Let’s talk about separation anxiety. I’ll start with my recent experience and then go back in time to Martha Washington’s own separation anxiety.
Last week I had a colonoscopy done at a local medical center. Everything went well, I’m glad to say. But I had a really hard time going into the hospital alone, my husband forced to wait in the car in the parking lot. Waiting for a phone call from the nurse to come pick me up outside.
Now, I don’t cry easily. Nor do I panic easily. But I lay there on the gurney/table, counting the ceiling tiles in order to try to not cry. (The prep room was about 11×13 square feet, by the way.) I struggled to not worry about going through the prep and procedure without my husband of 30+ years there for the very first time to anchor me emotionally. To trust the medical professionals would take care of me, which they did with care and compassion. Try as I might, though, it didn’t work. I still cried. For one thing, I thought of the stories of couples and families right now during this pandemic who can’t be together. Who haven’t seen each other in person for weeks or even months. Of the loved ones who died while in the hospital, separated from their spouses, children, siblings, friends. I cried harder, knowing how difficult such a separation must be. Heck, I’m crying now while I remember those emotions rattling my composure and cutting a swath of hurt through my heart.
I thought of Martha Washington then, and how she faced long spans of separation from her family and husband. One case in point is the following excerpt from a letter (included here with her original spellings) she wrote to her sister in August 1762:
My Dear Nancy
I had the pleasure to receive your kind letter of the 26 of July just as I was setting out on a visit to Mrs Washingtons [George Washington’s mother] in Westmoreland where I spent a weak agreeably I carred my little patt with me and left Jackey at home for a trial to see how well I could stay without him though we ware gon but wone fortnight I was quite impatiant to get home if I at any time heard the dogs barke or a noise out I thought thair was a person sent for me I often fansied he was sick or some accident had happened to him so that I think it is impossable for me to leave him as long as Mr Washington must stay when he comes down – if nothing happens I promise myself the pleasure of comeing down in the spring as it will be healthy time of the year
In order to understand her deep fears of her son falling ill or having an accident, we must remember that she had already buried a young son and daughter, as well as her first husband, by this time. Daughter Patty currently suffered from epilepsy, too, which is why she was not left home when Martha traveled. Indeed, many times they would take her to Williamsburg for treatments, ones that never worked, but they were trying everything under the sun even rumored to be beneficial. Jacky was the next heir to the Custis fortunes, as well. Much rested on his young shoulders.
Martha lost many a family member when she wasn’t able to be with them. Her brother Jacky died from yellow fever while she was out of the house. Her father had traveled to Fredericksburg, Virginia, for the horse races and died of an apoplexy (heart attack) in the heat. He’s buried there, not at the home plantation because the heat meant they couldn’t transport the body all the way back to Chestnut Grove. And her sister, Nancy, died at her home, Eltham, far away in New Kent County, Virginia. Martha was unable to even make the trip while her sister was ill because of her daughter-in-law’s advanced stage of pregnancy.
Of course, she also worried about George when he was off fighting the War for Independence or out and about as President of the United States of America. She didn’t like being separated from any of her family, truth be told. Of course, she couldn’t be with all of them all of the time. That was physically impossible with everyone scattered over several states. But her letters are filled with tender requests to be remembered to her friends and family, and hoping to hear all were well, or sad to hear they weren’t.
I consoled myself while in the hospital that my separation should only be for a few hours, not for even half a day. In fact, I arrived at 6:30 and left at 9:00 a.m. As planned, no doubt. My brief experience emphasized in my mind the reality so many others have faced, or are facing, or perhaps sadly will face. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone in those situations. I have an inkling of what you’re going through.
I wish you all health and happiness! Thanks for reading!
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Martha “Patsy” Custis manages an immense eighteenth-century plantation in the Virginia colony. But as a young widow she’s hard pressed to balance her business and to care for her two young children. They need a father and protector. She needs a husband and business partner…one she can trust, especially now as tensions rise between the motherland and the American colonies. Her experience and education have sustained her thus far but when her life veers in an unexpected direction, she realizes she has so much more to learn.
Colonel George Washington takes an interest in her and she’s surprised to find him so sociable and appealing. They form an instant bond and she is certain he’ll be a likeable and loving husband and father figure for her children. She envisions a quiet life at Mount Vernon, working together to provide for their extended family.
But when trouble in the form of British oppression, taxes, and royal arrogance leads to revolt and revolution, George must choose between duty to country and Martha. Compelled to take matters into her own hands, Martha must decide whether to remain where she belongs or go with her husband…no matter what the dangerous future may hold.