Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

And God bless and keep you and yours throughout the new year.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Favorite Christmas Movie: My Life as a Dog

The orphaned Ingemar in the train riding to northern Sweden to live with his uncle and aunt.

My Life as a Dog is not really a Christmas movie, but to me it's a Christmas movie, because it celebrates love and our openness to it as the heart -- that is, the truth -- of our life on this earth.

Ingemar is a boy of 11 or 12 years old who lives in Sweden. He does not know his father, who evidently is in Brazil and shipping bananas from there to points north. His mother, whom he loves and shares his stories with, is terminally ill. His enraged older brother is harsh to him -- no help at all. He has a young friend who is a girl who is surely sympathetic and loving to him but is a bit shocked at the violence of Ingemar's mother -- when she is frustrated with Ingemar's boyish antics -- and of his brother. When the mother becomes so sick that she has to be hospitalized, the brothers become wards of the state and are separated. Ingemar is sent to live with his uncle and aunt in a remote village in northern Sweden--without his beleaguered but beloved mother, without his mean brother, and without his beloved dog, Laika.

All the time, Ingemar is narrating the story in a certain way: He thinks about terrible things. He thinks about the lovely lady who became a missionary who then was attacked and killed by those she strived to convert to Christianity; he thinks about the Soviet dog who was sent to outer space never to come back; and he thinks about the stuntman motorcyclist who tries to soar over one too many buses and finally meets his doom. The purpose of these mental meanderings? "I have it better than them," or

There but for the grace of God go I.

And when Ingemar arrives at his uncle's village he finds hilarity -- he finds it because he is open to it, and he longs to tell his mother about all the people in the village and how funny they are -- "she would have liked that." His friend on the soccer team asks, "Why are you looking at me?" and then answers in pure humility, "I know. My hair is green."

Despite his lacks and losses, Ingemar is enticed by life. He cannot help but be amused by the old man who spends all day hammering his roof; he cannot help but find a home in the new "lusthus" or summer house that his uncle builds in the backyard; he longs to join in the romps of his aunt and uncle as they chase each other in love around the house; he is enthralled by the beautiful lady in the glass-blowing factory in which he works parttime who is a subject of sculpture by the "local artiste"; he finds fun in joining his green-haired friend in a swinging basket that the friend's father has rigged to shoot kids out of his barn into the meadow; and he revels in sparring with the sole girl on the soccer team.

Ingemar sees his mother for the last time. She wisely admires his new jacket and its reflector lights.

So that: When he has his last heart-breaking visit with his dying mother in the hospital and comes back to northern Sweden and is suddenly struck with the realization that his dog Laika has in fact been taken away and that he will never see her -- or his mother -- again, Ingemar cries his heart out and lashes out at those who love but have lied to him. Yet he cannot help laughing at the old man hammering on his roof when he takes his annual plunge into the icy river to show his toughness and cannot help celebrating the boxing victory of Sweden's pride, Ingemar Johansson, with his girl soccer player friend.

It is not duty that calls Ingemar; it is love of life whose source is his love of people and enables him to survive his devastating losses and to live to tell the tale.

Affection seems to be the conclusion of the sparring match between Ingemar and the sole girl on the village soccer team.

As I watched Ingemar deal with the harsh blows that life had meted out to him, I felt I had a lot to learn from him. First, his constant thinking about others that had it far worse than he perceived his own situation to be enabled him to put things in perspective and to hold on to life and all it has to offer. Second, he found constant amusement in the foibles, lovable traits, and idiosyncrasies of those around him. I am reminded of Bishop Fulton Sheen's idea of humor -- in humor man finds amusement in the vast, incomprehensible but real difference between the Divine and the follies of man. And so Ingemar's bemusement is not a sarcastic and hurtful ridicule but a loving amusement at our human frailties, in contrast to the unattainable perfection that is a loving God.

Is this love -- both human and divine -- not the Christmas spirit?

And so this movie reminds me always:

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:15-17)

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

One Family and the Spirit of Christmas

The Holy Family by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1845

See Over the Moon with Joy for a beautiful Christmas story.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

My Apologies to Mrs. Cameron

Mrs. Evelyn Cameron kneading dough in her kitchen in Montana.

This photograph was set up by Mrs. Evelyn Cameron, but she did not photograph "a frontier woman"--that is she. To help describe life in late-19th-century Montana to her nieces, Mrs. Cameron had her husband take photos of her doing various chores on their ranch.

Since I wrote the last post on Mrs. Cameron I have read Photographing Montana 1894-1928: The Life and Work of Evelyn Cameron. We have the book's author, Donna M. Lucey, to thank for bringing to light the photographs, diary entries, and letters of Evelyn Cameron, a remarkable and inspiring woman.

Site of the third "Eve Ranch" of Ewen and Evelyn Cameron.

For instance, when a friend in nearby Miles City wrote Evelyn indicating despondency, Evelyn replied with an invitation to the Cameron ranch:
Come and stay with me.... Of course, you have completely run yourself down by overwork. Change of scene, rest & quiet are the only remedies. At this time of the year I have so many stock chores to do that I do not feel in a position to entertain a guest--but I know you won't mind that & you can help me pitch hay, feed chickens, etc.!
These are the tonics that will make you feed the world is not such a bad place after all....

Mrs. Cameron was not a shirker. Every night she wrote her diary chronicling the day's activities. Here, for instance, she relates how she prepared Christmas dinner for her brother at a time when her husband was away in England:
Cooked all day. Made pudding [&] mincemeat. Sup 7.
Lovely. Mild. No wind. Became little overcast. [Most of Mrs. Cameron's diary entries begin with a quick description of the weather, which was of no small import in rural Montana]. Arose 7:20. Milked. Breakfast 9:30 cream biscuits. Fed chickens. Washed up. Alec helped, wiped. Got the leg of mutton from store house. Made the [plum] pudding--2 cupts (1 pint cup) flour, 1 cup suet {mutton!), 1 cup stoned raisins, 2 cups curants, citron 1/2, small cup mollasses, allspice, nutmeg & cinnamon stirred up, put in a tin & steam from 1 o'clock till 7:30. Fire on at 12. Chopping up 1 1/2 lb. citron, 2 cups stoned raisins, 3 cups currants, about 2 1/2 cups suet, sugar, spices for mincemeat. Took from 2 till 3:30 to stone the raisons for mincemeat. Alec helped. At 3:30 I fed chickens and hayed mangers. In finished making mincement. Washed up utensils. Milked 5. Cauliflower on., tatoes done round meat. Wrote diary. Washed changed. Did hair top o' head.

Mrs. Cameron was also a hunter, and she and her husband went on long hunting trips each year, during which she cooked all the meals in addition to participating fully in the hunt.

Evelyn milking the cows--a job done twice every day.

She raised huge quantities of vegetables for the household's own consumption and for cash; raised chickens and collected eggs; broke horses; managed other farm animals; raised orphaned wolf cubs as pets; sought animal carcasses on the plains to grind up bones for chicken feed, believing that this bonemeal made her chickens healthier and produce more and better eggs; cooked three meals a day; did the laundry, the most onerous household task before the advent of the washing machine; pickled produce; hauled manure for her garden; milked the cows twice daily; churned butter; made jam; baked bread, pies, cakes, and puddings; tanned hides; cleaned the house; whitewashed the house; cared for neighbors when they were ill and helped neighbors when their children took sick; nursed sick and injured animals most lovingly; helped deliver calves and colts; entertained friends; took in boarders for extra money; developed a photography business that documented life in rural Montana; wrote articles for magazines on life in the West.

Evelyn came to Montana as a young bride. Here she has been in Montana for a while--note the tan.

Born in Britain into a wealthy and aristocratic family, Evelyn came to Montana with her Scottish husband, Ewen Cameron, who was 15 years her senior. She eschewed the damp English weather and the hiring of servants, preferring to do the ranch work herself with her husband, although she certainly bore the greater share. Writing to her niece, she explained:
Manual about all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride & work in a garden.

And all of her work seems fueled by love--for her husband, for Montana, and all that was in it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

Still Life: Balsam Apple and Cabbage by James Peale, 1820

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Strength from God's Beauty

The Nebraska Sky compliments of Down and Out.

A new minutes later, Elmira fainted again.
"She's too weak," Cholo said.
"Poor thing," Clara said. "I would be too, if I came that far. That baby isn't going to wait for her to get strong."
"No, it's going to kill her," Cholo said.
"Well, then, save it at least," Clara said, feeling so downcast suddenly that she left the room. She got a water bucket and walked out of the house, meaning to get some water for Bob. It was a beautiful morning, light touching the farthest edge of the plains. Clara noticed the beauty and thought it strange that she could still respond to it, tired as she was and with two people dying in her house--perhaps three. But she loved the fine light of the prairie morning; it had resurrected her spirits time after time through the years, when it seemed that dirt and cold and death would crush her. Just to see the light spreading like that, far on toward Wyoming, was her joy. It seemed to put energy into her, make her want to do things.

--Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Things We Forget

A family posing in front of its sod house.

It is all well and fine to reminisce and celebrate a time gone by that seems more genteel, and surely I think of myself as a cultural reactionary. But it's always good to confront some of the things of the past that we are happy, living in modern times, to be without. For instance, I don't recall that Laura Ingall Wilder in Little House in the Prairie or Willa Cather in My Antonia, describing life in sod houses, ever mentioned this:

Clara had always hated the sod house, hated the dirt that seeped down on her bedclothes, year after year. It was dust that caused her firstborn, Jim, to cough virtually from his birth until he died a year later. In the mornings Clara would walk down and wash her hair in the icy water of the Platte and yet by supper time, if she happened to scratch her head, her fingenails would fill with dirt that had seeped down during the day. For some reason, no matter where she moved her bed, the roof would trickle dirt right onto it. She tacked muslim, and finally canvas, on the ceiling over the bed but nothing stopped the dirt for long. It sifted through. IT seemed to her that all her children had been conceived in dust clouds, dust rising from the bedclothes or sifting down from the ceiling. Centipedes and other bugs loved the roof; day after day they crawled down the walls, to end up in her stewpots or her skillets or the trunks where stored her clothes.
I'd rather live in a teepee, like an Indian," she told Bob many times, "I'd be cleaner."
--Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

One Way to Dispell Stress

A woman on the Montana frontier toward the end of the 19th century. Photo taken by Evelyn Jephson Cameron, who was born in Britain but married and came to Montana and worked hard.

Whenever I start to feel overly stressed, I think about what it was like to be a woman on the American frontier. In comparison to what so many of the women on the frontier went through, I become ashamed for being such a wimp and try to get on with life in a more optimstic mood.

In Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry paints a fascinating picture of a frontier woman, when he tells the story of Clara, the long-lost love of Augustus McCrae. She did not marry Gus, as he was called, realizing wisely that he was not the settling-down type of man. She instead married a horse trader and had lived with him for 15 years in a sod house in Nebraska, before they had bought new land and she used money left her by her parents to build a two-story frame home.

She had three sons by her husband, and she kept the remaining money to send her boys away to school in their youth, so they "would not have to spend their whole youth in such a raw, lonely place.... although one by one the three boys died long before they were old enough to be sent anywhere. The last two lived long enough for Clara to teach them to read,. She had read them Walter Scott's Ivanhoe when Jeff and Johnny were six and seven, respectively. Then the next winter both boys had died of pneumonia within a month of one another. It was a terrible winter, the ground frozen so deep there was no way to dig a grave. They had had to put the boys in the little kindling shed, wrapped tightly in wagon sheets, until winter let up enough that they could be buried. Many days Bob would come home from delivering horses to the Army--his main customer--to find Clara sitting in the icy shed by the two small bodies, tears frozen on her cheeks so hard that he would have to heat water and bathe the ice from her face."...

Despite Clara's resolve not to open up her heart again, she had two more children, both girls. But then her husband had been kicked in the head by a horse and was in a coma. She alone kept her husband clean while also managing the farm and tending to her daughters. McMurtry paints her as a heroic figure, taking care of a husband on teh brink of death, teaching her girls, keeping house, cooking, and training and trading horses--a busy woman, who was never afraid to open her door to strangers, who did not fear Indians, and must have worked hard 16 to 18 hours a day. She was strong but not hard-bitten, sad but not bitter. Her only self-indulgence was to bake and eat cake.

Friday, November 6, 2009

It's Therapeutic

Walter Reed Hospital, 1918

Shorpy gives us a photograph of recuperating soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital in 1918 with World War I still blazing in Europe. I imagine that these wounded soldiers are knitting for fellow soldiers. (Knitting for soldiers was also the presumption of critics of Knitting in Highbridge Park by George Luks.)
The sight of wounded men knitting highlights the therapeutic effects of all such hand crafts--knitting, hand sewing, crocheting, and embroidery. For example, when the crafty colorist genius Alicia Paulson of Posie Gets Cozy was forced to stay in bed for a full year after her foot had been run over by a truck, she started making things--crocheting, knitting, sewing--to make her recuperation bearable and in the process found a whole new career. I find the repetition of knitting and hand sewing to be relaxing. It calms the soul as an activity in itself and the bonus is that you have something to show for it! It seems that the administration of Walter Reed Hospital in 1918 understood this principle, and so set wounded soldiers to work to knit. That this might be regarded as women's work seemed to be beside the point. It is good work that probably helps the one who does it the most.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The Good Samaritan by Rembrant van Rijn, 1644

There seems to be a new view going around that neighbors--that is, those who live within close proximity to one's house--should be left alone: You leave them alone, and they leave you alone. This idea empties the word "neighbor" of all of its meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Both the Old and the New Testament call upon us to "love thy neighbor" and indeed, when a young man asks Christ "Who is my neighbor?" as related in Luke 10:30-37, Christ replies, "A certain man went down from Jericho" and tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then he poses the question to the young man, "Now which of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among thieves?"

Time and again in reading all kinds of books about women and their everyday lives, often in the past, I am struck by the stories of "neighborliness" of people. Here is such a story told by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the column she wrote for a local newspaper in March 1922:

I often thought that we are a little old-fashioned here in the Ozark hills; now I know we are, because we had a "working" in our neighborhood this winter. That is a blessed, old-fashioned way of helping out a neighbor.

...This neighbor, badly crippled with rheumatism, was not able to get up his winter's wood. With what little wood he could manage to chop, the family scarcely kept comfortable.

So the men of the neighborhood gathered together one morning and dropped in on him. With cross-cut saws and axes, they took possession of the wood lot... By night, there was enough wood ready for the stove to last the rest of the winter.

The women did their part, too. All morning they kept arriving with well-filled baskets, and at noon a long table was filled with a country neighborhood dinner [note that dinner is at mid-day]. ... Then when the dishes were washed, they sewed, knit, crocheted, and talked for the rest of the afternoon.... We all went home with the feeling expressed by a newcomer when he said, "Don't you know I'm proud to live in a neighborhood like this where they turn out and help one another when it is needed."

"Sweet are the uses of adversity" when it shows us the kindness in our neighbors' hearts.

I am thinking that this winter will be a cold one for many -- not a time for the new idea of neighbors to shove out the old.

Samaritan Bringing the Man to the Inn by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1649

Sunday, October 25, 2009

School Time -- Teachers of the Past 3

School Time, Winslow Homer, 1874

I love this painting, which shows how much these girls love their teacher. I feel unfortunate not to have had a young teacher in elementary school that I could idolize. But there were certainly young women, older than myself, that I looked up to with adoration. The children gathered around the teacher in Homer's painting look as if they can hardly wait for her to show up; her head is bent as she listens to their chattering. Perhaps they are pleading for a privilege or an outing or maybe they are regaling her about an exciting happening at their home or farm.

The teacher's role was not only to convey knowledge. The building of a school and the collection of funds among families to bring a teacher signified a commitment to a permanent stay on the frontier, a commitment to bring culture west. For the teacher, this was a great responsibility, and not in abstract, but in helping her children every day. As prairie teacher Anna Johnson described it, as quoted in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies by Mary Hurlbut Cordier:
I not only taught, but was also an administrator, mother, doctor, nurse, judge and jury, arist, cook, librarian, custodian, or janitor, carpenter or fixer, advisor, psychologist, disciplinarian, and humanitarian. I might say that I was a "jack of all trades and a master of none." In this rural community I was very close to the children and all of the parents and many others in the area. Their problems often became my problems, which sometimes made my task even harder.

Their role in extending culture westward was well understood throughout the 19th century. As early as the 1840s, the National Board of Popular Education recruited 600 teachers from the northeast to be trained and then sent on their way to teach frontier communities across the country, as far as Oregon.

Teachers, especially women teachers, tended to be leaders in their community, not only the pillar of the local school but also of the church. Their commitment and spirit of charity were exemplary, as shown in the compassionate downward turn of the head of the teacher in Homer's painting.

We see this in the writings of the young teacher, Miss Bessie Tucker, whose diaries are featured in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies:
It seems a bit presumptuous to hope and pray that one's life might better a community in any way, but don't think me conceited, little book [diary], when I say that one of my greatest desires and constant prayers is that some word or act of mine may brighten some life, may help someone in a spiritual way and may leave happy memories of the nine months [school term] I have spent in their midst.

And after her first year of teaching as she prepared to move to a new school, Miss Tucker wrote:
a little white school house with the beautiful bell .... little parsonage which I called home for six months ... I shall take the memories of the lives of many people whom I have met and and who have made me feel one of them.... how I would like to leave something behind me. A memory of a life that might be helpful to someone. I am realizing more and more, little book, the non-importance of things that seem to take up so much of our time. Only as they may be a help to others are they important and I am learning to make that one of the guiding rules of my life.

The Red Schoolhouse -- Teachers of the Past 2

Red Schoolhouse by Winslow Homer, 1873

Before the second half of the 19th century, most teachers in the one-room schoolhouses were men. But in the 1850s, women began to become involved in teaching, and then women teachers in the schoolhouses became the norm. The reasons were that in a period in which there could not have been a surfeit of men, given the casualties of the Civil War, there was a surge in population growth. As Nancy Hoffman reports in Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, "The population of [Catherine] Beecher's Connecticut increased 31% in the ten years between 1840 and 1850, then an astonishing 42% between 1850 and 1860." Between 1870 and 1900, the number of teachers in the country tripled. The ratio of teachers to total number of school-age children decreased nationally during this same time period from 1 to 37 in 1870 to 1 to 32 in 1895, according to Mary Hurlbut Cordier in Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains.

Out west, the population continued to grow and families got together to build a schoolhouse and finance a teacher for their young. By this time, the teaching of children up through high school was considered a part of women's realm. Teaching offered women the same flexibility it does today: You could teach in your younger years before marriage and also teach even if you were married, although Horace Mann, the crusader for state-run public schools, argued that women teachers should not marry. It was a job that it was easy to leave and then come back to.

Teaching also offered a woman a path for more education, education being something that children had to fight for, since an educational infrastructure was lacking and child labor was often needed at the family homestead. A teacher brought in some income but was also then able to go to "normal schools," where in the summer they could learn new subjects or deepen their knowledge. In the beginning, teachers only had to know one grade above ones in their school--generally teachers had an eighth grade level of education. They then worked to augment their education with summer courses in the teachers' institutes, attempts at self-instruction and correspondence courses, and for some, attendance at the normal schools, the forerunner of the public high school.

Some teachers, reports Cordier joined teachers' reading circles to read books with other teachers and eventually examinations for certification. A reading circle book list in Nebraska in 1902 was as follows:

Hedge's Nature Study and Life
White's Art of Teaching
Murphy's Turning Points in Teaching
Sherman's What is Shakespeare?
Shaw's School Hygiene

As teacher education improved, its purpose of education also shifted. Earlier, as we see with Abe Lincoln's education, for instance, in the log schoolhouse, the emphasis was on drilling ideas,concepts, poetry, and text into the head of the student. Later, according to Cordier, "In place of the demand that the teacher should know only the three R's, there has grown up the more rational one that he should know the three M's--Matter, Method, and Mind."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Blackboard -- Teachers of the Past 1

Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

This is the other picture my friend wanted me to write about it. I have never found anyone who didn't love this painting.

According to the National Gallery of Art, where this watercolor resides, scholars were long perplexed about the shapes on the blackboard, whose corner holds Homer's signature in "chalk." Art historians have since discovered that the shapes signify that the young woman is teaching "drawing," which was considered a necessity for children, since it enabled industrial design and construction of buildings and presumbably also furniture.

The composition echoes the shapes on the blackboard in the angularity of the teacher's apron and the checks of the gingham, the stacked rectangles of the background, the symmetrical placement of the blackboard and teacher, and the slate monochrome of the entire painting. The one contrast is the teacher's fresh and very young face. In fact, so young does her expression seem that if she were not holding the pointer, we would think she was a student.

In Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains by Mary Hurlbut Cordier, I have found documented confirmation of the reality of Homer's painting and feel as though I have found this teacher herself. Cordier tells us of one E. Mary Lacy of Iowa:
At age fourteen, E. Mary Lacy attended a four-week teachers' institute in Emmetsburg, Iowa: "New subjects were being introduced, one of which was drawing. It was here that I received my first lessons and though I never became proficient, it was encouraging to know that I had a certain amount of ability." The following spring, 1877, when she was just past fifteen, she started teaching school eight miles from home.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Call to Family Dinner

The Dinner Horn by Winslow Homer, 1870.

A very kind friend gave me a postcard portfolio of paintings by Winslow Homer with a request for discussion of this painting and one other on my blog, and so...

Here we see in The Dinner Horn a young woman calling to her father, brothers, husband, or sons to the family dinner table. In rural America in the 19th century, dinner was the largest meal of the day and usually featured meat, but it was eaten in the middle of the day, between 1 and 2 p.m. That's why there is no hint of dusk in the painting but only full sun. The sound of the horn is most welcome to her men folk, since it means that it is time to lay aside the plough, the scythe, or the hoe and come to back to the house for a good full meal, before trekking out again to the fields to finish the day's work at sundown.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865.

But there is more to this story, I think. The Dinner Horn, painted in 1870, could be a partner to The Veteran in a New Field, painted in 1865. Here in the field is the veteran, his back turned to us, his identity undetermined--he is the unknown soldier. He wields the scythe to bring in his harvest of wheat. The grim reaper is transformed by the war's end into the Cincinnatus back in his fields, reaping his own harvest of hard-earned wheat, the soldier turned farmer, the killer turned man of peace, the sword turn to ploughshares.

The erect posture of the lady in The Dinner Horn also recalls the military posture of the reveille bugle blower. This is no lackadaisical toot, but a strong blowing of the horn; with her bearing erect, her left arm on her hip, she issues a no-nonsense summons. A different version of this painting even has a tripod bearing an iron kettle over a fire to the lady's right, as if she were in an Army camp. But she calls her men not to arms but to dinner--to eat of the bounty that they have sown. And by giving her this heroic pose, despite the prosaic message of her blowing, Homer celebrates the call to dinner--the family board of good cooked food, nourishment, refeshment, and conviviality--and the relief that the grim, family-bereft days of war are over.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Novels with Domestic Arts

Here I am reading about housework rather than doing it. (Actually, this is Sunlight and Shadow by Winslow Homer, 1872)

In case you missed the suggestions for good books that bring in scenes of women's domestic work and homemaking that are in the comments to the post of August 19, here are your suggestions:

Books by Barbara Pym
Louisa May Alcott's lesser-known novels, Rose in Bloom, Eight Cousins, and An Old Fashioned Girl
The Cutters by Bess Streeter Aldrich
Books by Elizabeth Goudge, notabley the Daermoshay Trilogy, which includes Herb of Grace (also known as Pilgrim's Inn in the United States), along with The White Witch and The Scent of Water.
E.M. Delafield's Provincial Lady books, which are available through Persephone Books
Miss Read's Village Books
Books by O. Douglas
My Dear Aunt Flora by Elizabeth Cadell
The Quiet Hills by Iris Bromige
Winter Solstice by Rosemunde Pilcher
Mrs. Appleyard's Year by Louise Andrews Kent
Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther
Books by D. E. Stevenson

Thank you! I should have done this in the spring before vacations! Ah well, we are heading into those nice cool winter months that also invite reading.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beaver Falls Tenement 1940

This picture from Shorpy is captioned: "January 1940. 'Family living in a 'crackerbox' slum tenement in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.'" The family is poor and the bedding is threadbare, but the room is clean. The man we see reflected in the mirror wears a tie. This is a poor family but not one lacking in hope or dignity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Art of Subtraction

The Writing Chair by Andrew Wyeth.

My mother was an artist of subtraction. When she died, I was astounded to find that there really wasn't any junk in the entire house. There were mementos, important papers, and various objects, and many photographs of loved ones on display and in boxes, but nothing superfluous, no redundancy. This art of restraint was part of her aesthetic and showed itself in her interior decorating, which was based on the artful arrangement of high-quality objects and furniture--nothing was added, except always a touch of whimsy or the unexpected.

I am far more greedy, and although I do not like clutter, am far more prone to compromising to add in objects I have affection for. I love paintings and heaven for me might be looking at all my favorite paintings all at once--not something I can achieve in my living room. But at this point in time I feel a need for a more streamlined and bare essential existence, wanting to know exactly what object is there and what its purpose is, and not have to think about anything extraneous. Note here that I, as opposed to so many, have the luxury of discarding.

Master Bedroom by Andrew Wyeth.

This is not to say that I embrace the streamlined aesthetic of modernity. Given the right use of color, this aesthetic might be visually appealing in a magazine, but I would never want to live there. The trick seems to be striking the balance between a simplified aesthetic and a coziness that is home.

This is probably why at this point in time I feel so drawn to the art of Andrew Wyeth, a master of the art of subtraction. His interiors seem to be stripped to the barest essentials of the soul. Nothing is extraneous. Every object is drenched in meaning and speaks of a history, a history we could never put in words but we can feel the weight of it. This is the beauty of his art: subtraction, and light.

Ship's Clock by Andrew Wyeth.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The "Best Room"

"Mrs. Blackett was one who knew the uses of a parlor."

Upon rereading Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs, I was intrigued by the description of a "best room." The writer goes with a friend to visit the friend's mother, an elderly Mrs. Blackett, on a remote island off the coast of Maine.
"The front door stood hospitably open in expectation of company, and an orderly vine grew at each side, but our path led to the kitchen door at the house-end, ... "It seems kind o' formal coming' in this way,' said Mrs. Todd impulsively, as we passed the flowers and came to the front doorstep; but she was mindful of the proprieties and walked us into the best room on the left. Mrs. Todd ... loomed larger than ever in the little old-fashioned best room, with its few pieces of good furniture and pictures of national interest.... There were empty glass lamps and crystallized bouquests of grass and some fine shells on the narrow mantelpiece."

The presence of the guest room in this small country house indicates the differentiation prevalent in the 19th century between the part of the house used for social occasions and the part of the house used for family activities, beginning with eating and cooking in the kitchen.

A country house typical of south-central Pennsylvania, with two front doors, side by side: one for guests and one for the family.

Indeed, in southern central Pennsylvania, it is common to see older homes with two front doors, a tradition among the German families of the area, although not one brought from their original homeland. One door leads to the kitchen and "family room"--where the family conducts its business. The other door leads to the parlor--or best room--which is reserved for guests. This offers two ways of honoring those who are not members of the immediate family: the guest is honored, as in The Country of Pointed Firs, by being ushered into the "best room" but the closeness of the friendship may be honored by bringing the guest eventually into the kitchen and family area.

This tradition was lost in the early decades of the 20th century, when the house size shrunk due to the loss of the labor force of hired domestics. The bungalow, the post-war rambler, rowhouses, the cape cod, and the duplex often have no such differentiation. My first childhood home was a bungalow, where the front door led right into the living room. The remaining rooms on the first floor were the dining room, kitchen, and a very small study. In the duplex I lived in with my grandparents, the front door led straight into the living room, to the dining room, to the kitchen in the back where there was a breakfast nook. (My grandparents used the nook strictly for daytime dining except for Sunday supper--all dinners were served in the dining room.)

In the latter part of the 20th century, the "den" and then the "family room" emerged as back rooms in the house, with the living room and dining room reserved for guests. In my mother's house, family members--mostly my father--used the living room for reading, but otherwise both the living room and dining room were reserved for guests, the breakfast nook in the kitchen serving for all family meals, including dinner. The idea of doing homework on the dining room table was shocking--we never touched the dining room. Close neighbors entered the house through the back kitchen door, as did frequently visiting friends. Extended family relatives and infrequent guests arrived through the front door. The family worked and played mostly in the back of the house, in two adjoining rooms where the TV--our modern-day hearth--resided.

For their growing family, our next-door neighbors built a family dining room and tv room coming off an open kitchen in the back of their home. In this layout, the mother could have her eyes on her children from the vantage of the centered kitchen--very convenient. Although I have popped over to their house many times, I have never laid eyes on their "best room" dining and living rooms.

The modern kitchen onto the family room--a very nice arrangement that allows the mother to keep track of children and enables comfortable discussion with the cook. This area is separated from the "best rooms," which are usually in the front of the house.

The distinction between the "best rooms" and the family rooms is now very pronounced in much home building. In townhouses, there may be a bumpout for a small family room off the kitchen, and family room space in the basement seems to be mandatory. Teenagers especially like that arrangement since it affords them the greatest privacy. In most single-family homes, a family room--often with a fireplace--extends off the kitchen.

However, it has been noted that at parties, everyone gravitates toward the kitchen and that the kitchen is often the most social part of the house. In recognition of this, for instance, my brother designed his home so that the kitchen extends along the living room with a bar open to the living room, so guests can seat themselves and chat with the cook. This is the great room concept that is also very common on vacation homes, where everyone is gathering together to have fun. I have also come across townhouses that lead from a garage floor up the stairs and straight into the kitchen, with the dining room and living room on either side.

Gravitating toward the kitchen was also true for Mrs. Blackett's house in Maine:

We were all moving toward the kitchen, as if by common instinct. The best room was too suggestive of serious occasions, and the shades were all pulled down to shut out the summer light and air. It was indeed a tribute to Society to find a room set apart for her behests out there on so apparently neighborless and remote an island. Afternoon visits and evening festivals must be few in such a bleak situation at certain seasons of the year, but Mrs. Blackett was of those who do not live to themselves, and who have long since passed the line that divides mere self-concern from a valued share in whatever Society can give and take. There were those of her neighbors who never had taken the trouble to furnish a best room, but Mrs. Blackett was one who knew the uses of a parlor.

'Yes, do come right out into the old kitchen; I shan't make any stranger of you," she invited us pleasantly, after we had been properly received in the room appointed to formality.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Dishcloth

Detail from the Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin, 1425.

Women, it seems, enjoy reading about other women or girls doing housekeeping chores, even women who do not think of themselves primarily as housekeepers or homemakers. I have loved to read descriptions of women doing housework ever since I read the following lines in Anne of Green Gables when I was no more than 10 years old:

"You haven't scalded the dishcloth in clean hot water as I told you to do," said Marilla immovably.

These lines burned their way into my 10-year-old mind, and I was surprised last week, when I went to hunt for them, how little time is spent in Anne of Green Gables on descriptions of housekeeping. The line falls early in the book, just before Marilla tells Anne that she and her brother Matthew will not be sending Anne back to the orphanage in exchange for the boy they had been promised. But we already know that Marilla is a very clean housekeeper by Anne's encounter with the upstairs of the house: "The hall was fearsomely clean; the little gable chamber in which she [Anne] presently found herself seemed still cleaner."

However, I was not prepared for scalding the dishcloth, something my grandmother and mother, both of whom I considered clean and neat housekeepers, never did.

Ever since, I have always yearned for books that incorporated descriptions of housekeeping. Is this because I would rather read about someone doing housework than do it myself? Or is it because the description in a book shows an appreciation for domesticity that I also share and also my pleasure in basking in such appreciation for at least my tidy intentions?

I read Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping with eager anticipation, and the first pages on the grandmother did not disappoint: "She had always known a thousand ways to circle them all around with what must have seemed like grace. She knew a thousand songs. Her bread was tender and her jelly was tart, and on rainy days she made cookies and applesauce. In the summer she kept roses in a vase on the piano, huge, pungent roses, and when the blooms ripened and the petals fell, she put them in a tall Chinese jar, with cloves and thyme and sticks of cinnamon. Her children slept on starched sheets under layers of quilts, and in the morning her curtains filled with light the way sails fill the wind.... One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, wearing her widow's black, performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith."

For books that luxuriate in domestic description, see the early 20th-century writer Grace Livingston Hill. I loved The Honor Girl the best with April Gold a close second, but I have read less than 10 of Hill's books. For wonderful quotes from many of them, see Neat and Dainty as a Flower.

Or does the description of womanly chores elevate the activity, give it a higher aesthetic and moral value? Surely that is the intent and the effect in Tolstoy's description of Kitty caring for her dying brother-in-law in Anna Karenina (read Chapters 16 through 20 of Part V at the link.)

Do you like to read about housekeeping in fiction? If so, I'd love to hear your recommendations.

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Romance of Ironing?

Young Girl Ironing by Louis Leopold Boilly, 1761-1845.
Very few women I know like to iron, and quite a few hate it. So I have found it odd that, relatively speaking, there are a lot of paintings of women ironing--in contrast to the total dearth of paintings of women housecleaning (except for the Dutch). I infer from this that men care more about clean clothes than they do a clean house. Most paintings of women ironing are from France, and this may be because the French laundry was considered in the heyday of the laundry business as the best in the world. In the early 20th century, with the decrease in cheap domestic labor, the laundry came back into the home.

Degas painted quite a few women ironing, as he made a study of laundresses in the 1870s. Here are two such studies, in which these women seem to be both strong and meticulous.

And here are paintings by other artists.
George Luks:

Picasso, 1904, from the Blue Period, a painting Betty Friedan could have used for her diatribes against housework:

Armand Desire Gautier:

Alexandru Ciucurencu, 20th-century Romania:

Mary Whyte, Steam Ironing:

Knitting in Highbridge Park

Knitting in Highbridge Park was painted in 1918 by George Luks. Highbridge Park sits on the Manhattan side of the Harlem River separating northern Manhattan from the Bronx up near 155th to 174th Street, the eastern side of Washington Heights. Judging from the looks of these ladies, at this time, this was an affluent neighborhood, and at this time, Highbridge Park was akin to Central Park further south, although no longer.

Luks called the painting Knitting, but it was soon renamed by the art world as Knitting for the Soldiers, with the assumption being that these ladies were knitting woolens for American boys overseas in World War I. There are five women, who all appear to be of different ages, with two white-haired lady and the perhaps the one on the far right the youngest. It is easy to imagine that these ladies are intent on their work and are speaking only occasionally; knitting is first and conversation second. Then there is a boy who also seems to be intently concentrating and may be knitting (I can't tell).

I just noticed that they are huddling outside in the snow! It is cold. Babies are asleep in the carriages, in keeping with the view that fresh air of all temperatures was best for infant lungs. I know that my mother bundled me up in my carriage for naps on the front porch in December.

Whether knitting for soldiers or not, this painting is an homage to women and their work, a tone set by their bowed heads and the humble head tilt of the lady in the center. Patience, diligence, care, endurance, Luks seems to say, are qualities of these women. I suspect he is right.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Housekeeping in India

Woman cleaning grain outside her home.

The following is taken from Rumer Godden's short story "The Oyster," about a young Indian, Gopal, of the Hindu Brahmin caste, who is happily studying in France and learning all things western. While out to dinner with his French friend, Rene, Gopal suddenly finds himself desperately missing India:

Rene saw the tears and was concerned.... 'What is it, Gopal-ji?' he asked.

'I -- swallowed -- sometthing hot,' said Gopal.

'But you are used to hot things.'

'Yes, chillies,' said Gopal and laughed, but it was not safe to think of such homely thngs as chillies; they made him see a string of them, scarlet, in the kitchen. He saw the kitchen, and his mother's housekeeping, which had often seemed to him old-fashioned and superstitious, now seemed as simple and pure as a prayer; as -- as uncruel, he thought. His mother rose at five and woke the children so that they could make their morning ritual to the sun; ... She saw that the house was cleaned, then did the accounts and then, still early, sent Jai, as the eldest son, to market with the list of household things to buy and the careful allowance of money -- few Indian women shopped in the market. When Jai came back, with a coolie boy carrying the basket on his head, the basket had a load of vegetables, pale green lettuce and lady's fingers, perhaps, or glossy purple eggplants, beans, the pearly paleness of Indian corn still in its sheaf. There would be coconut too, ghee-butter and the inevitable pot of curd made fresh that day.

Woman feeding cabbage to a cow outside her home.

The kitchen was very clean; no one was allowed to go there in shoes or in street clothes, and before Gopal and Jai ate they washed and changed or took off their shirts. The women ate apart, .... All was modesty, cleanliness, quiet -- and it does no hurt, through Gopal, shuddering. All of it had an inner meaning so that it was not -- not just of earth, he thought. Once a month was household day when the pots and sweeping brushes were worshipped. First they were cleaned, the brass scoured with wood-ash until it shone pale gold, the silver made bright, the brushes and dusting-cloths washed, cupboards turned out, everything washed again in running water and dried sun; then prayers were said for the household tools, and marigold flowers and jessamine were put on the shelves. I used to think it was stupid, thought Gopal; I teased my mother and called her ignorant to believe in such things, but they made it all different, quite different!

Doing the laundry in Uttar Pradesh, India.

Photographs by Claude Renault. See many more photos of India in his fascinating and beautiful blog.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Embroidery in India

A woman embroidering in India

From "Rahmin," a short story by Rumer Godden:

In Calcutta, where I lived, the chiken-wallahs worked in rows of booths in the market or out in the nearby villages, whole families stitching away, fulfilling orders--if they were lucky--for monograms, children's dresses, table-linen, underclothes, or, more often, making and embroidering these things. They would then be packed in a thin cotton cloth, made into a neat bundle, and carried to the houses of Europeans or wealthy Indians in the hope of making a sale.

When I visited India I bought some of this handiwork, and my friends in India brought me sweetly embroidered little tops of thin cotton for my daughter when she was a baby. I bought table clothes and bedspreads. In the charming neighborhood where I was staying with friends, a man would come periodically with his embroidered goods wrapped up in a bundle and tied to the back of his bicycle. Often, as it used to be in the USA, in India, the market comes to you.

The picture above was taken by Claude Renault and you can see his marvelous pictures of India on his blog.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Two Young English Girls in India

This past week, quite by accident, I had the great pleasure of reading two novels about young English girls in India. First I read The River by Rumer Godden (1946) followed by The Far Cry by Emma Smith (1949).

Sunset over the Brahmaputra River of India and Bangladesh.

Rumer Godden's The River explores the yearnings of a young girl, who seems to be about 11 years old, in Bengal in the early years of the 20th century. Her father manages a jute factory and her family lives in a big house on the river. The River is broadly autobiographical, since Godden spent the first half of her long life in India, and her father was the manager of a steamship company on the great Brahmaputra River of Bengal. This novel swirls with three themes: the aspirations of Harriet to become a writer, the love of Harriet for her family—her sister, her brother, her parents, and their assorted Indian servants, all of whom have different religions; and her love of India.
The children kept Diwali because it is an irresistible festival and no one could live in the country in which it is held and not be touched by it. Tonight when it is dark, though Harriet, her eyes anywhere but on her work, Ram Prasad will have brought for us a hundred or two hundred lamps. They are made of earthenware, shaped like hearts or tarts or leaves, and they cost two pice each, and in each we shall pour oil and float a wick; then we shall set them all along the roof and at the windows and in rows on the steps and at the gate and over the gate, and we shall light them. Everywhere, on our house, there will be lights, and on the river the boats will have them burning and we shall see them go past, and other lights on rafts will be floated down and the rich Hindus will give feasts and feed the poor and let off fireworks and we shall stay up to dinner to see.

Rumer Godden.

And Harriet luxuriates in the wonderful year-round vegetation India offers. So rich is the variety of flowers and plants that Godden is able to devote two full pages to a description of the family’s garden and its assorted flora and fauna. Later in the book, Godden describes the family home room by room. But the preface to this passage points to the role of the house in our memory of “home:”
“Every family has something, when it has left home, that is for it a symbol of home, that, for it, for ever afterwards, brings home back. It may be a glimpse of the dappled flank of a rocking horse, a certain pattern of curtain, of firelight shining on a brass fender, of light on the rim of a plate; it may be a saying, sweet or sharp, like ‘It will only end in tears,” “Do you think I am made of money?’ “It is six of one and half a dozen of the other,” it may be a song or a sound; the sound of a lawn mower or the swish of water, or of birds singing at dawn; it may be a custom (every family has different customs), or a taste: a special pudding or burnt treacle tart or dripping toast; or it may be scent or a smell: of flowers, or furniture polish or cooking, toffee or sausages, or saffron bread or onions or boiling jam. These symbols are all that are left of that lost world in our new one. There was no knowing what would remain afterwards of hers for Harriet.”

Sunset over Back Street of Old Delhi by Seth Lazar.

In The Far Cry, we are confronted with a far sadder proposition: a child that knows no home, who appears truly alone and at odds with and terrified of the adults around her, beginning with her father, who is referred to throughout the book as “Mr. Digby.” Rejected by her mother, she lives in England with her aunt until her father arrives to take her to her sister’s, who lives with her husband on a tea plantation in Assam. The first two parts of the book explore the rather hateful mindset of this child, as she travels by boat to India, a dreariness of spirit interrupted by Teresa’s keen observations of the sky and sea around her and an English spinster named Miss Spooner. When Teresa first arrives in Bombay, she is so terrified of her new environs that she can hardly speak, and she retreats to her room in the hotel in panic. Then,
Someone tapped at Teresa’s door, a tap so light it was more like a scratch, and a voice cried out: “Oh Missie, Master says, tea is in his room, come quickly. Missie, here is Sam.”
It was on account of these last four words that Teresa opened her door and looked out at the shoddy little figure who said his name was Sam. The moment she saw that confidently grinning face, the wide mouth, the flap ears, the bulging eyes, Teresa’s panic over India was at an end. For Sam was not an enemy, though an Indian. His brown skin added nothing but further comedy to his face. He demanded nothing from Teresa except that she should be affable. This was enough for him to spring inside her room and switch on the fans that she had overlooked. To fetch his friend, dhobie [laundry man]: “Missie, here is dhobie-man.” To bring photographs of himself out from a greasy inner pocket: “I have worked many times for Americans.” To writhe his body about in boneless contortions for her amusement—“I dance for ladies”—and break off his exhibition in a fit of giggles. He became immediately her attendant, admirer, entertainer, bodyguard, and because he was all these things and friendly as well, her friend. Teresa emerged from behind her barricades and proceeded to look about her.

When she and Sam are charged by Mr. Digby with going to market to buy a thermos for their long train ride to Assam, she falls in love with her new country:
“Never had she seen so many people. Never had she dreamed so many people existed. They were everywhere, lying asleep on walls, stretched on the pavements, crouching, walking, dawdling, in topees, in fez, in turbans, … The pavements were loaded with an intricately interwoven mob on foot, as the road was interwoven as intricately with a mob on wheels….
With wide eyes and open mouth Teresa drank in the confusion as though she tasted a new wine and could have enough of it. .. She longed to be occupied by this anonymous turmoil in which she felt to be so safe, for in all these crowds not a single face looked at her threateningly, not a hand touched her except by accident, not a soul knew who she was or cared. And Sam guided her swiftly and surely. She followed him with elation and no alarm.

Emma Smith photographed by Robert Doisneau for Paris Match (see Persephone Books).

The Far Cry is not autobiographical, but based on Smith’s trip to India as part of a filming crew for a documentary on tea-growing in Assam. She says in an interview that she ravaged her diary for the book’s descriptions of Bombay and Assam. She captures the comic of India’s surprises and idiosyncracies. I find it apt that she presents India to us through the eyes of a young person, for to get the most from India, it is best to make yourself young first.

Both these young girls are sorely tested in their respective stories, both experience their first friendships with an adult, and both begin to get a grip on how they might shape their own lives. Although Smith draws the relationships of adults with more subtlety and nuance than Godden, Godden’s prose is perfect, every word saturated with her deep knowledge and love of her subject matter. The River was turned into a film by Jean Renoir, but The Far Cry was rescued from obscurity by Persephone Books. Both books are a sparkling glimpse into the riches of India.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Speaking of Geraniums, What About Sweden?

Carl Larsson's living room--that's a line of pink geraniums in the window.

Whenever I think of geraniums in the window, I also think of Sweden. The photo shows Carl Larrsson's living room, a room I fell in love with when I first saw it in the May 1988 issue of House Beautiful, which was dedicated to Scandinavian country style. I love Swedish interior decorating. I find the Swedes have a genius for beauty through simplicity. Perhaps it is because their environment is dark for so many hours during half the year, that their homes radiate with light and a lightness of spirit that is immediately calming. I also love their reliance on the combination of whites and pastels and the way in which they use color so deftly as an accent. Nothing assaults the eye or the person--nothing grabs you but the totality of a very inviting room. It is uncluttered without being cold, and elegant but affordable.

About a year ago I came across a Swedish blog, called Min Lilla Veranda, with photos from a family's home. I especially loved the Christmas decorations, which centered on greens and white candles--lots of them. One day I decided to check out the blogs listed on Min Lilla Veranda and came across a cornucopia of beautiful blogs created by Swedish women about their homes. Now I have a list of these blogs that I check in all the time, and pull down all kinds of ideas. These ladies have a wonderful knack for taking simple elements and arranging them with artistry and imagination. And they love geraniums.

From Elin's Stuga

Also from Elin's Stuga.

From Guldkant Pa Livet

From Lantliv, Smultronstallen and Loggbokens Recept

From Mias Landliv (in English)

From White Season.