I dreamed about Lemuel. It has been so long since I last saw him in my dreams. In the beginning, I dreamed about him so often. In my dreams, he always loved me. I miss him awfully. And tonight, Lemuel appeared again, begging me not to forget him. I dreamt that I was crying and woke up sobbing bitterly. With trembling hands I reached for the tinderbox, lit up the candle and fetched my notebook. Suddenly I was overcome with the conviction that only if I resume writing about him will Lemuel survive the sea and will come back to us.
Oh, I know it is a silly, childish notion, but what do I care. Usually, if I cannot fall asleep, I read my Bible for a while, arouse and dive into my ocean of joys. But tonight, as if I am possessed, I feel I must write about my love, my Lemuel, or else… Yet, I am aware how preposterous this idea is. Well, no one will ever read these words, so now, feeling so vulnerable and lonely, I just give in to this superstition, this figment of my fragile mind.
Usually I am a strong woman. In all these years that Lemuel was sailing away, I discovered I was even stronger than I ever thought I was. So, very soon after I started writing my memoir I felt embarrassed about it: what do I have to tell? My life is a series of happenings which happen to all the women I know. Like all wives of sea-farers, I live the life of a ‘married-widow.’ Of the fourteen years of my marriage, I spent no more than five years with my husband. The rest of the time he was away at sea. Whenever he came back - and this miracle did happen twice - I beseeched him to stay with us and try to recover his surgery trade, but he would not comply. The sea attracted him in a mysterious way. That is why we removed from the Old Jewry
to Wapping. Lemuel said he hoped to get business among the sailors, but I think he just wanted to be near the sea, close to seamen.
“Indeed, I told him, what business could you expect from sailors? Those who return are healthy enough not to die of scurvy, and those who died at sea do not need you anymore.”
He did not heed my words. We hardly had any income, and rather than remove back to the Old-Jewry and back to profitable land-diseases, Lemuel was determined to go back to sea. He said it is out of financial considerations that he was leaving us. He figured that Johnny, Betty and I could live on the Gods pennies, and if his voyage would be successful, he would return a very rich man.
If, if, if.
It was a good plan, but like so many other good plans, it did not work out. Now we do not even have a grave to visit. My poor Lemuel’s remains are somewhere at the bottom of the ocean.
We gave up all hope of ever seeing any of the Antelope crew two years ago. I swallowed my pride, put on the badge, and the three of us commenced surviving on the little pension I got from the Alms-house. I am a very good sock mender, and thus I supplement our meagre needs. But I would happily starve, if this would bring him back. Oh, I miss him so much! I do not think any woman ever loved her man as much as I loved my Lemuel. When I close my eyes, I can still revive his warm embrace and I swoon from his masculine scent just as I did fourteen years ago, on my virgin night...
* * *
My man was an honest surgeon. He worked hard. Well, whenever work was coming. He was a good father, not just providing for his babies, but also educating them. We decided early on that we will teach all our children to read and write, tough we realized we would have to keep it a secret in the parish. We were a good team, Lemuel and I, caring for our children during the day and loving each other at night.
It took some time for me to trust him. I loved him too much and was so fearful of losing his love. I could not bear seeing him talking to our neighbour women, I was so jealous. But of course, I did not say a word to him, I was much too proud. Was I ever surprised when one night – we were but a few months married then - Lemuel, regaining his breath after his sweet joy, whispered in my ear: “Will you always love me, Swifty?”
“Of course I will, BigJon, I said, how else?”
“I am older than you are. Soon I will be too old, you know, for this.”
(It amused me, how ashamed he was to speak about lovemaking, while I liked to talk about it so much! But he did approve of my whispered passages from the Bible, while we were making love. He saw it as a mark of my modesty…)
“I cannot believe you will ever be too old for this,” I laughed, gently stroking his limp Jon. “But, even if, what then?”
“Well,” he sighed and bit on my earlobe, “you might be wanting for another man. This would kill me. Please tell me that you will never want another man. Please, Swifty, please, will you promise it me? Just say it, will you please, Mary? Say it!”
I was perplexed. I thought: not so long ago I was secretly in love with King Solomon, now I am a fool for Lemuel. How in God’s name can I predict what will happen in the future?
Lemuel seemed to guess my thoughts: “No matter,” he said, “Just say it, Love-pie. Let me hear you tell me that you will never leave me…”
“Why, of course” I said “Of course I will always love you!”
And at that instance I suddenly realized something that mystified me to no extent: as easily as I could say that I will always love my Lemuel, I could also tell myself that he will always love me! The future is a mystery in any case, so I might as well live now as if the future will be just as I want it to be!
This was quite a revelation to me, and it instantly eased my mind. I understood that, in order to trust my husband, I must first trust myself. If I were to believe that he will always love me, I must first decide that I will always love him. From that moment on whenever I saw my Lemuel laughing with any of our neighbour women, I did not conclude that he loved me any less. I could see that each time he succeeded in making a woman smile at him, my darling Lemuel felt so much manlier. As childish as it may seem, proud, grown-up men still need the confirmation of their humbled wives, that badly.
In many ways, I was much stronger than he ever was. Well, much good it does me now, knowing that. Now, alone, when I have my two surviving children to raise and protect, I feel as weak and lost as I felt when he was last adamant on going back to sea, for the third time since we got married.
And for the last...
I am too sad and too tired to write on. Tomorrow. I will not neglect my Lemuel any more.
Map of Wapping, the Parish of St Paul Shadweill, London. From: John Stow (John Strype, editor), Survey of the Cities of London and Westminster, 1720
Lamenting the death of her husband at sea, the Author resumes her writing, strongly believing that this will bring him back to her. She reflects on Prejudices, Love and Jealousy.
Wapping, Wednesday the 12th of April, 1702
Hubertus (Huib) van Hove (1814-1865) depicted here an uncanningly similar scene to that of Mary, holding Betty in her arms and accompanied by Johnny, getting their God's pennies at the almshouse.
Title: Distribution of Charity in the Alms-House  Oil on panel, 57 x 79 cm
An illustration of lovemaking in the 17th century.
In a society that considered women to be their husband's properties, and that expected women to be
jealous when their
proprietor took fancy to another man's property, Mary stood out as a singularly
Title: Twelfth-night (The King Drinks) 1634-40
Artist: David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690)