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siblings ellen, paul and agnes

sunday meal at the farm - sisters mabel and almeda at the head in front of the china cupboard, mom is up and fetching for her mother.

sisters polly, hattie, ginny and mom

2507 belle square in sarah's sampler by mom





five sisters and mom - can you guess whose is whose?

my first mom interview

this writing from the spring of 1997 was the first somewhat formal/direct interview that i did with my mother. it helped to define the topics i would pursue in further interviews with her and her siblings.

in response to carol becker's discussion in zones of contention: essays on art, institutions, gender and anxiety on the prodigal daughter and on the transition from women expressing themselves directly rather than through others i interviewed my mother. my questions for her began after i read from the text "in the nineteenth century if women did leave the home, they became protagonist in stories told about 'the fallen woman' - the one who has sexual relationships out of wedlock, who perhaps bears a child and either dies in the process, unsheltered by the world, or is taken back by the family on condition that she live as a virtual nun for the rest of her life." i knew of her aunt ellen who at the age of 20, around the turn of the century, had committed suicide because she was pregnant and unmarried. the church then refused to bury her because of her double sin. that is when her younger brother, paul, my grandfather, denounced the church which began the tradition of atheism in my family.

i asked my mother about her mother, mabel who married paul. they were a farm family - both of swedish immigrants. i wanted to know if mabel had an outlet for artwork. mom said mabel did a little painting but mainly there was no time on the farm. she said "she quilted not only as a necessity but also some nicer quilts, not all utilitarian." she said "she had more time than some women because she had a hired girl that relieved her of some of the utilitarian work such as the mending and making of clothes. also they had electricity and water in the house and a furnace which helped reduce the workload, the kitchen had a wood stove that they had to keep fired. she said housekeeping was not such a big chore as it is now because they had less crap around the house - fewer things in general. she never got into knitting or other forms of handiwork. mabel graduated school at the 8th grade and then went to toben jr. college in northwest iowa around the age of 16. it was an encompassing school, she studied latin, philosophy, history and literature. she also got her certification and was a school teacher for a few years at the age of 19. she was on one of the first girls basketball teams in the state. she met paul and married at 22. throughout my mom's life, she said mabel loved to read in her spare time. sunday's were the day off, they didn't include church- other than meals, mabel got some time to herself. she was a member of the woman's club - it was more intellectual and society project oriented than the church ladies club. mom said it was always assumed that all of mabel and paul's 6 children would go to college - it was assumed that the 4 daughters would have careers.


polly is mom's oldest sister, then hattie, then ginny - mom is the baby of the family. when i asked about the expressive outlets of each of her 3 sisters and herself she explained them this way:

polly was always a reader. always into literature. she was a school teacher for many years and was active in social reading clubs, head of the book study club, organizer of her library at the retirement center. she did very nice sewing but not a lot of it (whereas mom would do a lot of quick "whip it out" sewing that she wouldn't always have the patience to make really nice). mom said polly was never much into quilting or knitting but mainly did needlepoint and handiwork, partly because she could do this kind of lap work while traveling or socializing with family or with her husband bob.


hattie had also pursued a career but did not care for teaching. she went to the aib business college and worked as a secretary for many years. mom described her as working a lot. she always bought new fashionable dresses and later handed them down to mom. she met and married russell and they took over the grocery store in my mom's hometown, gowrie. at first they were encouraged by the previous owners not to have children but after hattie recovered from a lengthy illness she found she was expecting. mom thought that changed hattie. the previous owners had seemed grouchy to her. hattie was responsible for the household because russell was busy with the store. they both were very involved in golf - hattie at first because of russell but then it became "her time" to be alone after marriage. mom said that because they were not part of the church some people wouldn't shop at their grocery store. golf served as their social outlet. hattie's sewing work was crochet - she had 2 boys and so mom said she never got into sewing pretty girl things. she has crochet a blanket for every one of her nieces and nephews.


ginny took a different route. mom described her as totally academic. she had done some sketching when she was young - once she did some posters for the ladies aid society and they were not happy because the drawings were to real to life - more like charicatures. when she was in high school and then college she spent her summers working and writing at the radio station. she traveled the most - she would work as an aid on trips to europe to earn money to go on her own. she moved to texas with her husband and taught as a women's history professor in dallas.


mom described herself as not having enough time to do everything she wants to do now. she feels overwhelmed by housekeeping but doesn't see it as important enough to do. she said if she had time she'd clean, sort and quilt. if i were to describe her artistic outlets i would say she is mainly a quilter - she makes a few every year plus many smaller baby quilts and corduroy afghans for the high school. she has always sewn - everything from doll clothes to instrument cases. when she sews clothing she gets frustrated - her release is to quilt - her quilts are sometimes based on the traditional patterns but also done in amazing creations of her own. she has made a double wedding ring quilt for each of my married siblings - quilting drawings of stories of their lives in white or colored thread on white fabric in the center of each square. heirloom pieces - she also makes a day quilt so that they don't wear out the good one. she gardens like a farmer's daughter - everything grows in excess. she makes grape jelly and juice every year from the harvest - nothing goes to waste.


i asked her about sports - she swims and bikes regularly - she said all of her sisters played tennis, golf and swam when they were young because that is what the "modern girl" did. mom and her sisters all played basketball in high school too - high knee socks and long wavy hair.


most recently mom who teaches learning disabled at my old high school has been working with the mentally disabled students and taking them down into the art room. they worked with the art teacher and did clay and then paper mache. she really enjoyed herself and it was so nice for me to see her get rejuvenated about teaching after 35 years of work. she told me she's doing it with her learning disabled kids now, they work on collages and paintings during class and they have their behavior awareness class discussions as they work. she brought in coat hangers and helped them bend them into different shapes - and then wrap in paper mache.


i asked her the question that people ask me - what did your parents do to raise so many artistic children ? there are 8. she said it "just happened" she said she allowed and encouraged painting on everything - the washer and dryer, the windows, all the time. i asked her if she had had art when she was young and she said none when she was at home, a little bit in school. mainly her school activities were music, journalism and basketball. she said that dad and her saw an interest and talent in martha, the oldest, and kept on encouraging it in all of us. she said it was their goal that they "preserve academics in this world - the heritage of reading and discussing, raising their children to be creative and proactive citizens." i asked her what her mother would think about my sisters. she said mabel would be glad that we're all career oriented and creative.


i asked her about the fact that sarah, for example who has three kids, doesn't always have a lot of time for herself and she said that she thought sarah does what she can and that she expresses herself through what she is doing with the kids. she said that art just happens in all aspects of your life. for example she described the little things in my sisters' lives that she sees as artistic outlets. she described andrea's bathroom sink - it's an old large porcelain sink and she's filled the bottom of it with large round flat river rocks. i asked her about when i was younger how it came about and what she did when i made a life size dummy of myself to put on the back of my tandem to ride in a parade. she said it just developed from talking about it - that art just happened. she described rachel's training of her cats to go on the toilet, and her elaborate salad preparation as artistic extensions of herself. she said we were all exposed to so much. going and seeing, traveling. she said that one of her favorite things to do was to travel and visit art museums, historical places, parks. i asked commented to her that i thought the opportunities for the women in our family had changed a great deal in the last 100 years - she said when ellen was alive that the artform for women was painted china and other victorian home crafts. i can't wait to see how my nieces develop their stories.

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