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.