Great-Grandma Cram (Nancy Garner) was small in stature. She wore long dresses and bound her hair in a tight bun. Though she worked hard managing things at the big, seventeen room house by the river, she didn’t toil the way some pioneer women in the valley did, for the Crams had servants. Fong was the Chinese cook, and an Indian woman from the Serrano tribe in the foothills came to help with the washing, which was heavy work in those days.
The house was located near the banks of the Santa Ana, which changed course in the flood of 1882, and moved farther to the south. But in the early days, the river ran right in front of the house, and it ran all year. My Grandfather said it was six feet deep when he was a boy, and the cottonwood trees overhung the water and made shade along the banks where the seven boys and one girl fished and swam.
On wash days a fire was built, and water was carried from the river to fill the big iron pot in which the clothes were put to boil. There were no other laundry facilities. After they had boiled a while, the clothes were put into a big pot with a washboard where they were scrubbed until the stains disappeared or the knuckles were rubbed raw. The white things were bleached, and most things were starched. The starch was homemade in the early days from potato water. But by the 1860s, Argo corn starch was available. Mixed with water, it stiffened collars and shirts, perked up hair bows for little girls, and gave the bed sheets a mind of their own.
One day, the Indian woman who helped Great-Grandmother Nancy with the washing, brought her baby to work with her. She carried the child strapped to a board, the Indian way, and propped him against a cottonwood tree, in the shade. For a while, the baby seemed content, but eventually began to cry. The woman jiggled him a little and put him back against the tree. After this had gone on for some time, and the crying was louder and more insistent, the woman snatched up the child and unwrapped the blankets.
“Perhaps she is too warm,” Nancy ventured. “It is a hot day.”
“Huh!” the woman answered, as she continued to remove layer after layer of wrappings.
When the baby was naked, she strode to the riverbank, knelt down, and dunked the child in the cold water. When she lifted the baby out of the water, it began to cry again. Nancy tried to interfere, but the look she got stopped her. By now, the whole family had come to watch.
The woman dunked the child again. And again. The crying grew fainter until, at last, it stopped.
My great-grandfather Louis had come from the barn to see what the fuss was about. The baby’s skin was blue, but he was alive. “What’s the matter with this child?” he asked. “It looks like it’s gasping for breath.”
The Indian woman nodded her approval. “But he not cry,” she said. “Cry is no good.” She propped the board once again against the tree, then walked over to the tub of near boiling water and plunged both arms in to her elbows. Up and down she went, bending as she scrubbed the dirty clothes against the washboard. Now and then she looked over her shoulder at her child. When the clothes were clean and rinsed and hung to dry, she held out her hand for her pay, then counted the coins before putting them into a pocket. She picked up the baby board and swung it over her shoulder so that she could strap it to her back. The baby was no longer blue, but he didn’t make a sound.
She almost smiled. “Cold water good for sick baby,” she said. “He better now.”
My grandfather, Frank, who was a boy at the time, told this story many times. He said that the baby grew into a healthy man who swam often in the cold water of the river and was never sick again a day in his life.