Sunday, April 29, 2012

"When There Was Nothing to Preserve, She Began to Pickle"

Pioneer ladies before a sod house on the Great Plains.

In her O Pioneers! Willa Cather captured the efforts to create real homes of the women who with their husbands first came to the harsh landscape of the Great Plains. Cather describes the mother of her Norwegian heroine Alexandra Bergson like this:
John Bergson [Alexandra's father] had married beneath him, but he had married a good wife. Mrs. Bergson was a fair-skinned, corpulent woman, heavy and placid like her son, Oscar, but there was something comfortable about her; perhaps it was her own love of comfort. For eleven years she had worthily striven to maintain some semblance of household order amid conditions that made order very difficult. Habit was very strong with Bergson, and her unremitting efforts to repeat the routine of her old life among new surroundings had done a great deal to keep the family from disintegrating morally and getting careless in their ways. The Bergsons had a log house, for instance, only because Mrs. Bergson would not live in a sod house.

She missed the fish diet of her own country, and twice every summer she sent the boys to the river, twenty miles to the southward, to fish for channel cat. When the children were little she used to load them all into the wagon, the baby in its crib, and go fishing herself. Alexandra often said that if her mother were cast upon a desert island, she would thank God for her deliverance, make a garden, and find something to preserve.  
Preserving was almost a mania with Mrs. Bergson. Stout as she was, she roamed the scrubby banks of Norway Creek looking for fox grapes and goose plums, like a wild creature in search of prey. She made a yellow jam of the insipid ground-cherries that grew on the prairie, flavoring it with lemon peel; and she made a sticky dark conserve of garden tomatoes. She had experimented even with the rank buffalo-pea, and she could not see a fine bronze cluster of them without shaking her head and murmuring "What a pity!" When there was nothing to preserve, she began to pickle. The amount of sugar she used in these processes was sometimes a serious drain upon the family resources.

She was a good mother, but she was glad when her children were old enough not to be in her way in the kitchen. She had never quite forgiven John Bergson for bringing her to the end of the earth; but, now that she was there, she wanted to be left alone to reconstruct her old life in so far as that was possible. She could still take some comfort in the world if she had bacon in the cave, glass jars on the shelves, and sheets in the press. She disapproved of all her neighbors because of their slovenly housekeeping, and the women thought her very proud. Once when Mrs. Bergson, on her way to Norway Creek, stopped to see old Mrs. Lee, the old woman hid in the haymow "for fear Mis' Bergson would catch her barefoot."
O Pioneers! is wonderful in many ways. Willa Cather is an American treasure.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Hats Off to Miss Moss

Miss Moss is a genius in fashion mash-ups with food and with art. Have fun! I think she does.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant and Her Chickens

The farmyard by Beatrix Potter for The Tale of Mrs. Jemima Puddle-Duck

One last animal story from Mrs. Grant from the days when she was a "splendid farmer's wife."

"Ulys brought me all the new breeds of chickens: the Shanghais, the Brahmas, and the pretty little Bantams. The two little boys [the first two Grant children] and I used to greatly enjoy throwing handfuls of wheat and other grain to this beautiful feathery portion of our family. Of course, each of these distinguished foreigners had appropriate names: for instance, my large, beautiful silver-gray, with her proud, haughty step, I called 'Celeste' from the Celestial Empire, and her lord, 'The Great Mogul,' and I remember how a magnificent domestic cock with gorgeous plumage used to lord it over these clumsy foreigners, with only size to boast of. I noticed the same little tricks of gallantry in these foreign birds that could be noticed in ours. For instance, they would pretend to find some choice tidbit and would call loudly for the poor, innocent hens to come and share it, and every time these lords of the barnyards were fooling them and would quickly eat it up themselves.

"I must tell you of one instance which made me believe that chickens really understand the English language. Once after a heavy snowstorm, one of my women came in and asked if Jeff had not better put the chickens which were out in[to] the chickenhouse, 'as dem Chinese chickens did not know how to take care of themselves.' Very soon, I was informed that one of my pullets could not stand on her feet. I at once went out to the hennery to examine for myself. After giving the necessary directions for the poor thing's relief, I told Phyllis to bring out a bowl of cornmeal mixed with water. She had hardly started when the old cocks on the roosts aloft passed the word by a softly murmured cackle to their numerous families, and at once they all descended and surrounded me, looking wistfully and expectantly up at me. Of course, they were sent to bed well fed and were never again neglected in stormy weather."

P.S. Sadly, Beatrix Potter started publishing her stories in 1902, the year Mrs. Grant died. I think Mrs. Grant would have enjoyed them.

Mrs. Julia Dent Grant's Elephant Tales

For you, Gab.

In her memoirs Mrs. Ulysses S. Grant records two stories about elephants, and here they are.

The Tale of Mr. and Mrs. Elephant

Elephant by Rembrandt

"I remember once when walking with some friends in Paris we passed a cage which contained a pair of elephants which had just been fed. The male had already finished his portion and was looking sullenly at his mate, who quietly and generously gathered large bundles of hers and threw them to her lord without even turning her eyes in his direction. He quietly munched the largest part of Mrs. Elephant's dinner without once nodding his thanks, thus showing he was from the East."

How Very Smart Elephants Are

Elephant Head by Laura H

"I can only recall our visit to the woodyards of Moulmein [Burma] and the wonderful sagacity of the elephants, who were the chief workmen at these yards. These brutes seemed to have human intelligence. A great chain was fastened to one of their feet. They would walk past a great huge log of teakwoood, let the chain drag not quite past the log, then, with one tusk for a lever, hoist the log on the chain, fasten it securely, and walk off with their loads to the pile of logs. Taking one end, they would hoist it up and place it securely, then take the other end of the log and do likewise. They would then walk off and look to see if it were placed straight, turning their heads first to one side and then to the other, and if it were not in line they would (and did) walk up to the end of the pile and push the log they had carried further on and a trifle back. Their intelligence is wonderful!"

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Indomitable and Fun-Loving Julia Dent Grant

Monument to Mrs. Julia Dent Grant in Galena, Illinois.

This statue of Julia Dent Grant, I believe, shows the vitality of the beloved wife of President and General Ulysses S. Grant. Because she was afflicted with strabismus (lazy eye), she never permitted her picture to be taken head-on, but always turned her head to the side. The sharp features of her profile and the 19th-century propensity to put on a serious face for the photographer have combined to leave us no photograph that captures the spirit of Mrs. Grant, a woman who was known then and ever since as the necessary source of strength for the great military commander.

Some may think that a man who was prone to alcoholism, who left home for long periods of time for Army duty, who was practically incapable of earning a living when not on active military duty would not a good husband make. But Julia, according to her own telling in The Personal Memoirs of Julia Dent Grant and as confirmed by her children, never had any problem with or criticism of General Grant, and they led a full married life, raising four children, moving from home to home over the course of decades, and achieving what was by all accounts an enduring and affectionate relationship that was a joy to them both. Grant, says her children, was never happier than to be at home with his wife and their offspring. Mrs. Grant dictated these memoirs for her grandchildren, and it was only in 1975, 73 years after her death, that they were published.

Despite her dour photographic poses, her book shows Mrs. Grant was a very lively person, embracing both life and people. She, as her husband, loved company and the occasion of having company. But in contrast to Grant, who she said was generally a quiet man in social gatherings, she appears to have been quite a talker, and one gets the impression that during their world tour after Grant left the White House, she kept up a running narrative of their adventures as they were happening. She may have been a "plain Jane," as she says of herself, and quite small in stature, but her personality was ashimmer with warmth, vibrance, and enthusiasm.

The Dent plantation, White Haven, where Julia was born and spent many months when her husband was away.

Julia Dent was born in 1826, the fifth child of a slave-owning family in Missouri. According to her memoirs (and of course we may hesitate to believe everything she says), she never knew a harsh word from her parents, was indulged in terribly, and enjoyed a childhood of bliss that anyone would envy. She recalls playing with her sisters and children of slaves in the woods all day and encountering all kinds of wild and domesticated animals. Her descriptions of the antebellum life at the Dent home, White Haven, are so charming, that the antebellum sections of Gone with the Wind seem social realism in comparison. Everyone was happy in this household, including the slaves--although their prompt departure from the Dent plantation upon the Emancipation Proclamation puts this somewhat in doubt.

Julia met Ulysses Grant, a friend of her brother's, in 1844, and they swiftly became friends thanks to Grant's continual efforts to be by her side. They went for long walks and horseback rides together, as Grant opened up in the warmth of her sunny soul. When he proposed, she was startled, she says, because she had never thought of him in that way and declined. But when he went away after his proposal, she missed him, and upon his return they became engaged, marrying in August 1848, after Grant returned from the Mexican War.

Julia Dent had pluck. She recalls one childhood day when she and her little sister wanted to pick some wild clematis that grew in a meadow on the other side of a flooded creek. At the time, Mrs. Grant relates, she had echoing in her mind the words of her preacher: "If ye have faith even as a grain of mustard seed, ye may move mountains and walk on the waters."
I informed Nell of my determination to make the crossing on the deepest and smoothest place, reminding her of what the preacher said about faith. She was much alarmed and timidly asked, "What is faith, sister?" In great superiority, I replied: "Little goose, believe that you can and you can."... I stepped out on the water and plunged in up to my armpits. I was surprised and looked back at Nell with a frightened smile. I went on, however, to the other side and scrambled up the bank--crushed flowers, dead butterflies, and wet little girl.
Wet or not, Miss Dent's can-do spirit must have surely struck a chord in Ulysses S. Grant.

Hardscrabble, one of the many domiciles in which Mrs. Grant lived during the iterant years of her married life.

From the genteel life of White Haven, Mrs. Grant found herself living with her husband and young children in a log-and-mud soddered home, which Grant built in Missouri as a homestead. This house was "so crude and homely I did not like it at all, but I did not say so. I got out all my pretty covers, baskets, books, etc., and tried to make it look home-like and comfortable, but this was hard to do. The little house looked so unattractive that we facetiously decided to call it Hardscrabble.”

She showed the same domestic spirit when she arrived at the White House in March 1869:
"I found the White House in utter confusion. I felt greatly discouraged, but after a few weeks things began to assume an appearance of order, ... and by autumn the house was in beautiful condition. After much thought and fatigue, I at last had the furniture arranged in suites, so that each room would have its own set. I found it scattered widely in the upper chambers. Chairs and lounges were recovered; the hall carpets, which were much worn and so ugly, I could not bear to look at them, were replaced."
Under her direction, the White House not only became a domicile suitable for the President of the United States, but also the social center of Washington, as Julia hosted constant dinners and other events during her eight years there. She sobbed all afternon the day she and her husband left the White House--I think not only because she would miss her life there but because she had lived there the longest with Grant. She thought of it as her real home and opened it up for grand hospitality to all Americans, including, she was emphatic, to African Americans.

Ulysses S. Grant is one of the military leaders I admire the most. As I was reading about him recently and about the strength he took from his wife, I decided to find out what kind of person she was. Her memoirs give us a glimpse of Grant in home life and of her devotion to him. Mrs. Grant of course comes under attack from today's feminists because she made no attempt to break through the boundaries in which society and her marriage had placed her--although she was her husband's confidante and wanted to be informed. With her sharp nose for danger, she saved Grant's life when he was targeted as part of the assassination plot against Lincoln.

There is no doubt that Ulysses Grant thoroughly enjoyed her. Here she relates a story of the final leg of their trip round the world:
We had a delightful sail up the coast of Portland; that is, we had a pleasant party, but the sea was rather rough. I remember how the ship tossed and pitched. I said to the Captain: "I fear you have not placed your ballast as it ought to be. You should have it distributed more widely." The General [Grant] was surprised at this speech and said: "Really, Mrs. Grant, I was not aware that you know how to ballast a ship." "Nor do I," I replied, "but if you will remember, when we were coasting along the Spanish shore, the ship behaved exactly like this one. It careened over and returned with a thud. Well, I heard two Englishmen talking about it and they said the ballast was too much in the center of the ship and it was very dangerous." The Captain said: "There is a great deal in what you say, Madam, and as soon as we get into port I will see that all is made right."

Julia Dent Grant (fourth from left) and Ulysses S. Grant (fifth from left) after a descent into a mine in Virginia City, Nevada. "The General made a wager with Mr. Mackay that I would not venture down the shaft. I came out all equipped for a descent into its gloomy depths and was just about to reconsider when Mr. Mackay said to me in a low tone, 'Don't give up going. The General has bet money that you would back out.' I calmly stepped on the platform. The General looked surprised and said: 'We descend one thousand seven hundred feet. Are you going?' 'Yes,' I said, with a look of reproach and triumph. So the General lost his wager when he bet against me."

Monday, April 9, 2012

Conrad Richter's Early Americana

A wagon train wends its way west along the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1928 the American author Conrad Richter and his family pulled up stakes and moved from eastern Pennsylvania to New Mexico in the hopes of improving his wife's health. Transplanted to totally unfamiliar territory, he set about to unearth the stories of the families who had settled there, digested old diaries and letters, and gleaned all he could from the local library on the history of the region and how the lives of its settlers and their descendants had changed over time. The most famous result of this work is his Sea of Grass, published in 1937, which centers on the conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders and the characters of both. But his first output from his yarn gathering was his collection of nine short stories, Early Americana.

Many of these stories revolve around the coming together of a young man and woman in marriage carve their place in the vast prairies west of Saint Louis, but the romance is always understated, if made explicit at all. Lives travel tracks that bring them together and the rest is assumed--except that the land and the difficulties of settling it present nearly insurmountable obstacles that are unimaginable today but that come to life under Richter's pen: gunfights on a betrothal night, drought that kills the cattle herd a young man had built up so he could marry, Indian attacks that destroy a young man's family.

Cowboy in 1888. Mutual respect and partnership in hard work were the basis of a marriage, rather than romance.

So in "New Home" we wait with a young wife while her husband goes off to settle the ownership of the land and is gone far longer than either had anticipated. Her waiting is palpable, and we are in pain with our sympathy for her, hoping against hope that he returns. In "Frontier Woman," a Southern belle makes the arduous journey west after the Civil War to lead a new life, where her nearest neighbor will be 80 miles off, and contemplates her future:
Farther, much farther back, she felt the ravaged gardens of the South, the Confederate exodus through the piny woods, the vast watery fissure of the Mississippi, and the black trail across the illimitable prairie. And now in a kind of mirage she saw herself out on the desolate cap rock, birth to Craig Weatherill's children, herself their teacher in a rambling adobe ranch house, nursing them without hope of a doctor, keeping lonely vigils, helping in times of attack to load the guns for the men, trying to teach indifferent hands some of the declicate recipes of the South, inevitably homesick, never entirely forgiving the hard land of her husband--a frontier woman.
In one of the most dramatic stories, "Smoke on the Prairie," Richter explores both the upheaval that came with the railroad and its replacement of the long wagon trains that has first brought people from the east along the Santa Fe Trail.

As always, Richter shows his deep respect for women and their work. Women waiting for their husbands to return from a haul to the market or from a sojourn to find a lost cow kept themselves busy as a way of stopping up their floodtide of anxiety.
Her hands kept eternally busy. She washed and ironed, heating the heavy smoothing iron by setting it upright on the hearth before the coals. She sat daily over winter socks for Pleas and the baby, one foot moving the cradle as she knitted. Morning or afternoon she let the sheep from the high corral and followed on foot over the range, resting with her baby on the grass in cedar shade.

Pleas had set up a hopper for the oak ash. In the big copper kettle brought from Arkansas she boiled wood ashes. When the lye dissolved the end of a feather, she added accumulated greases and tallow and boiled a small batch of soap, cut the cooling mixture into yellow-gray bars and piled them on the mantel to dry. She soaked a flint-dry deerskin in strong suds of lye soap, water, and a spoonful of lard; scraped off the hair with an old corn knife; let it remain by the warm hearth all night; wrung, pulled, and stretched it next day until perfectly dry, when it becomes soft and pliable as cloth and waited only her shears and thread for gloves or clothes.
Richter never lets us forget for a second the land that his characters inhabit. We imbibe it through their eyes and his lyrical voice:
They rode slowly on, while the luminous purple began to appear like violet mist on the hills. It spread to the plains, bathing them in color. The home ranch in the wide mouth of Monica Canyon ahead became an island of buildings, corrals, and windmill swimming in a bright velvet sea. The color seemed to float in the air about them. They breathed it, road through it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Holy Thursday

Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples by Rembrandt
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
John 13:12-17