In Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, author Steven Mintz reports that the kinds of blended families we see today were common from the country's beginnings, up to the 1940s and 1950s. The reason for blending, though, was not divorce, but death. On the American frontier, for instance, 25 percent of women died in childbirth, often in isolation with no medical care. Without modern medical care and antibiotics, illness in an adult, especially one already exhausted by overwork, could easily leave a child without a father or mother, or both. Often the remaining parent would seek another mate, as a necessary for the survival of homestead and children. Then the new stepparent and children needed to get to know each other, and hopefully, a bond would grow between them, which, while not detracting from the bitter missing of a beloved parent, offered comfort and nourishment to the children.
Mother and Child by Mary Cassatt, 1880
The McNairs became such a blended family in The Able McLaughlins, and a more poignant story of blending could not be told. A widower, Mr. McNair had brought home a new wife, Barbara, from Scotland to help him care for his eight-year-old son, Dod, and his three-year-old daughter, Jeannie. No sooner had they arrived at the homestead than McNair took off for the fields with his son.
Mrs. McNair "stood contemplating. The rain continued blowing about in imprisoning drab veils. Finally she turned away, and sat down weakly. From where she sat, she saw the dripping cows shivering. She sat huddled down. She seemed trying to cuddle up against herself. Her hands, folded in her lap, seemed the only sight not terrifying that her eyes might consider.
"Presently the silence of the room was broken with a little sob. She looked up. Christie's little sister, standing near the window, was just turning away from it.... She felt deserted. Big tears were running slowly down her face. She looked like a neglected, ragged, little heartbroken waif.
"Barbara started from her chair. That moment her face showed she had forgotten the surrounding desolations. She ran and gathered the child into her arms. She sat down with her in her lap. The little Jeannie, finding herself caressed, began crying lustily. The new mother kissed her. She caressed her. She soothed her, coaxing her into quietness. She told her little stories. She sang little songs, examining thoughtfully the poor little garments she wore. Dusk came upon them as they sat consoling each other. Barbara demanded help then of the child. Jeannie must show her where all the things were kept which were needed for the supper. They would make some little cakes together. Jeannie grew important and happy.
"Dod's eyes fairly bulged with amazement when he saw that supper table. Nothing of the sort had been set before him in that kitchen. His new mother made no apologies.... " Her husband protested, "We don't have cake every day."
"I do," she said placidly. "I like a wee cake with my tea."
Perhaps Barbara McNair made Scottish rock cakes. Given the meagre contents of the pantry, theycould not have been too fancy.