Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Fine Arts Friday: Fresh Eggs

This is a painting by the great American painter Winslow Homer (1836-1910). Its title is Fresh Eggs, and it depicts a farm woman going to the barn to gather fresh eggs from the hens in residence. In this painting, as in others, Winslow Homer celebrates the work of women, particularly in an agricultural setting. The painting depicts a simple act: the gathering of fresh eggs from the barn, where the chickens brood. The position of the figure, with her back partially turned to us onlookers, with her head bowed, with her bonnet dropped down her back, speaks of a humility that seems biblical in nature. The one contrasting note is the elegant polka dot dress in which the egg-gatherer is attired, as if to say that this young woman may be found at the moment in the barn but she could just as easily be at a ball. Homer is addressing an era that was on the cusp of overpowering industrialization. The homestead, the family farm, was entering a period that placed it in dire jeopardy, as industrialization and mass consumption gained momentum at an accelerating rate in the 20th century. But it seems to me that in this painting, as in many others of Homer, he is depicting what he believes to be an ideal--the work of women on the farm (also see the The Dinner Horn). Homer was the master of the poetic image (see the Veteran in a New Field). In this painting of the simple act of gathering not only eggs, but fresh eggs at that, he pays homage to the independent homesteader who populated America over the span of the 19th century and to the lady of the homestead who played such a vital role in this great endeavor and the exquisite way in which she did her work.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Mary and Martha

See for a contemplation on Mary and Martha. The painting is Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by the great Spanish painter of the 17th century, Diego Velasquez. Christ is in the room in the background with Mary. Note that the dress is contemporary with Velasquez's time, indicating that the difference in attitudes of Mary and Marth is an ageless problem, as does the post at Coffee Tea Books and Me.

Where Is the Milkman?

The question is: Where is the milkman, now that we really need him? When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, bread, eggs, and milk were delivered to our family's doorstep twice a week. All of these items were produced locally. The milk came in bottles, which kept the milk fresh longer. You could leave a note with the delivery man to leave extra or a different item if needed the next time. Today, how much time is wasted by women having to run to the store for a quick carton of milk or a new loaf of bread (which often is not fresh even when you buy it)? In some areas of the country, there may be convenience stores available that don't overcharge. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, where I grew up and recently visited, the local dairy, Wawa, has good drive-through convenience stores in all the towns, where you can easily pick up a gallon of milk, bread, and cold cuts at a reasonable price. However, there is no equivalent in Virginia. It may also be possible in some areas to order your groceries online from your local food store and have them delivered, but this is generally too expensive for most families. With the number of women with children having to work (often because they are single), there is a greater need than ever for the milkman, the eggman, and the breadman for customized delivery of these basics.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fine Art Friday: Chardin's Grace Before the Meal

Jean Baptiste Chardin (1699-1779)was the great "genre" painter of 18th-century France, probably best known for his painting of a boy blowing a large bubble from a window. Although he painted still lifes, Chardin's ouevre celebrates the daily home life of the emerging French middle class, showing a reverence and respect for the work of women in making the home a place of sustenance, nurturance, and devotion to God--portaits of the maid bringing home the day's food from the market, a young woman teaching a young child his ABCs, a mother listening to her daughter reciting the Gospel, a girl peeling vegetables, an "attentive nurse," and a woman peeling turnips, among them. His still lifes, as the one shown below, often celebrates the apparently mundane objects of the kitchen, which the painter imbues with a hallowed aura. In many ways, Chardin was following in the footsteps of the great Dutch painter, Jan Vermeer) (also see an earlier post on Vermeer's painting as a celebration of Mary and Martha).

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Beware of Beatrix Potter!

Here is one of the pictures by Beatrix Potter that was my undoing. Thinking of the adorable mice in her books, I became too soft-hearted toward the little critters and did not show them the door as soon as the fall came and they started skittering into my kitchen for food and warmth. One little cutie would scurry behind the bookcase in the kitchen and then pop out from underneath to steal a kernel of the dog's food that sits there and then pop back behind the bookcase. But what do these sweet little creatures bring? Their little droppings everywhere. They also got into every kind of food that wasn't sealed in cement--a bag of peanuts I keep for the squirrels in winter, a closed bag of almonds, and spaghetti noodles. They lapped up powdered milk. These little country mice turned the back of the silverware drawer into a warehouse for dogfood contraband and nestled in my drawer of old rags and dishtowels. Thinking of them as innocent creatures and as mothers in retro aprons with families of their own, I waited til spring, hoping that they would usher themselves out. Alas, it was a very cold spring, and instead, they invited in their friends and saw no reason to brave the dangers of the great outdoors ever again. So, with a heavy heart, I had to call in the cavalry and retake my kitchen. Now of course I am spending hours wiping out every drawer and shelf, washing everything, putting down new shelf paper, and hoping that in this environment, once again clean as a whistle, I do not find a dropping--the tell-tale sign of an adorable little mouse, who is unfortunately in the wrong place.

P.S. I have a Beatrix Potter screensaver compiled and if you would like one, just let me know, and I will send it to you via email.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007


I know that there are thousands of self-help books on the market out there. To these books, some of which I have undoubtedly read, I have only one thing to say: Do you want to help yourself? Help someone else. For an exemplar in this, see below on Miss Mattie Lou.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Miss Mattie Lou: A Follower of Christ

I read Cold Sassy Tree on the recommendation of my mother, and her favorite in the book was Grandpa Blakeslee because of his love of life. But my favorite was someone who was not alive in the story, Miss Mattie Lou, Grandpa Blakeslee's first wife who had recently passed away. She seemed to be heads above either of her daughters, who were far more selfish and concerned mostly with what the neighbors thought. Her successor as Mr. Blakeslee's wife comes in a distant second.
As the narrator, Miss Mattie Lou's grandson, Will Tweedy, tells it: "But though Miss Love might not be a good cook after boarding so long, and probably couldn't of outworked Granny in a vegetable garden or rose garden or sickroom, most anybody could outdo granny with a broom and feather duster. She used to say, 'A house will keep, whether you weed it or not, but that-air yard will get away from you in the bat of an eye.' The only thing she liked to do indoors was cook and tend the sick. I remember one time she pulled off her apron after two days and nights nursing a neighbor lady, and said, 'They ain't no feelin' in the world like takin' on somebody wilted and near 'bout gone, and you do what you can, and then all of a sudden the poor thang starts to put out new growth, and git well.'"
Even her successor as a wife, Miss Love, who labored hard to clean Miss Mattie Lou's home for her funeral, explained, "'The first winter I was here when I had the flu, Miss Mattie Lou came and bathed me every morning--like she was my own mother. I won't ever forget that. I want to do anything I can to help you now.' She said it so sweet, with tears in her eyes."
Miss Mattie Lou also kept a garden, a section of which she devoted to the herbs that she used to help the sick. As her grandson describes her garden, "Over yonder were what she called her 'word plants'--the wild flowers she planted because they had names she liked. Creepin' Charlie, Lizzie run by the fence, love's a-bustin', fetch me some ivy because Baby's got the croup.... In the next bed were the medicinal herbs she used in potions for sick folks: squaw weed, hepatica, goldenseal, ginseng for the brain, jewelweed for poison ivy rash, wolf milk for warts, and fleabane and pale hergamot, which Granny would rub on her face and arms to keep off mosquitos and gnats."
Her nursing of the sick, her care for them in cultivating her herb medicinal garden, her love of beauty in cultivating her rose garden, and her humble devotion to others set Miss Mattie Lou apart from those in her own family and also from those in the town. As Will Tweedy tells it, "Everybody in Cold Sassy Tree admired my grandmother. At her funeral, I heard someone say, 'Miss Mattie Lou just reeked of re-finement, didn't she?' and I knew what was meant.
"Her refinement wasn't like Aunt Carrie's. Granny didn't sit on the porch reading Greek and Latin and Shakespeare, or get up lectures for children, or recite poetry. She didn't think she always knew best, the way Aunt Carrie did, and didn't throw off on people who said, 'I seen' or 'I taken,' like Aunt Loma, and didn't make children practice manners, like Mama. But Granny was a fine lady anyway, never mind her grammar or her country ways and never mind how plain she was.
"To my thinking, it was refined that she didn't fuss at Grandpa about not having his house wired for electricity... But you didn't hear Granny complain about having to trim wicks, clean smoked-up chimneys, and fool with kerosene when other ladies could just pull a ceiling cord to get light."
She countered her husband's wish for a party rather than a funeral for his death with her own thoughts: "She said the dead body was sacred, it having been a house for the mind and the soul, and as such it deserved proper respect. 'A nice funeral is a sort of thank you,' she added. 'A person's body oughtn't to be treated like no old dead dog." Her husband buried her in a bed a roses.

Friday, June 1, 2007

The Riches of Quiltmaking

Here is a picture of a woman in West Virginia in 1972 with the quilt she has just made. She is not a wealthy woman, as the picture indicates. It is likely that she has worked hard all of her life. Yet, look at her gorgeous work--a unique masterpiece of crazy quilting--a spread fit for a king. Who would say that there are no outlets for creativity for women in the home? This is, however, an art that is not dead and is more than likely reviving. Even down at the National Science Foundation, where I had to go weekly until recently, there was a quilting club, where ladies gathered on the lunch hours to quilt.