far too positive a spin on it for my pessimistic tastes. Hoping for babies. Imagining babies.

Patti and Antigone and Doc Grumbles and me. The cadence of the words rings like the last lines of Mary Hamilton, an old Scottish ballad sung by Joan Baez on one of my mother's records. Mary Hamilton is not only the name of the ballad, but also presumably the name of the otherwise nameless narrator who tells her sad story in cryptic quatrains. One of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting, she was seduced by the King. The result was an unwanted baby which she promptly put in a boat and left to drown. Now she stands on the gallows, condemned for murder. The King offers to pardon her, but she refuses, accepting her fate as just punishment for her crime. She asks for a blindfold and, before being hanged, offers these final, haunting words:

Last night there were four Marys
Tonight there'll be but three
There was Mary Seaton and Mary Beaton
And Mary Carmichael and me.


Glosses on the ballad have tried to identify the four Marys with actual historical figures, perhaps as ladies-in-waiting in 16th century Scotland or 18th century Russia. But in the ballad itself, the three other Marys appear suddenly at the very end, with no context and no explanation. They're mysterious, shadowy figures, seemingly nothing more than random names. "Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please" says Virginia Woolf at the beginning of A Room of One's Own. The Marys could be anyone at all. The only thing that's clear is that three will live and one will die.

I've been thinking about the four Marys, the fortunate three and the unlucky one. There's no way of understanding why some people lead happy, or at least ordinary, lives, while others provide the raw material for tragic ballads. It could just as easily have been Mary Seaton, Mary Beaton or Mary Carmichael standing at the gallows. And perhaps, next time, it will be. And I've been thinking about the other person who shared my due date: Mad, who miscarried at the beginning of June.

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*I found a very old (circa 1965) video of Joan Baez singing Mary Hamilton. It doesn't include all the verses, but it's kind of lovely and you really should listen to it. Especially if you have a thing for homicidal Scottish ladies-in-waiting.

17 comments:

Antigone said...

bet ya a pacifier it will be me

Patti said...

I think my optimism may balance your pessimism.

I truly hope and pray and almost believe that all four of us will make it.

Love that ballad, by the way.

Furrow said...

Hate those damn pregnancy statistics. I remember watching my due date companions, wondering which of us would be unlucky, feeling disgusted with myself for the relief that came when others filled the quota.

The four of you could be fine. There are other, unknown cohorts who could get the shaft ... bless them.

Mad said...

May you all be Carmichaels.

Tash said...

Honestly, this may have been too much information for me because now I'm freaked out and running to sacrifice a goat. Or something.

Mad said...

I could add that I also have at least 3 September due date buddies that I read regularly here in blog land--one shared my exact due date. I've been wondering what my response will be when and if those stories have happy endings. Gawd, I hope those stories have happy endings.

Julia said...

Tash, wait for me-- I need to help with that sacrifice.

Screw statistics. I hope, I hope, I hope.

Bon said...

a fabulous metaphor, and the question none of us can answer...why? i've just watched all my June due date compatriots give birth, and now i float on in my own little later-launched craft, knowing that Mad and others have been left behind.

to all the little boats still out to sea...safe passage.

i wish no ill to the goats, but i'd sacrifice a flock if i thought it would make a difference.

Kymberli said...

Music tells but can't be fortelling. At least that's what I tell myself when I hear something in the notes or lyrics that feels much too close to a bad omen.

It's hard not to ignore what I call the devil's arithmetic.

Bea said...

Me too. Thinking of Mad through this whole post.

docgrumbles said...

This is why blogging is wonderful - all my RL friends scoff at me for musing on luck, fate, and the unpredictable nature of a human pregnancy... on the internet I can find others who wonder about the bad outcomes. Indeed, who can say which Mary they will be and why that Mary has to meet the guillotine?

Monica said...

I can't wait for those three boats to dock safely at harbor. And for all others on the journey, or starting over again.

Lori said...

May all four of you make it safely to the other side- you and your babies, that is (of course).

Thinking hopeful thoughts for all of you.

Caro said...

I'm hoping you all make it safely.

Eliza said...

The Marys (at least four Marys, two of whom were Seaton and Beaton, although the same names hung around royal courts forever) were ladies in waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots. Not infertile, just a history buff :)

niobe said...

Eliza: I think you're absolutely right. I've also read speculation that the song was inspired -- or at least influenced -- by a similar tragedy involving a Mary Hamilton in Russia in 1719.

Karin said...

For many years I watched my due date buddies land their boats while I frantically tried to keep mine afloat. Eventually I got my leaky worn old boat to shore and you can too. We'll all be there waiting. In hope for you all.