Category Archives: women

She could not be negative or perfunctory.

I’m reading My Antonia again — actually listening for the second time, to the recording narrated by Jeff Cummings. Next time I’d like to hear a different narrator, because I think Cummings makes the adult narrator of the story, Jim Burden, sound like young Anne of Green Gables. And he reads too fast, which doesn’t suit the pace of life depicted in the novel, and does an injustice to Willa Cather’s evocative prose.

This may be the fifth time I’ve read the book, and every time is a fresh experience. A paragraph or a personality will jump out at me as though I’m encountering it for the first time. For example, the introduction to the Burdens’ Norwegian neighbors after they moved into town:

“Mrs. Harling was short and square and sturdy-looking, like her house. Every inch of her was charged with an energy that made itself felt the moment she entered a room. Her face was rosy and solid, with bright, twinkling eyes and a stubborn little chin. She was quick to anger, quick to laughter, and jolly from the depths of her soul. How well I remember her laugh; it had in it the same sudden recognition that flashed into her eyes, was a burst of humour, short and intelligent.

“Her rapid footsteps shook her own floors, and she routed lassitude and indifference wherever she came. She could not be negative or perfunctory about anything. Her enthusiasm, and her violent likes and dislikes, asserted themselves in all the everyday occupations of life. Wash-day was interesting, never dreary, at the Harlings’. Preserving-time was a prolonged festival, and house-cleaning was like a revolution. When Mrs. Harling made garden that spring, we could feel the stir of her undertaking through the willow hedge that separated our place from hers.”

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The “Harling House” in Red Cloud, Nebraska

Rigo

Some of you knew, and others of you maybe guessed, that I had come to visit Kate this month so that I’d be present for the birth of a grandchild. He has arrived, a little brother for Raj, and has expanded our family and our hearts. I have never been more blessed to share in this kind of history-making.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s when my friends and I were in our childbearing years, many of us decided that we wanted to give birth at home, where we could enjoy the miracle event in a warm and quiet environment surrounded by our dearest people. In hospitals in those days,  various inappropriate medical protocols were routinely applied to women and newborns, as they still are in some “modernizing” places in the world.

Most of my likeminded peers found doctors and lay midwives to attend births; a few did it without any outside help. One doctor in our county attended my first child’s birth in a hospital, and three at home. Kate was my last baby, born at home with a certified nurse-midwife in attendance. We usually liked to have two or more other women at hand to help with household or birth-related tasks as well. Maybe to watch older children, bake a birth day cake, fetch things for the midwife or make up the bed with clean sheets afterward.

I was one of these friends who was happy to be called, often as a sort of lay doula whose only training had been on-the-job, and from my own experience. The cultural setting of a certain time and place gave me special opportunities, and Providence enabled me to take advantage of them.

These blessings have continued as my own daughters have asked me to be with them in the hospital when they give birth. I’m aware that not every grandmother gets this kind of invitation; so often we are the ones who take care of older children when a younger sibling is coming into the family. Even in cases where we might fit into the birth plan more directly, it doesn’t always work out. Joy asked both her mother and mother-in-law, and it was impossible for either of us, four times.

I am supremely grateful for these experiences. To accompany a woman on her birth journey, to wait together as women have done since the beginning of time, feels like a sacred trust. Waiting on God and waiting for the process to unfold, from the first signs of labor until the child is placed in her arms… it is such a privilege. And it never gets old, seeing a child emerge from the womb.

For a long time now, the births I have waited for and witnessed have all been in hospitals. These days most of them are peaceful and geared to the needs of the families more than to hospital efficiency, and sometimes I even have a rocking chair to rock in while we wait and pray, or chat quietly. Or sleep, as Kate and both of us fellow-waiters did for a while before this child decided to get on with it.

And when he did push out and take his first breath, the momentous moment passed without a nod at its passing. The next moment was full of jubilance and awe. We laughed, and wept. Everyone admired the little round head. Soon he was snuggled up to Kate,  looking all around, and suckling. A human’s skin is never so soft as when he is fresh from the womb; then begins the lifelong drying-up process. But not to worry — there is plenty of softness at the totally out-of-this world level for a couple of months, and we are smooching him as though by our kisses we drink from the fountain of youth.

I’ve nicknamed the tiny guy “Amerigo,” or “Rigo” for short, for purposes of my blog, after the cartographer and explorer Amerigo Vespucci whose (latinized) name was given to the New World.

Welcome, little Rigo! God bless you as you begin your explorations!

Wooed by beauty and delight.

Just this morning I reread an old post in which I was musing on the Kasses’ research on young people who don’t fall in love the way previous generations did; I switched from there to my cup of tea and print copy of the current Touchstone Magazine, where Anthony Esolen happened to be exploring a related question in “Surprised by Delight: Divine Love and the Love of Man and Woman Surpass Mere Consent.” He skillfully brings together passages from Paradise Lost, John Donne, the Bible, and other sources to flesh out what he means by the delight of both types of love, and asks also, Why did our grandparents, in spite of hard lives full of suffering, retain a memory of delight in their relationships with the opposite sex? One excerpt, from a passage quoting Milton:

The “virgin majesty of Eve” needs no political program to protect or promote her. Virtue itself, embodied in distinctly feminine form, builds in her its lovely seat of authority, and guards her round about with awe. Eve, too, will acknowledge the superior power of Adam, when she describes her submission to his wooing, saying that from that moment on, she sees “how beauty is excelled by manly grace, / And wisdom, which alone is truly fair.”

So should we stress that each sex is for the other, raising boys and girls to be both separate from one another and destined to be united with one another; to use that separate development to endow each sex with peculiar gifts for the other, which the other will experience with surprise and gratitude. Common sense. Familiarity breeds contempt, and nobody ever said, “I love her, because I find nothing surprising in her.” We are swept away not by what we possess in ourselves, but by what we could never imagine in ourselves. If boys and girls are treated indifferently, should we expect them to treat one another as specifically members of the opposite sex with anything but indifference?

I’ve been wanting for a long time to post the poem below, trying and failing to find a painting to go with it. Maybe the descriptions from Esolen’s article (the whole article appears to be available: here) are better at placing the poem in a universal context of the delight of love and beauty and thankfulness, of which we all have our own concrete and sweet examples.

PART OF PLENTY

When she carries food to the table and stoops down
–Doing this out of love–and lays soup with its good
Tickling smell, or fry winking from the fire
And I look up, perhaps from a book I am reading
Or other work: there is an importance of beauty
Which can’t be accounted for by there and then,
And attacks me, but not separately from the welcome
Of the food, or the grace of her arms.
When she puts a sheaf of tulips in a jug
And pours in water and presses to one side
The upright stems and leaves that you hear creak,
Or loosens them, or holds them up to show me,
So that I see the tangle of their necks and cups
With the curls of her hair, and the body they are held
Against, and the stalk of the small waist rising
And flowering in the shape of breasts;
Whether in the bringing of the flowers or of the food
She offers plenty, and is part of plenty,
And whether I see her stooping, or leaning with the flowers,
What she does is ages old, and she is not simply,
No, but lovely in that way.

-Bernard Spencer

Hankies

P1100171Once in Sunday School a missionary’s talk tugged at my ten-year-old heartstrings  and my eyes and nose started leaking. My own Sunday School teacher Mrs. Montgomery saw my predicament and pressed her clean hankie into my hand. I was initiated.

My grandmother probably owned quite a few handkerchiefs, but she liked modern conveniences like Kleenex, and I suspect that her cloth versions lay in a drawer, waiting to be passed on to me. Where I grew up on a farm, I never saw one.

Until I inherited Grandma’s I might have owned just this one I had bought iP1100172n Turkey, the oddest handkerchief I have ever encountered. I must not have had much experience after that missionary talk, or I would have known better than to buy a handkerchief with a grid of heavy stitching all over it, seemingly designed to irritate a nose that might already be red and raw. I keep it now only as a memento.

My mother-in-law also left many pretty examples, some of which look like they have been well used, but I think not by her. She likely inherited many from her mother and aunts, who were known to make things like this. I think this dark blue hankie must be a homemade one.

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I’ve been using hankies from all these womenfolk for at least fifteen years now, glad to stop having tissues in my pocket, because one would too frequently get into the washing machine and turn to shreds, making a mess on dark clothes. I’ve heard that the soft and sheer cloth that most of these are made from is easier on your skin than facial tissue – Do you think that is a myth?

My husband wanted to sP1100167top using paper tissues so I made him quite a few of these plaid handkerchiefs out of an old skirt of mine. He typically had one sticking out of his back pocket, and now I’ve inherited this collection, too.

There may be dust bunnies on my floors and dishes in the sink, but I always take the time to iron my hankies and handkerchiefs, and to have a stack of them downstairs and handy for when I go out, especially on a walk or in cold weather when the cold front meets the warm front….

Jeans and hiking boots are often my style, and in the backpacking era I’d have had a bandanna along, but nowadays when I reach into my pocket on frosty mornings it will be to find a dainty hankie that is a most practical accessory, and serves the added purpose of keeping me in mind of my foremothers.

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