Cherishing Betsy’s Legacy

She hangs in my kitchen, this nameless woman holding a chicken in her lap. She watches me move between stove and sink, and I return the favor, attentive to her placid presence.

Over time, I’ve come to know a thing or two about her. The directness of her gaze tells me she isn’t afraid of being seen. She’s as busy as any modern woman: her apron tells me that, and her distinctly practical hair. She didn’t mean to turn away from her chores to pose for the camera on that morning, but when asked, she cooperated: perhaps happy for a moment’s rest.

Surprised, made wary by her inexplicable behavior, the dog presses close, protective and alert. Still, they’ve spent his lifetime together, and her hand calms his fears.

Around her portrait, scraps of ephemera provide clues to the nature of her world. An invoice from A.E. Want & Company, one of Ft. Worth’s premiere wholesale grocers at the turn of the last century, is dated September 14, 1921, nine years after the company gained a certain notoriety by suing the Missouri, Kansas & Texas railroad over a carload of frostbitten Minnesota potatoes. The potatoes, valued at $155.87, were judged defective, and the railroad was ordered to pay.

At her feet, a decorated business card announces Mr. A.D. Perry, a “reliable seedsman” from Syracuse, New York. And in the background, covered with penciled notations suggesting the quick, calculating mind of a business-like woman, are the music and lyrics to a nearly-forgotten American standard: Sweet Betsy from Pike, a song still able to convey all the humor, grit and tenacity of American pioneer women across the decades.

“Sweet Betsy From Pike” ~ 2nd South Carolina String Band

I call my kitchen companion Betsy, because of the song. Debbie Little-Wilson, the Texas artist who created the collage, titled it She Made Her Own Groceries, and indeed Betsy did. Flour, sugar, and salt may have made their way to her through Mr. Want’s wholesale company, but vegetables and fruits came from the seeds she ordered from Mr. Perry, received in trade or saved from her own crop. Milk cows were common, and game was plentiful. As for eggs, the chicken in her lap suggests their source.

In Texas, the abundance described by John Milton Hadley in 1855 also would have surrounded her:

The supply of wild fruits exceed that of any country I ever knew. Straw- rasp- goose- blackberries grow plentifully. Plums — persimmons — crab apples — wild cherries and grapes also abound. There is an unlimited extent of hazel nut thickets, and hickory trees are found and walnut — besides most other mast-bearing timber — All which are apt as I’m told to be very productive. Hence, thee can have “nuts” to crack. Now, I have not been over the territory and can not tell from my own sight what the afect [sic] of it presents, but there is variety in everything I learn as everywhere else.

Challenging as Betsy’s life may have been, it was a life marked by freedom as well as by hardship: a life constructed through choice and shaped by circumstance. Looking at her, I think of Mrs. Crooks, whose beautifully penned letters to my great-great-grandmother Annie are among my own treasures. One, dated May 19, 1881 and written in Poplar Hill, Kansas, found its way to Annie’s new home in Chariton, Iowa:

Crops are usually good and vegetables of all kinds in abundance. We have had lettuce, onions and radishes from the garden and soon will have peas. There will not be much fruit this year, the severity of the weather killed the peaches [and] the apple orchards are not many in bearing yet.
Elmer is farming — 300 acres in wheat, 75 in corn, about 5 in potatoes, early corn and vegetables. How are you and Mr. Crowley? Does he sigh for Texas when the cold north winds blow and the snow and ice is plentiful? Is it hard to wean him from the land of sunshine and flowers?
Elmer sends his best wishes to you all and we both hold you in grateful remembrance for your kindness to us while on our way to Kansas.

Today, Poplar Hill has disappeared. The post office where Mrs. Crooks would have mailed her letter closed in 1889. As for Chariton, the Lucas County town where Annie’s husband David helped organize the 34th Iowa Infantry at the beginning of the Civil War, and in which they settled after their post-war years in Texas and Missouri, it remains home today for David and Annie; for their children and grandchildren; for their great-grandchildren and more, resting in the heart of the land that sustained them.

They weren’t perfect, these forebears of ours who made a country. They had their own share of strange ones and lazy ones, and for many families the liars, cheats, and thieves became the stuff of legend. But they knew how to break a prairie and plant a crop, how to build shanties of sod and lay rails of steel. They mined the coal and laid the roads, built the schools and educated their children, birthed their babies and buried their dead, and against all odds made it work by virtue of their resilience and stubborn determination.

Were mistakes made? Of course. Were they always successful? Of course not. But even in the face of failure they loved their country and cherished their independence. Remembering grandparents and great-grandparents who fought and died to ensure their freedom, they lived out their days counting the cost of self-evident truths and and inalienable rights. They preserved and planted the seed of liberty with as much deliberation as they planted their corn and peas, and brought in its harvest with equal delight.

As surely as Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.

My mother and her baby sister, gaining independence on their grandparents’ farm

Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination to institutionalize dependence at every turn.

Increasingly, we are told we cannot be trusted with our own lives: with our health, our children, or our economic decisions. We are told we do not have the strength, the tenacity, or the wisdom to weather the storms of life or deal with its catastrophes.

We are assumed to be too frail to accept the realities of life, too ignorant or uneducated to understand them. We are assured that only the self-appointed experts among us have the knowledge or skill to set the parameters of our lives, while those who know nothing about us demand that our youngest, our most frail, and our aged have the conditions of their lives determined by governmental fiat rather than by the loving decisions of supportive families. When curiosity, conviction or the quest for a better life leads us to strike out in new directions, far too often our progress is impeded by barriers put in place by those convinced we have no right to chart our own course.

No doubt each of us has taken risks that ended in great reward and engaged in risky behavior that brought unhappy consequences. We have been wrong about individuals and supported bad policies, but we also have been right about people and causes and benefited greatly because of it.

Some of us live financially comfortable lives while others constantly are scrounging for a few more dollars. Some of us have achieved our goals, while others continue to press on. But through it all and however imperfectly, we sense that growth and maturation is the point of life. The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and, in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards: to nations as well as to individuals.

Today, questions abound. Are we willing to exchange the rewards of risk for the poor substitute of comfort? Will we choose passivity over active participation in our life and governance? Will we forego excellence in favor of mediocrity? Will we fall victim to those who play on false or unreasonable fears, or will we be courageous? Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination; who had a vision of true independence; and who preserved a nation for us through their effort and their will?

Time will tell. But Betsy, straightforward and serene, stands as a reminder. Her legacy can be ours, should we choose to accept it.

Some of my own family’s nation-builders


Comments always are welcome.

109 thoughts on “Cherishing Betsy’s Legacy

  1. This is an essay to be read more than once. It is a treatise on the strengths and goals of the people who shaped our nation. How I admire your writing skill and how you have stirred in the photos of your forebears to create a wonderful story of courage and determination.

    1. Your suggestion that this could be read more than once pleases me, Dor. I hoped to produce a piece with a little staying power: one that spoke to more than a specific holiday. There are people with equal strength, equal determination, and equal goodness among us today. We need to remember that, encouraging and emulating them as we can.

  2. Excellent, Linda. You have a beautiful way with words and you are so right. There would be some who would try to convince us that we don’t know how to manage things. Too bad for them.

    1. We often say ‘this’ or ‘that’ is good for the soul, but it’s also true that a little history is good for our perspective on things. Whether family or national, history helps us remember that this isn’t the best or the worst of times; however complex things may seem, there’s usually a way through. With a little persistence and a dollop of luck, we can find that way.

    1. I suspect both chicken and dog tried testing that mettle — and perhaps a seed salesman or two. None of them probably got very far: no wishy-washyness in Betsy! As for mediocrity, one of the best ways to deal with it is to model excellence. Some won’t notice, but some will, and it may make a difference.

      My best to you and Marla. I hope you have some sunshine for the holiday.

  3. This post should be published nationwide. Our ancestors, as you so beautifully express, were not perfect, but they knew how to build a country. They endured in spite of harsh living, backbreaking work, with tenacity and most important, an independent spirit. Will we endure and rediscover that independent spirit is most certainly the question of the day this Fourth of July. Thanks for this beautiful post.

    1. There’s no question our ancestors were shaped by their environment and its challenges as much as they shaped the world around them. I wonder from time to time whether a lack of challenges, particularly those offered when life was more closely tied to the natural world, doesn’t underlie some of the difficulties in our society.

      You’ve experienced the difference in your own life. Being able to back up to safety after coming to the end of a road is a transferable skill, don’t you think?

  4. It’s a striking collage, and I can picture my own grandmother in a similar pose, even though her time was later. But she was an English girl settled in Australia on a bush block, and had to learn how to make and make do when necessary. The case you make for independence and self-determination is wonderful – in Australia the same situation is occurring, where the nation is being brought down to a level of dependence that suits the governments. Heaven forbid we have independent highly functioning people!
    As I travel this land, it’s the same story from those like me, old enough to remember how it once was……and who mourn the changes. Of course, I urge them to revolt! :-)

    1. Even today, learning to ‘make and make do’ is important. But it takes a certain amount of difficulty or deprivation to make learning those skills possible. A friend who retired last week has chosen your path, and is outfitting a small RV as her traveling home. If I’ve heard her say it once, I’ve heard the phrase a thousand times: “How am I going to…?” She’s learning a good bit about how to make do without all the space and conveniences of a large home. So are her two cats, for that matter.

      In some instances, ‘revolt’ is only another word for ‘a different choice,’ and it can take a variety of forms. You have your ways, just as I have mine. Our choices may not be as dramatic as taking to the streets with a cry of Aux Barricades!, but that doesn’t mean they can’t result in change.

  5. As soon as I saw your title I thought the post would be about Betsy Ross, who has been in the news as we approach the Fourth of July. Then, as I read, I figured I was wrong, because you revealed that Betsy was the name you transferred from the old song to the woman in the photograph. Later, when I got to “Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation…,” I thought my hunch was about to be justified after all. It wasn’t exactly, though you could say it was obliquely.

    My Russian-speaking grandmother came to this country in the 1920s. I remember her saying, late in her life in the 1970s (she lived to be over 90): “America is still the best country.” Those seem appropriate words to cite four decades later, when many people want to dispute the validity of what she said.

    1. Did I ponder the title for this piece, changing it multiple times until I got it just right? In fact, I did, and finding a way to make that oblique reference to current events was one reason for the choice. Another was a desire to create a post that would have some staying power. This could read as well on October 4 as July 4, long after the hot dogs are gone, the fireworks have stopped, and the argument du jour has changed.

      I wouldn’t have disputed your grandmother’s view in the 70s, and I won’t dispute it now. I’ve never quoted this portion of Sandburg’s “The People Yes,” but it came to mind when I read your comment:

      He was a mystery in smoke and flags,
      Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
      Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
      Yes to the hopes of government
      Of the people by the people for the people,
      No to debauchery of the public mind,
      No to personal malice nursed and fed,
      Yes to the Constitution when a help,
      No to the Constitution when a hindrance
      Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
      Each man fated to answer for himself:
      Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
      Must I choose for my own sustaining light
      To bring me beyond the present wilderness?

    1. Telling stories is life-giving, and I must say that Betsy seems as fully real to me as my own ancestors. Finding the correspondence between Annie and her friend was a first step toward bringing her to life; I suppose that’s a great part of the enjoyment you derived from your genealogical research. Turning names into people is a challenge, but the results can’t help but be satisfying.

    1. Thank you so much, Derrick. I love history, both natural and human, and it’s always great fun to go poking around in the past. I’m glad you liked the song, too. That’s one we used to sing on car trips when I was a kid, as well as at school programs. Some of the verses my dad would sing in the car never made it into the school programs — very common with some of those traditional songs!

  6. Happy July 4th Linda! I especially like the phrase (and sentiment) “the loving decisions of supportive families.” Hopefully our future generations will have that experience. There are, and always have been, unfortunately, some who know little of supportive families, but I think even these can be shaped by that unfulfilled desire for a supportive family. Luckily, “family” can be an inclusive term and allows neighbors, pets, and friends in, as well as parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc.

    1. You’re right that the concept “family” can be expanded, often in creative and substantive ways. It’s also worth noting that the natural tension between dependence and independence always is played out, one way or another, within the family. Parents loathe to allow their children to move away from them, and children who insist on clinging far beyond any appropriate time, are examples we’ve all seen.

      It’s been interesting to watch the very concept of childhood redefined over past decades. There are forces abroad in the land, both governmental and otherwise, that are doing their own part to undermine young people’s healthy independence. Lots to think about!

    1. Such a nice comment, GP. I think no matter how well any of us write, there are times when choice of topic plays a larger than usual role, and there clearly are people thinking about things I touched on in this post. No one can hit that metaphorical home run every time, but I’m really pleased this one seemed to fit that category for you.

    1. Thank you, Sherry. The grandmother I knew — and her friends — were very much like Betsy, and their own pioneering was impressive. Immigrants all, they made good homes for their families: a fact I’ve come to appreciate more as time passes.

  7. Another well-crafted and thoughtful essay, Linda. The appreciation of the qualities which truly made America great and the questions asked are worth considering–and re-considering.

    1. There aren’t any easy answers for today’s conundrums, but I think the answers exist — and some of those answers are rooted in the experiences and values of the past. We certainly can’t return to some imagined past — a kind of ahistorical Lake Wobegon — but for those of us who believe that not everything is relative, and that certain values do endure, that reconsideration is more important than ever.

    1. It is complicated, and that may be part of our current difficulty. Sometimes I think the most insidious effect of computers in our society is the adoption of their binary system into our social structures and personal beliefs. There’s so much “it’s either this, or that” going around, that it makes both appreciation for history and acceptance of change difficult. Thank goodness we still have the freedom to think about these things, and to work them out as a society — if we only will.

  8. This is a keeper, Linda. As I’ve been writing my book on our family history I’ve learned a lot about the pioneer experience — escaping religious persecution in Switzerland and Germany (we were immigrants seeking asylum) and disease in England. Looking for a better life and building it — one log cabin, one garden at a time. I’ve been proofing the section about farming in the 1800s. It was a very tough life and in our case had some sad stories accompanying it. Your Betsy had the stuff, I think. She has the eye, that’s for sure.

    Your thoughts on our heritage should be carved in stone, as powerful (if longer!) than Emma Lazarus’ poem.

    1. Have you read Willa Cather’s O! Pioneers, or any of the volumes in her Great Plains trilogy? The story of Swedish-American immigrants in Nebraska might not be a perfect parallel to your family’s story in terms of ethnicity and geography, but the dynamics surely are much the same. Every ethnic group has its stories of struggle and success rooted in those early immigrants, and we need those stories more than ever. Sheer numbers are making some of the problems associated with immigration more difficult today, particularly when it comes to disease, but that doesn’t mean the problems haven’t been faced and dealt with in earlier times.

      We all could use a bit of Betsy in our makeup, that’s for sure.

  9. Many in this country have no long-term roots. Yesterday, the discussion in our class of English language learners centered on the 4th, Independence Day, Constitution, Rights, Government, Freedoms, etc. They had many questions and are eager to do their part to help build the future. It is refreshing to feel their hopes and dreams are more real than before because of what this country represents to them.

    1. You’re right about the rootlessness, although it occurs to me that a combination of inattention to and even a refusal of history has led increasing numbers of people to cut themselves off at their own roots: a strange phenomenon, but true.

      Throughout our nation’s history, immigrants have held on to their native customs, foods, and languages as a way of feeling rooted in the midst of significant life change. “Being American” never meant giving up those traditions when I was young, and it shouldn’t mean that now. Those of us who remember grandparents speaking in their native language, or cooking traditional meals from ‘the old country,’ sometimes have a deeper appreciation for the gifts that immigrants bring.

  10. An inspiring piece, Linda. It does have staying power. I have already sent this to many of my friends. I hope they enjoy it too. I mentally and spiritually rebel against our being told we cannot be trusted with our own lives. But looking around, I see that apparently many of us can’t be trusted with their own lives. There is a subtle, and at times not so subtle, message of “entitlement” woven into society in the past 50 years or so by self-appointed “experts.” I believe this has led more and more and more to add “it’s all about me” viewpoint in far too many people in our society. I believe this is at the core of our being made dependent. Society is defined as a body of individuals living together in a community. Community implies common interests. That means looking out for each other and the greater good. In my view, the best way to not have government fiat is to not go around acting like we need it. In Betsy’s world, we didn’t go around acting like we needed it because we took care of ourselves and our neighbors. It was the right thing to do. It was really the only thing to do.

    1. You’ve reminded me of the mutual aid societies that existed during my grandparents’ time. My grandfather, an Iowa coal miner, made a small contribution from each paycheck to his society: a local and private entity. If a miner was injured, or otherwise financially embarassed (does anyone use that phrase any more?) payments from the fund could help the family get along for a time. Grandpa was injured by a slate fall and forced to leave the mines; I remember hearing stories about how important that small stipend was as the family adjusted to their reduced circumstances.

      There were multitudes of fraternal organizations that provided such benefits, as well as being precursors to the life insurance industry. When I moved to Texas, I encountered one of the most interesting, although it took me some time to figure out that SPJST stood for Slovanska Podporujici Jednota Statu Texas, a Czech society established in 1897 that has an interesting history of its own.

      One of the society’s most important administrators, J.R. Kubena, oversaw the affairs of SPJST out of a single room in his general store until his death in 1938, and in certain areas of Texas, the SPJST lodge is a common sight. Their missions may have changed over time, but they’re still an important link to the past.

      1. This is fascinating. And illuminating. I’m sure it was a lot more compassionate than the current insurance industry. People working cooperatively are capable of marvelous things.

  11. What a well-written and effective essay, just well-honed and sharp. Having read it twice through, maybe because I’m a disputatious by nature & upbringing, but I think more, because you wrote a stimulating piece, I was thinking how great it would be to put out some cake, lemonade, and coffee, and debate some of these points around the kitchen table with you, just kick it around. :) You wrote a darned good piece for the Glorious 4th.

    1. The only thing that could possibly improve your vision of that kitchen-table discussion would be including a few of the people in that last photograph of my family, and a few of your ancestors. Wouldn’t it be interesting to hear their perspectives on our current issues? I’d anticipate them responding with curiosity, disbelief, and occasional rolled eyes. I’ll bet at least one of them would remind the group that “no man is an island,” another would ask, “Well, yeh — but who’s going to take care of that slacker, Lars?”, and someone would bring out the oatmeal-banana cake she had hidden away, knowing the first cake would disappear in about ten minutes.

      Thanks for the good words! I hope you had, and are having, a great holiday weekend.

  12. What a wonderful post. I agree with your sentiments completely, we are becoming more and more dependent, and I think those in power like it that way, easier to brainwash

    1. There’s no question that the quest for power is involved, and the technocrats are as culpable as anyone else. Look at the changes already wrought in society by an increasing dependence on our tech tools and toys — a dependence purposefully nurtured by those who profit by our dependence.

    1. There’s no question that there’s a role for government, but the nature of that government, and how the government itself understands its role can make a huge difference. A government that sees itself primarily as its citizens’ nanny isn’t the solution: it’s the problem.

  13. Linda, this is a timely and well-thought-out post, one you might consider bringing out again. I know I, for one, would enjoy pondering it anew! Yes, our ancestors, despite challenges from Nature, were able to eke out a living. Today, with all our “enlightenment,” we tend to consider “ekeing” beneath us, as if we’ve somehow been ordained to receive the “goodies” without working for them. Our Forebears must be spinning in their graves! Seems to me that we, as a people, need an infusion of spunk and self-determination.

    1. One reason I didn’t tie the title too closely to the holiday was for just that reason, Debbie. Issues like these need to be thought about from time to time; they’re not only for Independence Day.

      We’ve talked about this before, but it’s a fact: as self-employed people, our perspective often differs from those who haven’t had to go through the trials and tribulations of building a business. The skills we learned in our formative years helped us to eke out a living while we were getting established; I feel sorry for young people today who’ve not learned those skills. Even the ability to delay gratification isn’t much in vogue these days — all it takes is a peek at our national and personal debt loads to see that. Add a little discipline and patience to spunk and self-determination, and life gets easier (at least, eventually!)

  14. So many great lines and reflections in this one
    “As surely as Betsy made her own groceries, they made their own country, tending to the responsibilities and hard work of citizenship with diligence and care.”
    “The independence of adulthood is meant to replace the natural dependence of a child, and, in the end, it is the willingness to accept both risk and responsibility that brings life’s greatest rewards: to nations as well as to individuals.”
    “Will we forego excellence in favor of mediocrity?”
    Yes, this one should reappear at least once a year – maybe before every New Year, too.
    Great post
    Even the comments give me hope.

    1. When you highlighted excellence vs. mediocrity, it reminded me to ask if I ever recommended Tom Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise to you. It’s a great read; he’s spot on in his analysis of some of these issues. Before the book was published, he wrote an article for Foreign Affairs that will give you a taste of his thinking without buying the book — although the book’s well worth the money.

      There’s a lot of common sense, commitment, and willingness to cooperate lurking out there. My hope is that it will begin to surface again — soon.

  15. I really enjoyed your description of the woman in the photo. As I read the text, I kept going back to the picture to look at all the details. It’s fun to think about the life of this strong woman.

    1. It’s great fun to imagine her life. In fact, I went back to your post about the White Frost refrigerator, and saw that ad was dated 1919. It might be that Betsy knew about that great, modern product. I spent a few minutes pondering whether she had one, and decided she didn’t. But I’ll bet she would have liked one!

  16. Beautifully reasoned and written as always, Linda. While I agree that, as some call it, “the nanny state” has grown to be too much an influence in our lives there are some among us who need that oversight after years of prejudice and abuse ruining the lives of others. Not that minds can be changed by laws but hopefully actions can.

    But, putting that aside, it’s hard to disagree with you that too many of us, myself included, have accepted that government and others can make our lives easier and reduce our responsibility. We should all hold ourselves responsible for making life a success even if our expectations aren’t always met. Placing the blame for our failures elsewhere seems a national quality these days. I feel the same way about religion when people just say that whatever has happened must be the “will of God”.

    As today is a celebration of independence, we should be looking inside ourselves for solutions rather than to others.

    1. Your mention of the Nanny State reminded me of one of my favorite quotations, provided by C.S. Lewis in 1972:

      ““Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. ”

      Couldn’t have said it better myself.

      Personally, I don’t know anyone who’d deny there’s a role for government in our lives. Anyone traveling the interstate highway system is benefiting from a federal program, after all. But one of the problems we face today is government existing for its own sake, rather than for the sake of the citizens it claims to serve. As a friend who spent a lifetime in federal civil service told me a decade or so back, the purpose of the bureaucracy is to perpetuate the bureaucracy. That seems even more true today, and figuring out how to deal with that issue ought to be near the top of the list.

  17. Beautifully written and spot on. My greatest wish is that there remain many others across America who share the same attitude and opinion.

    1. My sense is that there are, Terry. We may not read about them in the news, see them on televsion, or find them going viral on social media, but that’s partly because of who they are: often self-effacing, willing to do the right thing just because it is right, and more concerned with others than with themselves. You see it every fire season with your crews. We see it after a hurricane with the linemen who show up from Arkansas, Colorado, and North Carolina. Those people are like Betsy: the glue that holds things together.

  18. This country was built by women like her. Our founding fathers had their visions and high ideals, but it was the founding mothers who quietly set about making a world, day by day, for the subsequent generations to build upon. The workload they shouldered would stagger the mind of their husbands, never mind modern day folks.

    1. There’s no question the women shouldered quite a load. All I have to do is think about my grandmother’s life to get a glimpse of that. Despite having certain modern conveniences, like refrigeration, the icebox still was around, and the routines of that earlier life were intact: the canning and sewing, the gardening, the laundry done in tubs outside on ‘a good day.’ My mother used to walk to the same grandparents’ home shown in the photo above, and bring home the family’s milk in two pails. Now and then that memory would surface when we’d stop by the convenience store for milk; it still astonished her that such a thing is possible.

      Building a life does take place one day, one chore, at a time. The thought of a fully-formed life offered as a gift might tempt, but there’s a lot gained when building one.

  19. You come from admirable stock, Linda. I’m trying to picture being a Betsy in today’s world, and am just not sure what that would even look like.

    1. I suspect by moving past the external aspects of her life — before modern technologies, probably rural or small town, and so on — and focusing on the qualities that allowed her to thrive in her time, we might find more Betsies here and there than seems likely at first. Look for the practical, the competent problem solvers, the ones whose hands show evidence of an encounter with the physical world, and there she is. Or ‘he,’ for that matter — the qualities that made Betsy such a gem weren’t found only among women.

      1. Does the dirt under my nails from my garden count? :D I fear I’m a lot more grasshopper than ant.

          1. Oh, good! Today we’re having a reprieve, 70 degrees instead of 90-something, so I’ll be out there at some point. Soon as I drag myself away from my easel. There are just so many things I want to try to paint.

  20. So very, very true. The growing dependence on the government to sustain us is alarming to me and I hope to others. I fear Americans are not of such strong stock as our ancestors were.

    1. It isn’t only dependence on government that’s cause for concern. Dependence on technology is amusing in some cases, but debilitating in others. Dependence on others for the opinions we hold is another issue: it’s easier to simply adopt what others say than to think things through for ourselves. The pendulum always swings, of course, and my suspicion is that I’ll live to see another swing. I hope so — there are some pretty darned strong fellow citizens out there even today: the sort that Betsy herself would admire.

  21. most of today’s Americans would not survive if they were picked up and plonked down in this country two or three hundred years in the past. the common knowledge of growing and preserving food, making soap, sewing even, etc is gone not to mention most people. I don’t know that people are dependent on government so much as dependent on modern living.

    1. You’re right on two scores, Ellen. The ability to put a meal on the table without a grocery store or drive-through fast food establishment being involved is pretty rare. Some of that’s a natural result of urbanization, but in other cases skills have been lost across the board. I may be lax when it comes to mending and such, but at least I know how to do it,

      And you’re right, too, about that dependence on various aspects of modern life. I just can’t help myself — when I hear or read ads for yet another internet-of-things device, I wonder how far it will go. I love my AC and refrigeration as much as anyone, but I don’t like the invasion of privacy that comes with so many of the gadgets that people willingly are scooping up.

  22. I am not sure that there is a simple yes or no answer to your main question. The old adage “it all depends” might apply.

    But it is wonderful that you can look at a picture and compose a meditation on the past, present and future of a whole nation and make such as me think.

    1. To use a metaphor Betsy would grasp, untangling the mess that our societies have become is like trying to untangle a mess of embroidery thread. If you grab the end of one strand and just pull, the tangle tightens. Begin loosening the clump of threads, following each one to its source, and you’ll make progress: albeit slowly. The simple answers — the reflexive ‘yes’ or ‘no’ — are like pulling one thread. It’s more complex to untangle a society, but it’s doable.

      1. yes, it’s doable. I sincerely hope it is doable. But it takes a whole nation, each one of us, to get hold of the same strand and pull in the same direction. Do you think that would ever be possible?
        I cannot see that happening in the country I call home now. The divisions are too great, the strands are tangled beyond recognition and, from the top down, there is no goodwill towards those who see things differently.

        1. Good will certainly seems to be a non-partisan lack at the top of our government — or even a few steps down the ladder, for all that — but I think a great reservoir of good will still exists: at least, in this country. The view of the American people offered on social media and in the media at large seems seriously warped. The desire for attention leads to every sort of foolishness, and postings that have no value beyond the clicks and arguments they generate are given more weight than they deserve.

          Still, all that does stir the pot, making sensible discussion difficult. Maybe part of the answer is that we needn’t all be pulling on the same strand. Multitudes of people picking away at different strands might have better luck.

  23. An artful, well-constructed and superbly written essay, Linda. I really enjoyed your studies of the photo collage and “Betsy,” keeping you centered, focused. The discussion of independence then and now, your concerns, the concerns of those before us; the beauty of being human, the sacrifices, hard work, and labors of life. Also liked the old photos. Many thanks.

    1. It can be great fun to interact with a piece of art, especially when it’s as rich in detail as this one. I’m more than capable of anthropomorphizing a bird or a plant, so turning Betsy into a ‘real’ person was as easy as (chicken pot) pie.

      Of course, I’m part of a generation that grew up around, if not in, Betsy’s world. When relatives went back to the “old country,” they traveled by ship; when my mother’s generation traveled around Iowa, they took the train. Even during my childhood, we sent postcards rather than making long distance calls; those were only for deaths, or other emergencies. Most things were “homemade” — our clothes, our food, our fun.

      When I think about it now, it seems that most of the lessons my parents taught fell into one of two categories: how to take care of myself, and how to care for others. Those lessons still are being taught today, and when they’re tested, a lot of people pass with flying colors.

  24. How much I envy Debbie Little-Wilson her materials–and perspicacity to save them up, so as to have them on hand just when she needs them.

    When you write “Reflecting on the founding of this nation and the responsibility we bear for its continuation, I find myself uneasy, sensing a change of focus, a societal shift, a seeming determination to institutionalize dependence at every turn,” and “Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent, or will we look for strength to those who understood the power of self-determination; who had a vision of true independence; and who preserved a nation for us through their effort and their will?” I wonder to what (or whom) you are responding, for from my vantage point I am not seeing what you describe.

    And yet, were we to sit on a front porch together and talk things through, I’m suspecting we’d find what we’re looking at and hoping for is not so very different. Locally where I live, just as one example, there’s not much steady employment, so young families have no choice but to piece together a way to make their living. They work incredibly hard, but it’s precarious. I’d like for them to have a solid foundation on which to build their futures, rather than such a slippery one has they have now.

    I’m also bothered by the “Gilded Age” concentration of wealth among a very few. As the candidate for presidency I most admire says, “There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.” To which I say amen.

    1. One of the problems of writing a 1500 word essay is that you can’t say everything at once.

      Sometimes, it helps to use the comment section to expand and clarify points made in the post; being able to do so is one of the great advantages of blogging. As an example, I mentioned to montucky the appropriate role of government in such projects as the interstate highway system: those very roads that the rest of us paid for. In places, I mentioned the importance of interdependence, as well my concern that the dependence being encouraged isn’t wholly economic. There are days when I’m as disturbed by the technocrats and their obvious lust for power as I am by many politicians.

      Things may well be different in your part of the world, but around here, the growing passivity of people bothers me. I phrased it as I did — “Will we allow ourselves to be made dependent?” — as a way of suggesting that sometimes we are willingly dependent: eager to embrace leaders who offer easy answers and no real solutions.

      There’s no question we’d enjoy that conversation on the porch. I’m quite sure we wouldn’t agree on everything, but I’m just as sure that we’d end up with a deeper understanding of the other’s positions. As for living precariously, let’s just say I understand those young couples you mentioned. I’ve had my own experiences of precariousness, and it’s nerve-wracking at best.

    1. I’m not surprised that you would find Betsy appealing; you’ve described a life with some parallels to hers in your blog. I suspect she felt the same about her dog as your dad felt about Shep, too. A lot changes through the years, but some things never change, including those important relationships we have with our animals.

    1. Thanks so much, Diane. I’m a little tardy in responding, but I do appreciate you stopping by. Hurricane prep suddenly came to the fore — now that I’ve got my papers in order and supplies laid in, I can get back to more pleasant things!

  25. I think about the same questions and thoughts in your post all the time. I love growing veggies, making preserves, and canning, which were taught to me by my mom. She was mostly raised by her grandmother who was a farmer and mid-wife in rural Alabama. A very strong woman.

    At one point in our history being raised in a rural part of the country seemed like a disadvantage to those in the city, and many are still looked down upon today. I suspect one day when might have to be more self-reliant, those of us who have remained in rural areas and can take care of ourselves will be called “privileged” in a negative way. The pendulum really does swing!

    1. The pendulum does swing, there’s no question about that. And to be truthful, I’ve lived in large cities and the smallest of towns, and if I were free to choose today, I’d go straight back to the small town. There’s more freedom there than many imagine, and far less small-mindedness.

      Of course, self-reliance and competence can appear in every sort of setting, particularly if it’s nurtured. One of my friends had a niece visit for a month this year, and it happened to be during the peach harvest. By the time the girl had put up 40 pints of jam, she was ready for a different sort of challenge, but she’d learned a new skill, and her pride was obvious.

  26. The Betsy collage is a forthright image of independence and determination. And that’s a fine thing to consider. As I read your essay, I had some of the same thoughts as Susan S. I’m less concerned about institutionalized dependence than the recent evolution towards greater economic inequality. The inequality means a lack of opportunity for less advantaged people. Did Betsy have more choices or fewer than some people today? Or did she have the determination to make do within her means that people may lack today? I’m not sure what the answer is.

    1. Economic inquality doesn’t have to mean a lack of opportunity, and labeling someone as “disadvantaged” sometimes comes perilously close to defining them as victim. After social work in Houston and East Oakland, maternal-child health work in Liberia, ministry in rural Texas, and the establishment of my own business, I’ve seen that one thing is common to each of those settings; some people will find a way to make the most of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and others will sit and wait for someone to rescue them from any difficulties they encounter.

      Of course everyone needs help at some time; there’s no question about that. I’ve had a few ups and downs in my own life that were formative, and that have made me more sensitive to the experiences of others. But I still remember my first sailing lesson, when, without any thought at all, I told the captain that I wasn’t able to do something he’d asked. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “On this vessel, you never again will say, ‘I can’t.’ Instead, you will ask, ‘How can I?’ The answer may be that you ask someone to help you, but that’s never where you start.”

      If more people could have experiences like that, I suspect we’d have more Betsies and Bens.

      1. Again, I’m asking questions, not coming to conclusions. Your life experiences are richer than mine – I’ve lived abroad, but my experience of my own country is limited by my middle-class background.

        What I’ve read is that income inequality is at an extreme now. It was different for a few decades after WWII, and now it’s changed so that a small number of people hold a disproportionately large amount of wealth. While I wouldn’t call those who have now have less “victims”, I wonder if they are in the same position to succeed as Betsy was in 1920 or so. That’s not a statement or assertion – I don’t know. Just a question.

        1. I suppose this is where “it depends” comes into play. It seems to me the answer depends in part on how we define success; surely the simple accumulation of wealth isn’t the measure of all things. If it were, I’d be close to the bottom of the barrel, along with some of my paycheck-to-paycheck friends. There aren’t any IRAs or 401ks in our world, and sometimes we regret that — but none of us would trade the work we do for the worlds we left behind.

          And I still come back to those intangibles: the personal characteristics that allow people to thrive in the midst of difficult circumstances. Granted, those characteristics aren’t necessarily innate, but they can be developed, and sometimes they’re developed precisely because of difficulties that have to be faced and overcome.

          For years, one of my touchstones has been Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. I suppose in the end it’s one of the reasons I love my imaginary Betsy’s story. It’s a reminder that whatever changes come to society, humanity still has a chance:

          “I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

          I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

          Faulkner nailed it.

          1. Individuals can and do rise above circumstances. And individuals matter, and the determination of an individual matters. “Success” – what it is, and whether an individual achieves it – is ultimately, acutely, up to the individual to determine. Time for me to get off my soapbox!

            1. I think your soapbox serves you well, and I do appreciate the back-and-forth we’ve had. After all, on my About page, I did mention that my favorite sport is good conversation!

    2. I spent some time at work this morning pondering the advantages I’ve had in life, and something occurred to me for the first time. The primary advantages I’ve had were my parents, and the values they instilled in me. I’ve thought of it before, but ‘Betsy’ is a good representation of them both.

    1. It’s fun to imagine, especially when what’s getting imagined is a combination of fact and fiction. I suppose that’s the appeal of good historical fiction: turning people and events just a little this way or that, to bring different aspects of their lives into focus.

  27. Hi Linda,
    When I read this post on July 4, I was struck by the gravity of your message and the eloquence in its delivery. In light of so much negativity about patriotism and Betsy Ross’s flag, I found your story and intention comforting. I’ve said this before: thank you for the time you spend to deliver quality to all of your grateful readers, including me. Btw, I took Kayti to lunch last week and she presented me with the most delightful painting of the Superstition Mountains in Arizona. To think she is legally blind.
    I will send you a picture of the painting to your email.

    1. There’s a radio talk show host in Houston who’s on air five hours a day, Monday through Friday. His programming is varied, and essentially rant-free, which makes him a good choice for listening while I work. (Even his occasional rants are varied and entertaining: Houston potholes, poor health care for veterans, politics as entertainment, and so on.) Each week, he ends both broadcasts with a variation of the same appeal: Don’t get sucked into obsessive concern with politics. Call your family. Spend time outdoors. Be happy. Find something to laugh about.

      It’s a message that’s important for a country that’s tired. The adrenalin can’t pump forever, and before the crash comes, it’s useful to find a way to reduce its flow. Emily Dickinson has some good advice about that, too:

      Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
      Success in Circuit lies
      Too bright for our infirm Delight
      The Truth’s superb surprise
      As Lightning to the Children eased
      With explanation kind
      The Truth must dazzle gradually
      Or every man be blind —

    1. Yes, and my mother and her sister (my aunt who’s still alive) favored each other even more. Their mother was a real beauty. I never knew her, as she died when Mom was sixteen, but I have some photos, and it’s clear why she was courted by so many fellows.

      With any luck at all, I’ll have no need to write about rain-with-a-name this year. I just am not in the mood — but none of us are, and everyone is being very careful not to tempt fate by even mentioning That Word!

      1. I’ve had a week of watching the Brown Wood Rails – wow, oh wow – amazing observations!!!
        I hope that this is the most un-interesting We Won’t Mention-season ever! Am about to be offline again til later this week.

        1. Well, I’ve had a week of watching a wasp set up housekeeping in the boat I’m working on. It’s not quite the same thing as watching wood rails, but we make do with what we have. Eventually, I’ll have to figure out where the opening leads that the wasp is flying in and out of, and see if it needs to be encouraged to move elsewhere — zoning restrictions, you know!

  28. I’ll be reading this again, and certainly passing it on to a few family members and friends. I thought of my Grandpa Scott (Skoot) who emigrated from socialist Denmark at the age of sixteen. He did not speak much of Denmark, or how by coming to America cost him his relationship with his whole family back there, but he often spoke about his life of freedom and making his own way in America, what made him proud to be here and raise a family where they had choices and a voice. When he arrived here he was sponsored by a distant relative who also left Denmark and was also shunned by family back in the native country. This relative taught my grandfather about farming, so that Grandpa could pursue a life of working the land – rather than what his parents wanted for him – a life working in a factory. Every 4th of July Grandpa told us kids how fortunate we were to be born in a country that had so much promise and freedom. My favorite vision of him was when the national anthem was played on TV – he would stand and put his hand on his chest. We used to snicker about that, but I understand it now. I carry the same pride and love of this country.

    1. It’s interesting that your grandfather didn’t speak much of Denmark. My father’s parents both came from Sweden, and they never talked of their life in the “old country,” either. The traditions were everywhere, and we ate like the good Swedes we were, but there weren’t any stories. Of course, being a child, I never thought to ask. It may well be that they had put that previous life behind them; they were as patriotic as your grandfather, and as hard-working.

      Many people don’t know that there’s a Danish farming community here in Texas — called Danevang. It was established by Danes who came from the upper midwest; they still grow cotton, and have a wonderful little museum in the town. Of course, the “town” is little more than the elevator, the museum, the church, and the graveyard, but it’s wonderful to drive through and see the Danish flag flying. Did your grandfather farm in Oklahoma? I suspect it’s possible that some of our Danes passed through there on their way to Texas.

      1. My grandfather first worked in Minnesota where he lived a couple of years with a distant relative who had also emigrated some years prior. He made his way to Nebraska where land was available. He farmed in the Cordova area, which is also a Danish community. My mother lives in the home my grandparents built back in the 70’s in Cordova.

        There’s some interesting information that surfaced when my sister Juli and I went to look at records at Ellis Island some years ago. What little we knew about Grandpa’s history seemed to be untrue, making his story all the more intriguing. We will never know why he came and why he created a story with very little truth to it. There are still a few distant cousins in Denmark, but my Uncle found no information with them either when he visited. It’s perplexing. But perhaps it’s as simple as you say – he left it behind him. And yes, Danish customs and traditions were everywhere! I’m quite proud of my Danish/German roots!

        1. All of the Scandinavian countries are proud of their heritage. When I lived in Salt Lake City, there was quite a Norwegian community there. At football games, students from the Lutheran high school would chant, “Ludefisk, ludefisk, lefse, lefse! We’re the mighty Norskies! Ja, sure, you betcha!”

          My paternal grandparents came to this country on the same ship from Sweden, but didn’t know each other. They met in Minneapolis, and the moved to Iowa. Grandpa had been a miner in Sweden, and worked in the Iowa coal mines. I know some details now about their ship, and about the coal industry in Iowa, but huge blanks remain — and now they’ll probably never be filled.

  29. I have a photo of my great grandmother sitting in a chair with her dog Rajah next to her. She is older than Betsy but they share the same look of independence and staunch strength. I don’t really know why my ancestors came to New Zealand but I suspect it was partly because they wanted a better life, including a Government which would serve them, not control or restrict them. A great essay, Linda. I saw this cartoon the other day. It seems to fit your post quite well.

    1. Oh, my goodness. That cartoon is hilarious, and with just a few small adjustments, could fit the U.S. as well. There are days when I suspect government functionaries at every level understand their primary mission to be the inculcation of fear. It certainly is true that a fearful population is easier to control — not to mention being vulnerable to every shyster coming down the road with promises to take away those fears.

      It’s wonderful that you have that photo of your great grandmother. I have one photo of my great-great-grandmother on my mother’s side sitting in a cane-backed wheel chair with huge wheels. She clearly was disabled in some way, but her demeanor suggests that if you crossed her, she just might roll that chair right over you. Some of the family stories suggest she wasn’t afraid of anything, including making a home on the Nebraska prairie.

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