Friday, April 17, 2009

What Every Woman Knows



We have a wonderful flea market here in Roanoke, Virginia. It’s named “Happy's,” and the place makes me feel just like the name. I smile when I think of all the terrific treasures I've found there throughout the years. And there always seem to be stories attached to my finds – stories that sometimes take me down roads I never expected to travel.

One day I was looking for an old hardbound book. I wanted to convert it into an art book. The cover had to look antique.

Article from Somerset Magazine written by Linda Blinn

The idea came from a magazine article that showed how to take the cover of the book and photocopy it on canvas. The cloth print could then be used to adorn a newly made book or to create some other object d’art. The article came from an old Somerset Studios magazine and the old book that they featured was "What Every Woman Should Know,” written – by a man!! – in 1886. I looked for a similar old book in the vendors’ boxes, on the tables and in the backs of pickup trucks at Happy’s with no luck. Then, I found a huge stack of books and randomly pulled out a book that was perfect for my purpose. I bought it for a dollar.

I could hardly wait to try my hand at this new project. The book was a college yearbook from 1940, and its original owner was a woman named Jane. When I opened the book and leafed through it, old handwritten pages fell out. I read them (of course).

Most were accounts of social events at State Teachers’ College (now Longwood University) in Farmville, Virginia). They gave me some insight into the lives of sorority sisters in 1940. And then, I came upon a birthday greeting to Jane from a boyfriend. On thin blue paper, he had written,

The precious birthday card is highly textured with silk

“Dearest Jane,

“On such an occasion some people would say 'To-day' you are a woman’ – but what can I say to make you understand how much I want your happiness?

“Tonight I shall thank God for you and the happiness that you have brought to me. It is you to whom I’d turn if I were ever in trouble. Its to you to whom I look up to [sic] and admire for so many things. It's you who has tried to make me into something finer than I could ever hope to be; it's you who have overlooked so much of the bad in me.

“So on your 21st birthday, I wish worlds and worlds of success and happiness to the finest girl I've ever known.



Then I came upon an essay Jane wrote calledThe Dramatic Club.” In it, she talks about the joy she got from acting, describing her experience in the fall play. The name of the play was "WHAT EVERY WOMAN KNOWS." I thought this was an amazing coincidence. This was the only book I had chosen from the stack at the flea market; and the book used in the magazine article had nearly the same title as the play described in the essay that fell out of my book! I figured that maybe this coincidence was trying to tell me something.

I told my son, Cam, and he Googled the title to see if he could surprise me with the book. He said he thought I should read it no matter what. It took him a while, but he told me he finally found an old copy and had it sent to me. When the book arrived, it was not the book “What Every Woman Should Know,” but a copy of the play “What Every Woman Knows.”

I didn’t know if the play had anything to do with the 1886 book except a similar title. But since I still had the eerie feeling that this coincidence might be leading me to some insight, I decided to read the play. In it, “Maggie” is perceived by everyone who knows her as plain, sweet, and possibly a little dim-witted. Her brothers love her, but despair of her ever finding a husband. In a devil’s bargain, the brothers arrange a marriage for her to a man, “John,” who eventually succeeds in his career beyond anyone’s expectations. What no one recognizes, however, is that poor, plain little Maggie plays a huge role in John’s success – a role that becomes painfully obvious to everyone when John eventually tries to leave Maggie for a beautiful but uninspired (and uninspiring) socialite. In the end, Maggie proves to be smarter, wiser, more devious, and perhaps even more loveable than John or anyone else ever would have imagined. Maggie is the quintessential “woman behind the great man.” And until John breaks her trust, she willingly plays her role in a way that allows her husband – and everyone else – to attribute his success solely to his own ability. The play is a comic tribute to women everywhere whose support is a driving force in their husbands’ success – but who so often live their lives without recognition of their contribution.

I don’t know what that book from 1886 was about. Was it a set of instructions for women to follow so they could contribute to their husbands’ success without being obvious about it? I doubt it. First, it was written by a man – one of the half of humanity that is so often clueless about this. And, second, women everywhere had learned that lesson a long time before 1886.

And then I began to wonder – did, “Mon,” Jane’s admirer recognize this as a young man when many men never recognize it at all? Did the sentiments in his birthday greeting to Jane come from the heart? Did she really have that great an effect on his character, or was he just flattering her with empty compliments? Did he marry Jane? If so, was their marriage one of those rare matches “made in heaven?” Or did Jane just dismiss him as another callow suitor?

Ah, the questions that come when we see snapshots of a stranger’s life. I’m amazed at how often my pursuit of art pulls me into much larger questions about life and the people with whom we share the world. This time, I ended up wondering how well we actually know the people we think we know – even those with whom we share life most intimately. And how well do we even know ourselves; how clearly do we comprehend the compromises we make to live our lives while we’re in the middle of the living?

Here are a few hard bound books that I have reconstructed.

Garden journal

Inside page of garden journal

Another page of garden journal

Yet more pages from the garden journal.

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1 comment:

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