Autre Temps

The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books
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5 Responses to Autre Temps

  1. That was wonderful. Did you follow in your mother’s footsteps? I do a lot of crafting (or did before this damned writing gig took over my life) and now one of my daughters plans to do a program for jewelry design and repair after she graduates in the spring.

    • I took weaving lessons when I was a kid–and still have my big ol’ 4-hettle loom. One Of These Days…

      I don’t think of myself as a crafter, and a lot of the craft-type things I do are those my mother scorned: sewing, knitting, cooking (yes, cooking is a craft. You’re making something. The fact that, if done right, you’re creating planned obsolescence, has nothing to do with it). I started doing beading when I was working at Klutz. I suppose, in a sense, that writing is also crafting.

  2. That is such a Fifties picture. And while I like many handmade things (the rug in progress looks lovely) and would do more crafting myself if my skills lay in that direction, all I can think of when I look at it was the way women were pushed to “fulfill” themselves by engaging in such pursuits at that point in our history. Many of those women — my mother was one — built careers during the war and had dreams that went far beyond making cute things for their homes. I look at that picture and remember my mother’s rage.

    • I agree about the fulfillment by doing, essentially, fluffy things. I will say that my mother had no desire to work, that I was aware of. She wanted to write, but made no attempts to do so (my father, for his faults, attempted to arrange things so that she would have time and space to write: she had leisure, she had help, she was not a hyper-involved parent, and this could devolve into a mini-essay on writing as a parent, and no one needs that). After years of thinking about it, I think she wanted to have written. She had skill and a tremendous gift for language, but I’m not sure she had stories to tell (my father, in contrast, was a native storyteller). Still, my household had a high value for creative activities. I think that’s where the odd crafts projects came from: a way of not doing the thing she said she wanted to have done.

      • My mother loved being a journalist and she was very damn good at it. But the Fifties were hard on her, and I think that was true for most women, even those without any particular work ambition. I am glad to have come along late enough for things to have started to change.

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