Yesterday a dear friend was coming to visit so I decided to set out some iced tea and a few snacks on the art drawing board which now does double duty as my kitchen/dining table. To add a little festive note I first laid down a small embroidered tablecloth. We had a wonderful visit and exchanged all the latest news.
This morning as I cleared off the board I realized that it was this selfsame cloth that had draped the miniature oak table at which as a child I served pretend tea to my dollies. Yes, the tablecloth is more than sixty years old. The gingham appliqued tree with cross stitch flowers that ornament each corner and the white and green hand-tatted lace that edge it are as familiar to me as the photos in a family album.
Born in 1945, I straddle the Eisenhower and Boomer generations. I was in my 20’s before panty hose and birth control pills were common, and already married and a mother by the time I was sexually revolutionized. I am probably a part of the last girls/women to grow up learning how to embroider as a domestic art and to have in the corner of their bedrooms a Hope Chest, probably by Lane, and smelling sweetly of cedar when the heavy lid was lifted.
We didn’t get a television set in our house until 1953 so in the evenings rather than watch all those delightful sit coms and dramas, we listened to the radio. My father worked nights as a bartender in those days and as I lay on the floor in front of the old Philco radio and listened to The Lone Ranger, my mother and Mimi, our next door neighbor, would sit on the red plush horsehair couch and embroider – sometimes tea towels, because in those days the tea sorority was ascendant, and sometimes pillowcases and bed sheets – while they exchanged the neighborhood gossip.
I remember Mimi saying to me, “You have to learn to sew so you can make lots of pretty things for your Hope Chest. I’m going to make you pillowcases.” She never did but I was given several of her lovely tea towels when she died which hung, but were never used, from the handle of the stove. In those days the Hope Chest was the pot at the end of the rainbow and represented marriage and a family which was, along with becoming a nun, nurse or teacher, one of the most desired and suitable destinies for young girl.
The Hope Chest was the storage place for the hopes and dreams of a true and lasting love, healthy children and a warm little house near family. Into it went bed linens, table linens, towels, doilies and scarves, the christening outfits and baby clothes of earlier generations, carefully folded bridal veils, baby teeth in small pill jars, a valise of important documents such as wills and deeds, and long, dusty candle tapers ready for use in the Last Rites should death unexpectedly arrive and the priest called to the home.
I, too, had my Hope Chest and with the others of my family and generation learned to embroider flowers, trees, birds, tea pots and oriental vignettes in the corners and along the borders of a variety of items which after being washed, heavily starched and steam ironed were placed with satisfaction and longing into the coffin-shaped mahogany box at the end of my bed. Over the years my Hope Chest was filled and emptied of many dreams and desires, until one day I took those items most precious to me and passed the chest on to a younger cousin.
Among those items I still have are the tea table cloth I mentioned earlier, a small table scarf embroidered by a pen pal I had in England in the fourth grade (I was jealous of her superior handling of the needle), the pink taffeta-like coverlet my mother was given for her wedding bed, a long table runner with medieval styled flora, another blue embroidered tea tablecloth with four matching napkins that was my mother’s and never used by her or I making it close to 100 years old, the top border torn off and saved from a sheet I embroidered with violets and ferns in anticipation of my marriage, and an assortment of tea towels with dancing tea pots and cups.
It was embroidery that taught me the basics of color and composition and my early art was designs for Jacobean wool embroidery with its stylized flowers and paisley-like swirls. It took many years for me to have the courage to make the transition from needle to pen to brush but in many of the more representational works I have painted I can still see the ghosts of those early evenings sitting in the living room and watching fingers swiftly darting in and out of the small hoops which held their hopes and dreams for the next generation.
These are examples of the early art done in ink pen and colored pencil.