Love and Marriage, Part 2: War

There are marriages that turn into war zones, as husband and wife become enemy combatants in the trenches and minefields of their shared lives. But sometimes partners who love each other have the misfortune to live or to be separated during an actual war and to live in a real war zone.

 

Lovers parted by war. It’s a theme found in ancient myths and stories, as well as more recent tales. Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey, is the story of Odysseus, as he journeys back to his home and his wife Penelope in Ithaca, following the Trojan War. The Odyssey has provided inspiration for many works. In 1997, for example, Charles Frazier recast The Odyssey as a Civil War tale in the novel Cold Mountain. In this story, W.P. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, becomes a deserter. As he travels back home to find his love, Ada, he is helped and hindered by people and situations resembling some of those in The Odyssey. Although they knew each other only briefly, it is the thought of seeing Ada that keeps Inman going. The story alternates with Inman and Ada narrating chapters. Ada learns how to survive and finds strength she never dreamed she had. The novel was made into a successful movie and will soon be an opera.

 
The wonderful quirky 2000 film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? by Joel and Ethan Coen, was also loosely based on The Odyssey. It involves 1930s-era escaped convicts led by Ulysses Everett McGill, played by George Clooney. It also boasts a wonderful soundtrack of country, bluegrass, blues, and gospel that features Allison Krause, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, The Soggy Bottom Boys, and others.

 
But the reality of war is something else. It boasts soundtracks of battle cries, tears, moans, gunshots, and bombs, as well as music. War separates soldiers and their families, sometimes forever. Those in the midst of battles and ambushes might literally fight for their lives, while those left at home are sometimes left to face occupying troops or deserters, destruction of their homes, and food shortages. The recent tragic and sometimes horrifying news from places all over the globe demonstrates that these situations still exist. We humans are very good at finding ways to destroy our cultures and ourselves.

 
And yet, love endures. Goodness, hope, and beauty endure.
“In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
–Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl

 
As I work on my next project, an encyclopedia of daily life during the American Revolution, I’m reminded of two things—life goes on during war AND daily life is changed by war. Sometimes it is undeniably and irrevocably changed, for the better or for the worse. For many Americans, the era of the American Revolution is confined to images of “Patriots” fighting “Redcoats,” the “Founding Fathers” gathering in Philadelphia, and perhaps some faint knowledge of the Boston Tea Party. It is something remote. But of course, as in all wars, there were real people who fought, died, profited, mourned, and just went on living. There were also those left at home who planted crops, sewed and washed clothing, gave birth, committed crimes, were victims of crimes, wrote poetry, got drunk, lived, and died. And they loved and were loved.

 
Those who were literate and had access to paper, ink, and a way to get letters delivered, attempted to communicate with their friends and family.

 
“I am rejoiced to hear you are well; “I want to know many more perticuliars than you wrote me, and hope soon to hear from you again. I dare not trust myself with the thought of how long you may [illegible] perhaps be absent. I only count the weeks already past, and they amount to 5.”
–Abigail Adams to John Adams, 14-16 September 1774

 
War. It goes on. But so does love.

 
In one of the most poignant and beautiful letters that emerged from the blood and horror of the American Civil War are these lines from Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah:

 
Sarah, never forget how much I love you, nor that, when my last breath escapes me on the battle-field, it will whisper your name.”

 
Sullivan Ballou was killed at the first Battle of Bull Run, July 21, 1861.
You can read the entire letter here.

http://www.nps.gov/resources/story.htm?id=253

Love and Marriage–Part 1

Weddings are on my mind. Last month, my husband and I celebrated our 36th wedding anniversary. Like most couples, we’ve had our share of good and bad times, but fortunately more good than bad! Weddings, of course, are merely the start of a marriage. They’re like the first stage-setting paragraph of what one hopes will be a long, enthralling novel—the type that has you turning pages as fast as you can, even while you savor each word and hope it never ends. The wedding is the preface to the book, the overture to the opera.

IMG_1377
During our very own opera semiseria, we’ve raised two wonderful, talented, kind daughters, one of whom is getting married (wearing my gown!) next month—hence my focus on weddings. She is marrying a wonderful woman, and they are deeply in love. Over the weekend, I attended a shower for the two brides, organized by our younger daughter for her adored older sister. Both brides were indeed showered in love and affection.
Throughout much of history, and among many people of many different cultures, marriage was based not on love or even companionship, but instead on economics and politics.
“Your daughter should marry my son so we can join our two clans—or nations.” “What dowry does she bring?”
Or as the song, “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof explains:
Hodel, oh Hodel,
Have I made a match for you!
He’s handsome, he’s young!
Alright, he’s 62.
But he’s a nice man, a good catch, true?
True. . . . . .

Did you think you’d get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background
Be glad you got a man!

For those who don’t know the show or movie, Fiddle on the Roof is based on Sholem Aleichem’s tales of Tevye the dairyman in the small shtetl of Anatevka. The three oldest of Teyve and his wife Golde’s five daughters marry for love—unheard of! This prompts a song between the Teyve and Golde who wonder if they love each other? “It’s a new world,” Tevye says.
Around the mid-eighteenth-century, Anglo-Americans began to place more emphasis on “companionate” marriages—and to expect more love and companionship from their partners. This is not to say that loving marriages did not exist before this time.

For example, Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) wrote the following poem to her husband, Simon:
“To My Dear and Loving Husband”
If ever two were one, then surely we.
If ever man were lov’d by wife, then thee.
If ever wife was happy in a man,
Compare with me, ye women, if you can.
I prize thy love more than whole Mines of gold
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that Rivers cAnneot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompetence.
Thy love is such I can no way repay.
The heavens reward thee manifold, I pray.
Then while we live, in love let’s so persever
That when we live no more, we may live ever.

The rise of a companionate ideal does not mean that all marriages were based on these ideals. Many marriages took place for economic practicality—farms benefit from having men to do heavy agricultural work and women to do the preserving of food, the cooking, laundry, and childbearing. Even urban households needed someone to raise and care for children.

 
Regardless of love or economic necessity, enslaved people were not permitted to marry legally. Slaves were not citizens and had no rights. Some masters permitted their slaves to “marry,” but it was not legal, and all slave relationships were transient because families could be broken up at any time. Race remained a factor in marriage after the Thirteenth Amendment officially prohibited slavery in 1865 because interracial unions were not permitted in many states. Finally, well into the twentieth century, in Loving v. Virginia (1967), the Supreme Court ruled that states could not prohibit interracial marriages. Mildred Jeter, who was black, and Richard Loving, who was white, married in Washington, D.C. in 1958, but they were arrested after they returned to and lived in Virginia, where they were arrested. The court gave the couple a suspended sentence under the condition that they leave Virginia. “Under our Constitution,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren, “the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

 
My younger sister is getting married in October to her long-time partner. They love each other, but now that Pennsylvania has permitted same-sex weddings, they also want the legal protection that goes with marriage. Love and the practicalities of life.
So I will be attending two “gay weddings” within a few months. In my mind, however, they are simply weddings—a celebration of and for two people who are deeply in love choosing to publicly declare their love for each other—and wanting to have the same legal safeguards that other wedded couples have. Two couples who are choosing to begin a new chapter in the book of their lives. I am fortunate to be able to share their joy.

The Nourishment of Friends

“Make new friends,
but keep the old.
One is silver,
the other is gold.”

–Anonymous

I used to sing this song when I was a Girl Scout—a million years ago, or so it seems. At that time, the words meant little to me. After all, at age 8 or 10 how old can your friends possibly be? But I understood the intent, that we were supposed to welcome everyone, new and old, to our Girl Scout troop, and I did enjoy singing the song as a round.

         Truthfully, at that time I did not have real friends, other than my younger sister—my first and my always and forever friend. I was the shy, nerdy girl who always had her nose in a book. My family was from Philadelphia, and I did not readily embrace Texas culture. The girls in my 1960s Dallas, Texas classes and troop were not mean to me, and I was not bullied, but we had little in common, and I did not know how to make friends with them.

         I’m still not the most outgoing person around, but I do have friends. One of my friends (see?) and I used to joke that since we don’t like to mingle at parties—we should sit and let people come to us. (This works best if you abscond with the spinach dip–and perhaps the wine and best chocolate dessert, too.)

As most people do, I have different types of friends. My very best friends are my sisters. But others are friends of specific time and place—gym buddies, blog friends, and people I connect with and talk to on Facebook but seldom see. They are all real, and I enjoy the interaction. And sometimes, such casual friends “crossover” to become “real” friends.

I met one of my good friends years ago when she sent me an email asking about submitting an article for a book I was working on. For over a decade, we’ve written long—sometimes very long–email “letters”—about history, our children, husbands, houses, books, and of course, food. “Have you read this?” “What are you making for dinner tonight? I’ve made hummus with mint from our garden.” We’ve had long catch-up phone conversations, and a few chances to get together in person, too–most recently in Philadelphia when her husband attended a conference and she came with him.

Long before telephones or the Internet, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814),the political playwright, essayist, and pamphleteer, kept up an extensive, transatlantic correspondence network that included both intimate friends and valued political leaders—Abigail Adams, Catherine Sawbridge Macaulay, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington, among them. In June 24, 1793, she wrote to her friend Sarah Cary, “No my dear Mrs Cary I have not forgotten you. I am not one of those who ever forget their friends.”

         I think it’s important to have friends who do not forget you.

         I have a group of friends who have been my friends since college or shortly after. We went through what one of my friends calls “the lost years” when our children were young and our lives were wrapped—bubble wrapped–around their school and extra-curricular events, leaving us little time to get together. Yet, while we may have gained a few pounds, wrinkles, and gray hair during the “lost years,” whenever we’re together it’s like no time has passed. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, “It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them.”

Emerson is correct. I’m certain I’ve been stupid with mine, but they are forgiving. Old friends are tolerant of your flaws. They are also supportive of your successes. They share your joys and your sorrows. We’ve shared life events—the births of children—and grandchildren. We’ve mourned the death of parents. We lived through (literally) serious illnesses together. We’ve seen our children succeed and fail. We’ve laughed and cried together. We’ve eaten fabulous meals and enjoyed fabulous—OK, sometimes totally stupid–conversations. And we’ve laughed and cried—sometimes at the same time—and we’ve ranted.

         I understand equating friends with gold and silver because they are valuable. But the value of gold and silver is artificial. The metals are precious because they are rare and people have decided that they are beautiful—and so we attach value to them. I think friendship is better expressed as bread and chocolate. (Yes, I do relate everything to food, and if you’re my friend, you will go along with that. What’s more, you’ll even expect it.) Food is more valuable than gold or silver, isn’t it? Beautiful jewelry may adorn our bodies, but food—and friendship—sustains our bodies and souls. Like bread dough, when we carefully nurture it and treat it correctly, good friends rise to help us. They supply us with strength and nourishment as bread does, but they should not be neglected. We speak of “breaking bread” together. Bread is fundamental. Friends bring sweetness and pleasure, too, like chocolate—and sometimes it’s bittersweet.

         So here’s to my friends—the old, the new, and the yet to be found. You are my bread and chocolate. And while we’re at it, let’s say you’re my wine and cheese, too! L’chaim!

 

        

 

Blog Tour: Tag You’re It, or Hide and Seek?

Marion Beaman of Plain and Fancy graciously invited me to participate in a Blog Tour. Participants are supposed to discuss their own writing and writing techniques and then “tag” others. I am truly honored that Marian asked me, and if you are not familiar with her blog, you should be. Marian is in the midst of writing a memoir, and her blog is filled with wise thoughts, witty and profound quotes, and photos—many of which are from her childhood “Plain” life in Pennsylvania. I’ve never met her offline, but she is kind, gracious, and intelligent, and her blog reflects this. Through her blog, I’ve been recently introduced to the wonderful blogs of Traci Carver, Judy Berman, and Laurie Buchanan.

1. What am I working on now?

I am going to have a busy summer of writing and editing. My current book project is an encyclopedia, The World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia to be published by ABC-CLIO. My deadline is imminent. The book should be out next spring, assuming I survive the process of getting it finished. The project has proven to be much more exhaustive–and exhausting–than I anticipated. As with other encyclopedia projects, rounding up and keeping track of contributors has been a constant problem—even more so than in other projects I’ve worked on for some reason. As a result, I have had to rewrite several entries, and I’m writing many more than I expected to write.

Any second now, I expect to receive the copyedited manuscript for another encyclopedia project that Marian mentioned, a Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, which should be out in September.

I also work as a freelance test-writer for ETS (Educational Testing Service), and during the summer, I always have more of this work. Then there is this blog—which I consider my “fun writing.”

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

For many reference books, and certainly for the encyclopedias, there are formats and guidelines that have to be followed. I think what might make my work different is the subject matter that I covered in several of them—rape, sexuality, women’s roles, and breasts! Most of the reference books I’ve done, I was asked to do by editors at the various presses. The book formats and subject matter were already approved. For my recent History of American Cooking, I was told what topics should be covered, but what I think made it “me” was the touch of humor and pop culture references I included—at least I hope that comes through. My first book, Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830, was an original work, and I think groundbreaking for its time. When it came out in 1991, historians had not written very much on the subject, and some of the sources I used had not been explored at all.

One has to follow very specific guidelines in writing test items, but there is some flexibility and creativity in the types of situations one can imagine. I always have little scenes in my head—even if it is only for a fill-in-the-blank grammar sentence. I could probably give you the whole back-story on some person mentioned in the sentence. I don’t know if this is typical. Probably not.

3. Why do I write what I do? 

Well, it’s a combination of love and work. Writing academic works is definitely hard work. On good days, it’s a labor of love. On bad days, it’s just work. The same goes for the test writing. Blogging is just fun.At some point, I’d like to work on something else—perhaps a memoir or novel.

4. How does my writing process work?

It’s kind of controlled chaos. I tend to write from notes scribbled on legal pads and sticky notes (yes, backs of envelops, too—hey, if it worked for Lincoln, why not?), and half-outlines that usually change as I go. I keep various folders on my computer desktop, too. And because I’m usually working on multiple projects, there are many notepads, many books, and many folders. But somehow from all that disorder, I usually manage to submit a decent product.

I usually work at my kitchen table with books and papers all over the place. I don’t like to be closed up in a study, and I like to be able to stir a pot of soup or bake something while I work. That’s my idea of multitasking. My workspace usually looks like this:

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

My Faithful Companion rests on the morning newspaper

Coffee is a must--usually in a mug with my older daughter's play logo

Coffee is a must–usually in a mug with my older daughter’s play logo

Sometimes this happens.

 

An additional trick--he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

An additional trick–he also pulls bookmarks out of my books.

 

Now for the rest of the tour. I should have remembered how bad I am at playing tag. I dutifully contacted several people “behind the scenes” to see if they would like to participate, but all were busy or for various reasons declined. Did I mention that not only am I bad at tag, but I also get bored with games? People are hiding, but I don’t feel like seeking. I tend to just go off to do my own thing–probably why I’m at home writing a blog post, right?

So instead of officially “tagging” people, I’m simply going to mention a few blogs I enjoy, and if the bloggers want to pursue the “tour,” they can, and if not, oh well, I guess the tour stops here. But don’t unfasten your seat belt until we come to a full stop. We’re not there yet.

Cynthia Bertelsen’s blog, Gherkins & Tomatoes is filled with exquisite musings on food and history, along with gorgeous photography. She is the author of Mushroom: A Global History, and is now working on a history of cookbooks, which should be amazing. Her posts always make me think about the history of food in new ways. Shanna Koeningsdorf Ward is not working on a writing project, as far as I know, but her blog, Curls and Carrots, is always filled with photos of delicious dishes she has prepared, often with the help of her two adorable children. I am curious how she pulls it all off—constant cooking and baking, photography, and keeping two children amused and photo-ready—perhaps she’ll tell us how she does it.

OK. Now we’re done. I hope you enjoyed the tour.  Watch your step as you exit–you never know when a crazed blogger might jump out to tag you.

What is a Father?

“It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”

–Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

As millions throughout history have discovered, it is easy to become a father—a few thrusts done in love, lust, or violence, and the biological act is completed and the father can walk away if he chooses to. It is much more difficult to actually be a parent to the child that arrives nine months later.

         Concepts of fatherhood vary across the globe. Through the ages, concepts of fatherhood have changed in Western culture. When British colonists came to what is now the United States, families were idealized as “little commonwealths.” Fathers were considered to be the head of the household, as a king was the head of a nation. By the mid-eighteenth century, the concept was changing, as were ideas of marriage, and many couples expected to be equal and loving partners within the marriage. Although men still had charge of business and politics, the domestic sphere became women’s domain, and so did most matters regarding child rearing.*

         Concepts of American fatherhood have changed within my lifetime. I was a quiet ninth-grade student when I first met my future father-in-law; I was a bit terrified. He was a stern father to his two sons, the epitome of the button-downed fifties man, the man in the gray flannel suit. Yet, there was no doubt that he loved his sons deeply. He mellowed as a grandfather, allowing our two little girls to wrap their arms and whims around him, as they prattled about things he was clueless about. What did he know about little girls? But he would sing, “C is for Cookie,” and played with them. Later, he became the adored “Grandpa With a Cane” to my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s son.

         A blogger friend and I have both commented in separate posts that our fathers did not know how to do laundry. My mother said that my father never changed any of our diapers, and she handled the household duties and childcare arrangements (as well as working full-time in their antique business). But my father played with my little sister and me. He took us on field trips—and after they were divorced, he took us on journeys to museums, movies, and historical sites. He even took our friends with us on vacations to the Jersey shore.

         My own husband was a “hands-on” father from the beginning. While women of an older generation marveled at this, I expected it. One summer when I had a fellowship and he was home from teaching, he would take the girls to the pool each afternoon, and I would meet them there later. “Isn’t he a wonderful father, taking the little girls to the pool?” they gushed. Well, yes, it was wonderful—in the same way that it was wonderful, when I, their mother, took them when he was at work. I guess that shows how times have changed.

         Fathers of all sorts are found in mythology, religion, history, and literature. For example, there’s Zeus, father of the gods, to the ancient Greeks. Often pictured with a thunderbolt, he ruled gods and humans–and fathered many of each. The Judeo-Christian-Muslim God is also portrayed as a father, and the bible is filled with patriarchs, such as Abraham. Kings and tyrants (sometimes one and the same) are often referred to as fathers of the country, but their literal fatherhood has been an issue when it came to succession—think of Henry VIII and his six wives.

         Here in the US, we refer to the Revolutionary Era leaders as “the Founding Fathers.” We know now that they were both ordinary and extraordinary. Many of them had lofty minds, but feet of clay—they were human, not demigods. George Washington, “father of our country,” was tall, imposing, and popular. He was elected unanimously to be the first president of the United States. He suffered from dental problems, and he and his wife Martha never had children of their own, although he helped to raise the children from her previous marriage, and then two grandchildren. Washington was a slaveholder. He freed his slaves in his will but was unable to free the slaves belonging to his wife.

         Fathers abound in literature, and they are as varied as literature itself. The tragic King Lear descending into madness to Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bennet trying to cope with and marry off his daughters. Jean Valjean raises a daughter as his own and crazed Jack Torrance of The Shining tries to kill his own son. The heroic Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is probably my favorite literary father.

         What is a father? I don’t know. Perhaps to paraphrase the famous phrase by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, “I know one when I see it.”

         What are some of your favorite literary or historical fathers—good or bad?

 

*This is vastly oversimplified. For more on marriage and family in colonial and Revolutionary America, here are just a few suggestions:

Morgan, Edmund S. 1944. The Puritan Family: Religion and Domestic Relations in Seventeenth-Century New England. New York: Harper and Row.

Morgan, Jennifer L. 2004. Laboring Women: Reproduction and Gender in New World Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Norton, Mary Beth. 1996. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800, with a new preface. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Smith, Merril D. 1991. Breaking the Bonds: Marital Discord in Pennsylvania, 1730-1830. New York: NYU Press.

Wilson, Lisa. 1999. Ye Heart of a Man: Domestic Life of Men in Colonial New England. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

 

Airing Out Some [Thoughts On] Laundry

“I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don’t have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?”

–Anonymous

Laundry: a chore that most likely everyone reading this blog has performed, probably numerous times. I’ve been reading and writing about washing clothes in mid-18th century America this past week for my forthcoming World of the American Revolution: A Daily Life Encyclopedia, and suddenly everywhere I turn there are laundry references—the latest episode of the TV show, Fargo; the gym friend’s remark about having a pile of ironing to do (My response? I think we have an iron somewhere in the house.), and of course the never-ending piles of dirty clothes that my husband and I manage to accrue. I’m not certain how two people can accumulate so much, but somehow there it is.

         When my husband and I were first married, we lived in a garden-style apartment complex. Laundry facilities were located in a separate building across the large parking lot from our apartment. Because it was not very convenient to carry the clothes over, especially if it was raining or snowing, we waited until we had nothing to wear—I bought us both extra underwear—and then my husband would load the bags and bags of our dirty clothing, towels, and sheets into his car and drive it across the lot. He was willing to sit there at odd hours feeding quarters into the machines, and then driving our clean laundry back to our apartment. (To be honest, it frightened me to sit there or even to go into that building alone.) One of our first purchases after moving into our next apartment (in a converted twin house) was a washer and dryer to go in the basement.

         My mom and dad’s first apartment in 1940s Philadelphia had a clothesline strung between the windows of two buildings. I’ve only seen these in movies. She had to cart the baby (my older brother) and dirty clothes to the Laundromat, bring the now wet clothes back, go up the four flights of stairs, finding a space for the baby carriage, and then hang out the clothes to dry. I know she was happy to finally have her own washer and dryer when they had their own house. I believe my father bought them for her as a surprise—to make her work easier—but I’m fairly certain he never touched the machines himself.

         Still, this was nothing compared to the problems of washing clothing and sheets in the eighteenth-century—or in areas today where there is no running water, a situation that is particularly dangerous for women. (Most of the world now knows that the two young Indian girls who were recently raped, murdered, and left hanging on a tree, left their home to relieve themselves in the fields because they had no toilet facilities. In many parts of the world, women have to travel long distances to haul water back to their homes, risking attacks during these journeys.)

         For Anglo-Americans of the eighteenth century, new ideas about gentility influenced laundry practices. The global economy was also a major factor in changing idea about cleanliness—one of the most important and frequently imported items to British North America was Irish linen. To be considered “genteel,” men and women had to have clean hands and faces, and snowy white shirts and cuffs. The rest of the body didn’t have to be immersed daily, or even yearly, for that matter, nor did silk or woolen gowns and coats have to be washed. The shifts and undergarments that touched the body were supposed to be washed regularly, as they were the garments that absorbed perspiration from the body. Bedding and table linen had to be washed as well to ensure the appearance of being genteel.*

         As the need to appear clean became more important, so did the regularity of washing clothes. Long Island farm wife, Mary Cooper complained about having to miss church meeting because she didn’t have clean clothing. In her diary, Philadelphia Quaker Elizabeth Drinker also mentioned people missing meeting because they did not have clean clothing to wear there. What once had been a monthly, or even seasonal activity became a weekly ordeal by the late eighteenth century or early nineteenth-century. Monday often became the designated laundry day. Water had to be hauled and heated, irons had to be heated, and clothes dried, sometimes by draping it over bushes or on the grass. A rainy day could jeopardize the whole procedure. Laundry was hot, heavy, onerous work, and households that could afford to do so, hired laundresses. Wealthy slaveholders built separate laundry, or laundry-kitchen buildings, partly as a status symbol indicating they had large amounts of clothing to be washed and laborer to do it the task.

         Here are links to two photographs of washing days from the nineteenth-century. The first shows an advertisement for laundry soap with happy housewives hanging their clothes on a line. The second, undated, portrays the reality of doing laundry without running water or machines. The clothes are boiled in the kettle and spread over shrubs to dry. The women do not look happy.

         Undoubtedly laundry is a chore, although one that is not too burdensome in homes with running water, electricity or gas, and working appliances. The loss of any of those three items makes the process more difficult, if not impossible–until one goes to a public laundromat, the machines get repaired, or the power is restored. It is easy enough for me to throw a load of wash in the machine, and then go and do other things, like write a blog post. In the US, laundry is often a cultural reference or a topic for jokes. In one episode of the Gilmore Girls, for example, Lorelai meets her daughter’s headmaster for the first time while dressed in a ridiculous outfit because the rest of her clothes were dirty—it’s laundry day! We joke about the college students returning home with bundles of dirty laundry for mom to wash, and sometimes it’s true.

         Laundry has produced other slang terms and references—a “laundry list” of items, “dirty laundry,” as in gossip about private matters. A friend of mine used the phrase “folding laundry” as a euphemism for sex. Apparently “doing laundry” is also a slang term for sex.

         Have you ever thought this much about washing your clothing? Have you ever wanted to? Hmmm. . .don’t answer that. Do you have a good laundry-related story? Share it below.

*This is a very brief summary, of course. For more on cleanliness in early America, see, Kathleen M. Brown, Foul Bodies: Cleanliness in Early America, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009. For more on daily life during the era of the American Revolution, you’ll have to wait for my book!

For Elizabeth Drinker and Mary Cooper:

Elizabeth Forman Crane, ed. The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, 3 vols., Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1991.

Field Horne, ed. The Diary of Mary Cooper: Life on a Long Island Farm, 1768-1773. Oyster Bay, NY: Oyster Bay Historical Society, 1981.

 

In Memoriam: Monuments, Cookies, and Tea

 

In the United States, this past weekend marked the celebration of Memorial Day (on Monday), and the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day is a day for remembering the men and women who died serving in the US armed forces. It is observed with parades, visits to cemeteries, and other solemn events at monuments, such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The weekend is also celebrated as the unofficial start of summer with people traveling to the beach and attending other outdoor events, such as picnics and barbecues. Over the past few days, I’ve pondered this dichotomy. On NPR I heard the father of a son killed in Afghanistan say that he never faults people for having a good time on Memorial Day because it never meant anything to him until his own son was killed—and this man was on active duty at the time. (Link to the story here.)

I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a child, parent, spouse, or friend in war. I don’t know how I would react, or how I would grieve. Yet to those who are not grieving, the mixture of solemnity, remembrance, and frivolous fun that takes place over the Memorial Day weekend seem fitting to me because that is what life is about, isn’t it? It’s solemn moments of remembrance, honoring and sharing memories of those gone but not forgotten, and then going on with life and creating new memories.

I’ve also pondered another aspect of Memorial Day—how do we honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country without condoning war itself? As far as I know, there is only one veteran in my family, my mother’s father. His duty to his adopted country is ironic because he fled the country of his birth to escape being drafted into the Tsar’s army—or at least that’s the story I’ve been told. Whether that story is true or not, it is true that Russia was going through a turbulent time, and such times are often even worse for Jews. My grandfather must have left Russia just before the war and revolution. In any case, he did not serve in the country of his birth. He had only lived in the US, his adopted country, for a brief time before the nation entered WWI, and he was drafted. I never spoke to him about his early life, or about his service in the US navy. I imagine it was not something he particularly wanted or chose to do. If someone were to ask me if I was proud of him for his military service, I would say yes, but since I know nothing about his service, I am more proud of him for having the courage to leave his homeland and travel across the ocean (the recent movie, The Immigrant is a vivid portrayal of the perils of immigration in the early 1920s just after WWI), of learning to speak, read, and write English, of making a living during the Depression, of raising two wonderful children, my mother and my uncle, and of living a full and rewarding life after the tragic death of my grandmother in a car accident. He was the driver.

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My Grandfather Jack, taken during WWI. He looks so young. I wonder if he had this photograph taken for his family or for my grandmother?

He was a fun grandfather. He took my little sister and me for long walks when he visited us and played games with us—the type of activities he did not have time for when his own children were young.

I’ve been thinking about war recently. There has been a recent bounty of material on WWI, which began one hundred years ago with the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 in Sarajevo. It was the war that brought soldiers to the hell of trench warfare. It was the first war to use particular forms of machinery, such as machine guns and flamethrowers, as well as poisonous gas. The war decimated the young male population of countries throughout Europe, and left thousands of men physically or mentally damaged—“shell shocked,” as it was called then.

For my current book project I’ve been reading and writing about the American Revolution. It was a different type of warfare from WWI, with different causes and different aims. Similarly, WWII was different from WWI. Each generation fights over different territory; each invents new ways to fight, but the result is still death. I’m an idealist, but not totally naïve. I understand that there have always been wars, and that people will always argue whether they are “justified” or not. I honor those who have served in both war and peace, but I don’t think war should be glorified, even if necessary to fight evil. There is nothing glorious about war and killing people.

The British war poet, Wilfred Owen, who fought during WWI, and who ultimately died in combat, expressed these sentiments better than I ever could; he also captured the absolute horror of war in his poetry. His poem “Dulce et Decorum Est” ends with these words:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 (You can access the full poem here. )

We memorialize wars publicly with monuments and parades, but we build private memorials in our hearts and minds. We remember what our loved ones enjoyed or disliked, what they wore, said, and did. So perhaps moving from war to memories of food here is not such a stretch. After all, people often bring food to those who are grieving. The preparing of food brings comfort to those who wonder how to help or what to do, while eating and sharing meals brings its own comfort.

Thinking about my grandfather, reminded me of these cookies pictured below, which I have probably not made in twenty years. They are labeled “Aunt Rae Cookies” on my recipe card, named for my grandfather’s second wife. My mom told me though that all of her aunts made similar cookies. They are dry, rather bland cookies. My grandparents and their relatives did not like sweet, gooey treats. Their cakes and cookies tended to be dry and only slightly sweet—something to have with tea. Memories have compelled me to try them again. So in memory of those long gone, and with the memory of my own teenage self learning to bake and collecting recipes, here are the slightly updated version of Aunt Rae Cookies. Although they are not “Wow” cookies, they are strangely addictive. I “tasted” one, and then ate three more. The recipe has ingredients, but no real directions. Also, I’m not certain if I didn’t count correctly, or if the cookies simply needed an extra cup of flour, so it might be 3 cups or 4 cups. OK. I’m not a professional. I’ve added some flavoring—vanilla and almond extract—to the recipe, along with some finely ground walnuts, and a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. I think I would add more nuts next time. Enjoy with a cup of tea, coffee, or a glass of wine—and your own memories, of course.

 

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Aunt Rae Cookies

3 (or 4) Cups Flour

1 Cup Sugar

3 Eggs

2 Tsp. Baking Powder

¼ tsp. Salt

¾ cup Vegetable oil

Optional: Flavoring, Ground nuts, cinnamon and sugar

Whisk eggs until light, whisk in sugar, oil, and flavoring, if desired. (I used about 1 tsp vanilla extract and ½ tsp. almond extract). Stir in flour, baking powder, salt, and nuts. I used about ¼ cup finely ground walnuts and almonds. Drop spoonfuls of dough onto parchment paper lined cookie sheets. Sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake at 350° for about 10 minutes.

 

Graduation is Just the Beginning

I’ve seen dozens of Facebook comments about and photos of college graduations over the past few days. I’m happy and excited for the new graduates and their families. I remember our younger daughter’s graduation last year, and our older daughter’s graduation four years ago. This summer our older daughter is getting married, and in the next year, she will graduate from graduate school. Both daughters are excited and terrified at the process of becoming adults (and learning that the process comes in sputtering fits and false starts). They are both remarkably mature young women though, and in truth, they seem so much older and wiser than I was when I was in my early to mid twenties.

It seems like a century ago since I received my Ph.D. I was a new mother then, and learning to be both a parent and attempting to find a place in academia, a place I never found. But that is OK–because it gave my other opportunities. I am a different person now, more confident in myself.

Recent articles, such as this one in The Atlantic, have discussed the confidence gap that many women feel. I know my own lack of self-confidence and self-doubt have probably influenced the tract of my career (or lack thereof). I sometimes grimace at some of the things I said and did when I was younger. At the same, I am comfortable with the decisions I’ve made and with who I am. I suspect I am fortunate in this. I have also tried to learn from my mistakes. I have found that to some extent the old adage about wisdom coming with age is true. Not that all elderly people are wise necessarily, but rather that life experience helps to teach us, IF we want to learn. In a comment on someone’s blog recently, I mentioned how I learned from giving a really awful presentation—I learned to trust my own judgment about what should be in my presentation, not what others, who are not experts, tell me they think they want me to discuss.

At the same time, I know I need to push myself to do things, such as presentations. And sometimes, I just have to DO them and take a risk, and ignore the “what ifs.” (Every time I push the “publish” button for a blog post I’ve written, it is preceded by a few seconds of “should I?” doubt.)

There is also the curse of perfectionism. Maybe I need to add one more thing. Maybe I’m not good enough to do this?

I love this quote by Anne Lamott:

“It’s time to get serious about joy and fulfillment, work on our books, songs, dances, gardens. But perfectionism is always lurking nearby, like the demonic prowling lion in the Old Testament, waiting to pounce. It will convince you that your work-in-progress is not great, and that you may never get published. (Wait, forget the prowling satanic lion — your parents, living or dead, almost just as loudly either way, and your aunt Beth, and your passive-aggressive friends, whom we all think you should ditch, are going to ask, “Oh, you’re writing again? That’s nice. Do you have an agent?”)”

And I’ve faced this, too–the people who think I don’t work because my I write from home, and my schedule is flexible. Sometimes. Thank goodness for deadlines, right?

So new graduates, I have no advice for you. Because really, who am I to give you advice? All I can say is this: Live your life. Be the best you that you can be. You will make mistakes, but continue on, and learn from them, if you can. Oh yes, and one more thing, cherish your friends and loved ones. The ones who truly love you will love you even when you make mistakes. They will also give you confidence boosters and an occasional “go do it already” kick-in-the-butt—which, let’s face it, is sometimes the thing we need the most. Well, along with coffee, chocolate, and wine.

I’m pushing “publish” now. Let me know what you think. And now I better get to work.

 

 

 

Colors of Love

 When we were little

You took us to the library,

our nearby Dallas branch.

My sister and I chose books

in the children’s section,

then wandered through the library,

where we stood over the air vents

and let our skirts fly up as we twirled,

simply because we were young

and it was fun.

I sometimes sat on your bed

and read my books aloud to you,

while you put on your makeup

or brushed your hair—

it was coffee brown then.

You stood in the attached bathroom.

We called it “the pink bathroom.”

But I never realized until just now

how important color was in our lives–

that we labeled rooms by color.

 

You, an artist in your soul,

see color everywhere.

You would liked to have gone to art school,

but your parents thought that was impractical.

And so you chose colors where you could

for your walls,

for your furnishings,

for our clothing.

I remember the blue and gray suede shoes

you saw for me when you worked

at Lord and Taylor’s.

And how fun you thought orange woodwork would be

in the room my sister and I shared

in Havertown.

You collected Chinese ceramics,

the beautiful turquoise hue

adding more color

to your surroundings,

but you didn’t have the time to paint

flowers or landscapes

while we were young.

You were busy working

and driving us to lessons

and taking care of us when we were sick.

But you made certain we knew colors–

and had art—crayons, paper, and homemade clay,

a special treat for rainy days.

And your color-knowledge passed to my daughters.

Our first-born gray-eyed daughter

still a toddler telling her father

she wanted to go to the restaurant

with the green door.

(We had never noticed the door.)

But she always remembered colors,

and taught color names and knowledge to her sister,

before I even had a chance.

What is the opposite of color blindness?

Is it marked on our genes?

 

You and my father,

though you disagreed and parted,

did agree about many things.

You agreed on the importance of art, music,

and books.

I read nearly all of the books

in the built-in bookcase in our family room.

Rows of long shelves filled with books

their spines in shades of brown, blue, red,

green, and white,

bringing random color to the wall.

It didn’t matter what they were,

history, art, the classics—

I read them.

And I found the jumbo-sized

Hershey’s chocolate bar hidden there, too.

I broke off squares for my sister and me–

and then neatly shelved the bar

back into the bookcase,

where it appeared to be just another book.

 

Now your hair is white,

and my tangled brown curls

are gone.

The colors of my childhood have vanished,

but the memories remain.

I didn’t realize that not all households held such treasures—

books, art, and music, I mean.

I didn’t realize

that all families don’t visit museums

or play “the dictionary game” at the dinner table.

I didn’t realize–

how fortunate we were.

There was always love for us.

And books,

And color,

And, chocolate, of course.

 ©Merril D. Smith, May 2014

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At Valley Green, along the Wishahickon.

 

Visions of May

“Doctor, my eyes
Tell me what is wrong
Was I unwise to leave them open for so long”

–Jackson Browne

 

“And a bird overhead sang Follow,
And a bird to the right sang Here;
And the arch of the leaves was hollow,
And the meaning of May was clear.”

–Algernon Charles Swinburne

 Yesterday morning I sat in the waiting room of the surgical center, and I waited—of course. It was May first, May Day, the day of flowers and revolution, parades and Maypoles. In our region, torrential April showers the night before left flooded streets and hopes that now giant May blooms will spring forth. In any case, I waited. I edited three entries for my next book, checked Facebook, read part of a novel, and waited some more. My husband was having cataract surgery done. This was his second surgery; he’d had the first eye done a few weeks ago. He is fine (except for some extra pressure in his eye right now), and so thrilled to be able to see well. “I can read that!” he exclaims about words that appear on the screen when we watch TV.

         I marvel that surgery such as this—removing the lens from an eye and replacing it with a new lens is now “routine surgery.” Yes, I know every surgery carries risks, and I know that some people have had problems with cataract surgery—and probably every type of surgery—but still, I marvel.

         For the past week or so, I’ve been immersed in eighteenth-century medicine. I’ve read about Washington’s teeth—there was a man with some dental problems! I’ve thought about what women and doctors said about menstruation–and tried to imagine coping with that before disposable pads, tampons, or running water. I’ve examined documents about eighteenth-century epidemics and medical techniques. And so, though I long for the non-invasive medical techniques practiced by Dr. McCoy and Dr. Crusher on Star Trek in their respective Enterprise sick bays, I still marvel at how medicine has advanced from the eighteenth-century.

         All types of revolutions took place in the eighteenth-century. There was the revolution that gave my country, the United States of America, its independence. There was a revolution in France a few years later that toppled its monarchy, at least for a time. The revolution in Haiti ended slavery there and sent French masters to the new United States. But, there were also revolutions in science and scientific thinking, as men—and women—sought, as they have throughout time, to explain the world around them.

The changes to “scientific practices” were not always beneficial. For example, in the late eighteenth-century, Martha Ballard, a midwife in Maine, delivered nearly 1,000 babies without any mother dying during delivery, and only five mothers died during the “lying-in” period. These rates were much lower than that of her contemporary physicians. Ballard, was a particularly skilled and conscientious mid-wife; some of the physicians who delivered babies did not have her skill or experience. In addition, physicians sometimes attended laboring mothers after they had examined seriously ill patients. Since this was before doctors and the lay public understood how diseases were spread or about the need for sanitary practices and sterilization (some people still don’t understand—like those people who don’t wash their hands in public restrooms. Ewwwww!), “advancement” in obstetrical techniques practiced by physicians sometimes led to more deaths of mothers than the traditional birthing procedures practiced by midwives.*

Still, I marvel. While working on my forthcoming Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, I read several gruesome accounts of women undergoing mastectomies without anesthesia. The over diagnoses and treatment of breast cancer is a debate to have at another time, but I think all would agree that surgery without anesthesia, X-rays, and other modern surgical tools is not something we would want to experience.

I get so peeved when I hear people talk about the good old days that never really existed. There have always been wars, murders, rapes, stealing, and child molestation. Since ancient times, art, music, and storytelling have also existed. Humans have invented better and more efficient ways to kill, but we’ve always invented better ways to heal. We are complex, creative creatures, and sometimes also amazingly simple and stupid.

Some revolutions have brought death, but they have also brought freedom. Some revolutions have brought new ideas. Who know what this month of May will bring? I’m hoping for bright new visions—and flowers, of course.

 

 

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Longwood Gardens

* Further reading on eighteenth-century midwives and childbirth:

Leavitt, Judith Walzer. 1986. Brought to Bed: Childbearing in America, 1750 to 1950. New York: Oxford University Press.

Scholten, Catherine M. 1985. Childbearing in American Society: 1650-1850. New York: New York University Press.

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. 1990. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. New York: Knopf.