The following article is from my interview series with award-winning poet and author John McPhee, who teaches writing at the University of Denver. A total of 250 illustrators helped create four profiles of women who survived one of the deadliest epidemics in history, typhoid fever in 1794. The portraits of Mary May, Josiane Aula, Oma Léa and Léa Bordíès will now appear in America’s Poetry magazine.
How do you define the word mother? Mary May’s mother was an enslaved woman from Haiti. Mary May’s father, Leon, fled the island before Mary May was born and his death coincided with the start of the pandemic in the New World. So the Oma story is set in a country that was virtually uninhabited in 1794.
Mary was born in Haiti, working as a prostitute at 17. In colonial French Guiana, a sugar-cane plantation she fled to, she is attacked by a group of men. Despite her wounds, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Oma. Despite enormous stress, Oma shows up at the orphanage with a single machete, covering his mother’s wrists and throwing himself to the ground. His first words are: “Port Maria, watch out.”
Mary has a medical degree, but she knows nothing about malaria and quickly falls ill. Two years later, she arrives in New York, which at the time was known as the Third Place in the World and was called the City of Mist because of the humidity. She enters a Florence Nightingale-like hospital, the United Prisons of New York, which was the first of its kind in the country. There, the sick inmates help care for those who are ill, which seems like a quintessentially New York experience until it isn’t. Mary becomes the general secretary of the Auxiliary Movement, a medical organization formed by prisoners and more generally, the helping hands of New York.
Like her predecessors, Mary had devoted her life to medical service, and she was taken aback by the camaraderie in her hospital. “The convalescence,” she writes, “might as well have been our competition in an international competition in service.”
FEMALES RAISED IN DEVELOPED COUNTRIES
Mother Mary worked at the United Prisons until 1807, when she was elected president of the American Hospital Association, the first female to hold this post.
Oma Bordíès grew up in what is now Italy but was originally from Haiti. She was a professional musician and dancemaker and married a painter who was important in painting the lyrics for some of the compositions of the imam Omar Khayyam.