Monday, August 16, 2010

Goschenhoppen Part 1: Women's Work

What have we traded for the long days of hard labor required for survival, just a century ago? I've been thinking about that lately; most of us don't spend entire days preparing a meal or putting up seasonal foods anymore.  Most of us don't spend our evening hours or our winter days stitching, sewing, and weaving. Most of us have more lofty things to do.  We have careers, we have places to go, we have movies to watch, social obligations, networking to do...

Alice (on the right), her sister and daughter; more about her (Alice) later.
We don't spend entire days weeks months lifetimes elbow to elbow with our daughters and sisters. We don't know each other as firmly and deeply as we once did. One might argue that the advances made in our industrialized world have freed us from domestic slavery.  One might argue that the drudgery of "womens' work" has been lifted from us, and we've been liberated of that burden. I understand those arguments, having lived a relatively independent and productive life.

That being said, I wonder what understandings were met over the open mouth of a steaming canner. I wonder how many soul-searching conversations occurred when the biscuits were being cut, how many family stories were passed to younger generations along with the apple peels, how many moments of compassion fed our hearts as we were making butter from fresh, raw milk. How much familial intimacy was put aside in favor of a quicker, "easier" life?

I don't know.  I've primarily spent my domestic times alone; those brief interludes accompanied by friends or lovers are the exception, and I've found them to be either heart-warming or annoying, depending upon the grace of the person sharing my space.  But what if it wasn't MY space?  If the kitchen (the heart of the home) was the place where the collective women of the family shared THEIR hearts and hopes, wouldn't it be a place of comfort, rather than drudgery?

Working with flax; that's a smile I see, and a younger woman learning from one with experience.
 How precious each item we created must have been; ours wasn't a throw-away culture when a week went into the creation of a shirt, or a month into a table.  That rough-hewn table was as precious as a Chippendale sideboard to the family that made it and used it daily.  Every bit of cloth was used and reused until it was all used up; every bit of cut wood became something useful: furniture, tools, fuel.  Recycling was the norm, rather than a choice to make.

Now, I understand that life was harder; we toiled under the sun, we died in childbirth, we suffered from medical conditions that are now curable.  Advances were made as our society freed us to do the intellectual work that was necessary to advance in the arts and sciences; but there's always a price to be paid, a trade-off. In my nostalgic moments, I still long for a simpler life; a life of connection and meaning. Of simple, honest hard work.

Every child is precious.
 What price, a large family?  In those days, the children were contributing members of the family as soon as they could walk.  They were taught the skills that held the family together: animal husbandry, food preparation, domestic arts, farming, building.  They were born into a tightly knit group that functioned (ideally) as a cohesive whole, each participating in the well-being of the other.  There were familial norms and expectations, and I'm sure there were times that were less than perfect, but everyone was a part of something (the family) that was vital and alive.  To leave a family must have been a very difficult thing, regardless of the circumstances, in those days. I consider my own flight from home at 18 years old, and what little difference it made in the daily function of my family; I'm sure it would have meant more if I had been milking the cow, canning, gardening and tending the chickens as part of my daily contribution. Perhaps, with all of those responsibilities, a young person might have more of a sense of belonging, more of a sense of "duty", and not desire so much to be "on their own". "On your own" would be difficult, if not impossible, without the technological advances we enjoy. 

Making pockets; ladies' garments didn't have pockets built in.  These were worn under the apron.
I long for a simpler life.  I'll admit it. I could happily live in more humble digs, and occupy my days with constant creation, whether that meant pickling or painting.  At this point in my life, I'm just about calm enough to enjoy the change of the seasons, and the warmth of a fire as much as I enjoyed a trip to New York or a Broadway show a decade ago. I'm sure my concept of earlier times is romantic; I'm sure there were desperate, difficult times.  But from where I sit, the smell of a cooking fire and a freshly baked pie would be wonderful.  The hours spent sewing a quilt, wonderful.  And the deep, healing sleep after a long day of honest work...wonderful.

Goschenhoppen brings me a taste of that, each year.  Goschenhoppen time-travel magic.  More tomorrow; a story of not-so-distant time travel, and a story of the ripples that one small kindness can create over time.

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