Monday, February 26, 2007

In Praise of Marguerite de Angeli 1

Girls on their way home from school, from Up the Hill by Marguerite de Angeli

I would like to encourage all mothers of elementary school age children to find the books by Marguerite de Angeli. You can readily find used editions of these books at
Marguerite de Angeli grew up in Michigan (scene for her famous Copper-Toed Boots) but moved to Philadelphia when she married. She had five children of her own but went to art school to learn how to paint and draw with the goal of producing books for children. The story is that when she tried to paint and draw in the playroom with her children, they would never leave her alone long enough for her to accomplish anything. She came up with an ingenious idea: she plunked herself in the playpen with her pencils, pastels, and paints, and let the children play around her, which they were perfectly content to do now that she seemed captured.

I recommend Mrs. de Angeli's books for the beauty of their illustrations, as shown here, for her bringing to life young people from different times, places, and cultures, and most of all for her portrayal of children within a loving family united in love of God.

Up the Hill is perhaps one of the best examples of all of these. I never read this book as a child, but when I set out to find all the de Angeli books to read to my daughter, I discovered it. The story takes place in 1930s Pittsburgh and is about a Catholic girl, Aniela, who is the daughter of Polish immigrants. The book is a song of praise to unselfishness. The father is an organist and a violinist who does not make much money. Therefore, the mother works. The little girl, age 10, therefore keeps the house and tends to the father's needs during the day when her mother is at work, since her mother cannot stay at home. We see all the the many chores Aniela must perform to keep the home. All of the family is scrimping to keep the oldest brother in medical school in Philadelphia. The middle brother is a budding artist, and Aniela gives up the money she has saved from selling eggs to buy a new bonnet to contribute to his going to art school in Philadelphia. The culminates in the celebration of Easter. Today's super-individualists would be horrified by this book, because its message is that a family revolves around loving sacrifice for the others in it, and this is the love we are called upon by God to have and to share. This is perhaps why today's super-individualists view the family as the major obstacle to imposing their vision of the world.

Here is an illustration from Henner's Lydia, the story of an Amish girl who is desperately trying to finish her hook rug so she can take it to market and the obstacles she overcomes on the way. This is one of Mrs. de Angeli's earlier books, and the illustrations seem to be all done in colored pencils. I loved this book as a child, perhaps because my earliest years were spent in central Pennsylvania and I was very familiar with the sight of Amish and Mennonite people. This book is very good for children because it introduces them to a very beautiful but different culture and also because Lydia is constantly but gently corrected by her father.

Thee Hannah! is probably the most famous of Mrs. de Angeli's books and tells the story of a Quaker girl who lived on Pine Street in Philadelphia during the Civil War. She chafes at having to be "plain" and envies the beautiful bonnets of her friends. Finally, just as she is walking down the street basket in hand, as in the cover picture above, she discovers what it really means to be a Quaker.

Girls walking to school in the rain in Thee Hannah! I loved this book not only for the story but also for its beautiful illustrations, like the one above. The story also gives a very good sense of what it was like to live in a well-managed frugal but elegant Quaker home, with loving attention to the details of linen, apothecary jars, shopping in the market, and the breakfast table.

Petite Suzanne and her brother and sister wave good-bye in this cover illustration. This is a story about a little girl who lives in a fish family in rural Quebec and how she discovers her love of painting and drawing, how her family prepares for Christmas, and how they live as Catholics.

This illustration of Petite Suzanne's classroom was etched in my memory as the most beautiful classroom I had ever seen. It seemed to radiate love of beauty (the flowers), love of God (the Cross and statue of Mary), and love of order and learning, enclosed in gentleness.

This is a scene from Copper-Toed Boots, which tells of the antics of a boy growing up in Michigan in the late 19th century. The antics of the boys are very funny, and I believe the book was inspired by stories of Mrs. de Angeli's father. The boy is a bit of a trial for his mother and vice versa. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, he receives his copper-toed boots, a milestone in growing up.

This is an illustration from Bright April, which was written in 1946 at the end of the war. This story tells about an African American girl, April, who lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. The story takes place during World War II, and the oldest brother is away at war and writes home to the family. April's father is a postman. April is a Brownie Scout and this is where she first encounters racist scorn against her. However, on a retreat that the troop takes, there is a terrible storm and the girl who has scorned her crawls into bed with April in her fright. From then on they are friends. The book ends with April describing this to her mother:

"You see, Mama," April explained, "she didn't know the truth about me at all. She didn't know at first that my skin is just like hers, only a different color, and she didn't know what good care you take to keep my clothes nice and clean, and she didn't know I like to read just as she does! I guess if she had known the truth about me, she would have liked me at first!" April laughed in sheer joy at remembering her new friend.

"Yes," agreed Mamma soberly. "Yes, that is just it, exactly. She didn't know the truth. We must know the truth, always, even when it hurts. The Bible say, 'Ye shall the know the TRUTH, and the truth shall make you free!'"

The illustration above of the breakfast table set for April's birthday is another illustration that was etched in my brain. I thought of this as the most inviting, warmest dining room in the world. Looking at this picture yesterday I found to my astonishment that many years later I have acquired the same dishware and replicated the windows with shades, ruffled voile curtains, and geraniums in my own home!

In Praise of Marguerite de Angeli 2

This is an illustration from Marguerite de Angeli's Elin's Amerika, which tells of a young girl Elin, who had come to America with her family from Sweden toward the end of the 17th century. The Swedes, not the Quakers, were the first to settle in the Philadelphia area, establishing settlements along Darby Creek. In the woods near my grandmother's home in Drexel Hill it is possible to visit a replica of a Swedish cabin as the first European settlement in the region. This is an adventurous tale, because the Swedish colonies were quite precarious and faced many dangers, including from Indians. The illustration shows a family scene typical of colonial life--the family sitting before the fire after the evening meal, each member working on their own particular project. The TV seems to have replaced the fireplace in this function today. Throughout the story, de Angeli tells of Swedish customs, the rigors of this early life, the chores that were daily necessities for survival, and the customs of Swedish religious life.

The other books below also show the breadth of cultures that Mrs. de Angeli's books explored. However, whereas today the emphasis is on diversity and how we must respect differences, Mrs. de Angeli's work, without ever saying so, emphasized the universality of human life, despite the differences in culture that she brought to the fore and celebrated. As a child you never came away from one of her books thinking, "That child is a lot different than me," but rather, "That little girl is just like me!"

The Black Fox of Lorne is illustrated but not a picture book as the others, and is a book for children of perhaps 10 or 11 to read to themselves. It is an adventure story about Viking boys.

The Door in the Wall is one of Mrs. de Angeli's best-loved books and one that has remained in print. This is the story of a boy in the Middle Ages during the years of the Black Death. It is a remarkable story of courage and Christian life during that time.

Skippack School is the story of a little boy and his encounters with the headmaster of Skippack School in the area of colonial Philadelphia. I believe the story was inspired by real stories of a famous headmaster during that time. The title page of the book shown above is an example of the lovely colonial-style embellishments that Mrs. de Angeli does in many of her books. This story is filled with adventure and is beautifully illustrated.

I hope that there is a revival of Mrs. de Angeli's books among Christian children, those educated at home or at school. This is a topic I have wanted to write about for many years, and I am very happy to be finally doing so!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Where is the Deficit in Attention Deficit Disorder?

Although I have no real scientific basis for saying this, experience indicates to me that children with attention deficit disorder require attention, not ritalin. The kind of attention that they need is not patronizing attention but diligent attention to see that they do what they are required to do and meet standards of courtesy and good behavior. In short, they need regimen and attention to every detail of their lives that comes under one's purview. They need help--mostly encouragement, enforcement, patience, and one-on-one companionship--to work. Once the resistance to doing work is broken down through patient insistence on the part of the adult and the work is accomplished, however, the child, who has been suffering under the stress of not doing the work, begins to relax and become sober. Since avoidance is no longer a necessity--the work being accomplished, the child no longer has to act out the obnoxious symptoms of avoidance. The more the child shows the signs of stress of "attention deficit disorder" the more disciplined the adult must be for the child until the child begins to feel stronger and more confident on the basis of the accomplishments that the child has been patiently but persistently forced to achieve.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Vermeer's Work as Tribute to Mary and Martha

I am wondering if Jan Vermeer's works were in part a tribute to both Mary and Martha, as he celebrates both the active and contemplative life. What I like about his Christ in the House of Mary and Martha is that the arrangement of Mary and Martha with Christ form a triangle. Unlike many other paintings of the visit of Christ to the home of Mary and Martha, Martha is not a smaller figure hidden in the kitchen. In Vermeer's interpretation she forms the apex of the triangle and offers bread to Christ, a symbol of the Eucharist. Uniquely, Vermeer seems to say that both Mary and Martha have something important to offer Christ and therefore the world. All of Vermeer's works are embued with a transforming, translucent light that seems to say that this is God's light--and love--in which all things are truly visible. The milkmaid below bathes in this light, as it makes everything about her shine. The light always comes from without, rather from within, and permeates the atmosphere almost as if we could touch it. But here are some of the most beloved works of this great 17th-century Dutch painter who converted to Catholicism, the religion of his wife, which seem to celebrate women's both active and contemplative activities.

The Milkmaid 1658-1660

Woman in Blue Reading a Letter 1662-1664

The Lacemaker 1665-1670

Lady Writing a Letter 1665-1670

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Admiration for My Mother and Grandmothers

This blog is inspired by the admiration that I have for all the creative work that my grandmothers, great-grandmother, and mother did as I watched them as a child. I am not a stay-at-home and never have been. Right now I am a single Mom, and therefore the household income depends upon me. Here are some of the things that I so admired in my grandmothers and mother.
My maternal grandmother did beautiful needlepoint, kept a very neat and tidy home, operated within a very strict budget (out of which she had to squeeze any presents she might want to give someone, including her husband), and cooked a great meal every night that always included a homemade dessert! (Quite a contrast to Little Miss Sunshine--that heart-cooling movie where the Mother slings the bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on the table, throws the salad onto plates, and then slams down the carton of ice cream on the table for dessert.)
My paternal grandmother was a wonderful cook, with emphasis on huge slabs of roast beef perfectly cooked. She made a scrumptious German chocolate cake from scratch. She canned peaches, tomatoes, and brandied peaches every year from produce that my grandfather gardened. She also knit mountains of sweaters--these sweaters were not fancy but serviceable, and she produced them as if she were on a production line for any child that she knew. If anyone was going to have a baby, she went to work. Sitting in her chair in the corner watching the tv, she would churn out piles of receiving blankets hemmed with the feather stitch and make little flannel shirts with ties to match. She knitted little caps and booties. She was tall and beautiful and I considered her a formidable force.
My mother had done canning in the early years of her marriage but stopped. However, she was a wonderful cook, always on the chase for more good recipes, rarely cooking a meat-and-potatoes meal, and was always busy. She created a beautiful home through her genius for interior decorating--always restrained, always elegant, always inventive. All through the month of December, she baked cookies, so that every afternoon when we came home we were greeted with the sweet aroma of hot cookies stacked all over her tiny kitchen. She was always cooking food for a neighbor, for her book group, for the church pot-luck suppers during Lent, and for other church charities. She always cooked from scratch. She sewed many of my party dresses, including a prom gown. She knit and she did crewel needlepoint. She kept her house clean and neat, and if you got anything out of order in the front part of the house--living room and dining room--you would hear about it. She kept no routines but worked hard and got evertyhing done. Late at night, when she felt that she was finished with the work for that day, she read the New York Times or a magazine and went to bed. She never watched TV. I loved to watch my mother decorate the house for Christmas on Christmas Eve. Suddenly, the normal household condition was transformed, with a reminder of Christmas wherever you looked, ribbons pulled throught the lattice of a milkglass plate and greenery everywhere.
I did not feel that she was at all frustrated in her role as wife and mother, and I certainly did intend to follow in her footsteps but was waylaid, as I guess many of us were by the terrible bruhaha of the 1960s.
Even though sometimes I hung around women's groups on campus at times of desperation, I never believed that housewives were oppressed by their husbands, or oppressed by doing menial chores. I wanted to do them. I agree with Cheryl Mendelson, author of Home Comforts (a book I love) that "Modern housekeeping, despite its bad press, is among the most thoroughly pleasant, significant, and least alienated forms of work that many of us will encounter even if we are blessed with work outside the home that we like...housekeeping actually offers more opportunities for savoring achievement than almost any other work I can think of. Each of its regular routines brings satisfaction when it is completed. These routines echo the rhythm of life, and the housekeeping rhythm is the rhythm of the body. You get satisfaction not only from the sense of order, cleanliness, freshness, peace and plenty restored, but from the knowledge that you yourself and those you care about are going to enjoy these benefits."
That just about sums it up. Of course, like many working mothers, to the extent that I am able, I try to keep my house in fine fettle almost as a hobby. I always envied Joyce Carol Oates, the housewife who wrote at home. In this blog, I will set down my musings on housekeeping, cooking, and women's work and also on the role of women in society today and in the past. I have read about the history of home and family and others might find this information useful or interesting. The family is under such threat today that it behooves us, I hope, to consider its worth as a vital institution, to try to maintain it that way not only at home but throughout our culture, and to celebrate the many joys that come from keeping your home well and loving your children well (or at least we certainly try).

I would like to dedicate this blog then to Saint Mary and Saint Martha, whose different approaches show us in a combined way the strengths that women have to offer in their homes and to society.