Contrary Mary, Grandmother Of America


The gringa would like to know what people are really talking about when they refer to the good ol’ days. So many times, when referencing our founding fathers, they speak as if they imagine a happier time where romance was abloom and life was cruelty-free. Where the heck do people get this idea? Certainly not from REAL history.

Take, for instance, George Washington. He’s a hero, right? Father of the country, right? Surely he was raised by parents who instilled the best values by example, right? Nope. His life as a child, like the lives of most children and women in early America, was a living hell. That’s what happens when rich men rule a society, allowing no rights and protections for those who are considered weaker and less valuable.

The saddest part about this type of man-on-top hierarchy is how kicks and blows are delivered down the ladder. The way things usually went in a household in the “good ol’ days” was the man of the house was a tyrant toward his wife. She, in turn, took her repressed frustrations out on the kids, servants and slaves.

If you read the preferred history penned by historians toe-ing the patriot line, you will see George Washington’s mother, Mary Washington, depicted as a mythological grandmother to America. When you dig in to the personal letters that passed back and forth among multiple members of the Washington family, you recognize ol’ Mary for what she really was, a controlling matriarchal shrew. Poor George. No wonder he lost his teeth and needed wooden dentures at a young age. He probably spent many hours grinding his teeth and biting his tongue when mommy was around.

When dear, little Georgie was just a wee lad, about 15 (grown man by good ol’ day standards) he was eager to join the British Navy. Mumsie nixed the idea as far too dangerous for her boy. How embarrassing for George.

Decades later, while proving his mettle in the last months of the Revolutionary War, Mary just couldn’t help herself. Instead of behaving so as not to endanger her son with the distraction of her antics back home, she wrote a letter to the House of Delegates demanding some spending money. Despite the fact that George was physically on the battlefield, trying to do damage control after the Benedict Arnold betrayal and scandal, he had to high tail it back inside his tent, draft a hasty letter and order the Delegates not to give his drama-mama a single penny.

This letter was very telling. It wasn’t just that he said a firm “no” to her demands. He listed all the money-related things that had already been done for her, like the purchase of a new home. George even mentioned the vacant rental properties that he rented even though he didn’t need them just so she could have an income. In his exasperation he even drug into the mix his four siblings, all of which dear ol’ mum expected to part with their “last sixpence” for her own satisfaction.

If you thought that might check Mary to at least not cause a ruckus while George needed to devote attention to battle, you would be wrong. Later, in 1755, George joined the French in Pennsylvania. While fighting alongside General Edward Braddock, things took a turn for the worst and Braddock got killed in action. Instead of a letter of sympathy and encouragement from his mother, he got a note delivered from mom that informed George she was in great need of… wait for it… butter and a Dutch servant. Yeah, times were hard for Mary.

The gringa knows what she would have done. It would have been a very short note. Most likely beginning with the letter F and ending with the letter U. But George was a much better fellow than I. His response actually addressed his mother as “Honourd Madam”. What class. He politely reminded her that he was not even in the country and the Army supplies that he had at hand featured no butter or Dutch servants to spare. The gringa would think that such polite restraint would be enough but George goes on to impress. He actually apologized to dear, ol’, demanding mom for not stopping by for a visit the last time he was in the neighborhood of Williamsburg. The gringa can only imagine why he didn’t (eyeroll here).

So how might such a mother react when her son becomes elevated to such a position as the leader of a new country after a long, bloody war? Well, historians working from reports of witnesses construct a conversation that went something like this:

George: Mom, the nation has asked me to become president.

Mary: You do know I’m dying, right?

George: Well, let me get myself settled into my new office and I’ll be back as soon as I can.

Mary: You will never see me again. But it’s more important that you do your job than sit with your mother while she dies. So just go.

The gringa must admit, shamefaced, that, as a mom, I’ve had conversations right along that line with my own kids! Oy vey!

But George was not the only one who showed Mary Washington due regard. His cousin, Lawrence, was terrified of the old gal. He confided in a letter that he was “ten times more afraid [of Mary] than I ever was of my own parents.”

But why was Mary so controlling and demanding? Was she really just a mean, selfish hag or did she have good cause to turn out the way she did? Well, like the gringa said, to understand why women often gave their children a hard time in the “good ol’ days”, take a look at what the woman’s situation was with regard to her marriage. Mary was in a ticklish situation.

You see, back then the first-born son was the end-all of priorities for the man of the house. The same was true with George’s father, Augustine. George was the proverbial “overlooked” middle child. He was nothing special to dear ol’ dad. However, Mary was not Augustine’s first wife. For Mary, George was her first-born son, her everything, her security in old age.

When Augustine died Mary was a very young 35 and George only 11. As a widow, Mary held title to the lands Augustine had held. If she re-married, according to his will she would have to surrender those titles to Augustine’s eldest son who was not her son and, most likely, no sympathetic step-son. Mary was not about to let her Georgie be subject to a step-father who would most likely see him as a threat or nuisance thus suffer abuse. So Mary remained a widow. How lonely that must that have been. It is very likely that, emotionally, George also became a surrogate husband of sorts.

And she ruled those properties to the best of her abilities for a woman living in a time when most ladies were denied an education. Few could do more than rudimentary reading, writing and arithmetic. So, Mary started out an underdog (orphaned at the age of 13) yet finished a strong, independent woman who gifted this nation its first president.

As for the good ol’ days? Well, if the father and grandmother of the country enjoyed any aspect of an easy life of luxury and leisure, it can only be because they were slaveowners. Not so sure why the good ol’ days often overlooks the fact that those “days” were during a time when human beings were shackled and tortured physically and mentally as objects of ownership and denied the most basic kindnesses of humanity and any sense of liberty or freedom. Nothing good about that.

Sources:

Founders Archives

George Washington’s Papers

Library Of Congress

Image Source: Washington Post

Video Source:  Heritage Media LLC

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Poor Mary, Tired To Death


A Winston Churchill quote is one of the greatest sources of inspiration for the gringa when it comes to historical research:

“History is written by the victors.”

 And the funniest thing about the truth of this quote is that Winston Churchill, whom a World War II victory would not have been possible without, did not even originate this quote, yet he always gets the glory. Perhaps it is because he is a victor!

With that in mind, the gringa would like to look at some annals of history comparing the words of the victorious with the words of the vanquished.  As an American, I will begin with my own country’s origins, the arrival of Europeans upon the soil of North America. What is the perspective of American history as told by traditional American historians compared to what is preserved by the indigenous people these European invaders eventually overpowered? Of course the stories vastly differ. But there were more people vanquished by the white men who arrived on the Atlantic shores of modern day Pennsylvania in the 16 & 1700s. There were also women, considered chattel and property. They, too, tell a different history of America than is traditionally recounted by the pre-dominantly white male historian.

Mary Cooper (1714-1778)

At the ripe, old age of 54 Mary Cooper began her diary, re-telling the events of being married to a Long Island farmer. Her personal record spans the years of 1768-1773, ending five years before her death. Poor Mary died childless, all of her 6 children passing on long before her: 2 died in infancy, 2 as young children, and 2 died in adulthood. Her tale is a story of struggle, tragedy and perseverance of a new life in a foreign and hostile land. Was it really worth the sacrifice to be part of a colonial invasion, laying claim to land that belonged to others? Would it have been more wise to remain within the confines of the existing British empire rather than seek to expand it at the expense of indigenous peoples, scratching out a meager existence in an undeveloped country? Dear reader, you read Mary’s words and decide for yourself.

On November 17, a Thursday in 1768, Mary notes how tired she is from a day of cooking and washing dishes. The gringa finds this sad. Women and men alike often consider cooking a joy, even a hobby. Back then, for poor Mary, it was hard labor. Washing a day’s worth of dishes was a task of hard labor as well.

The colonists are almost always depicted as pious Christian folk. We are regaled with stories of church gatherings. Their fervent religious beliefs even inspired the notorious Salem witch trials where young women and old crones were tortured and murdered for superstitious reasons. Yet Mary recounts a Sabbath day in November as being anything but a religious observance of the day of rest. She claimed that amidst a raging rain and snowstorm that she had not a single minute of rest. Keeping her home dry and warm was demanding work.

About one month later, two days in a row leading right up to Christmas Eve, poor Mary was quite miserable. Cleaning house as the northwest wind blew snow all day long made her “tired almost to death”. Christmas Eve, traditionally thought to be a time of gay celebration, also had Mary “tired almost to death”. Why? Because she had been drying and ironing clothes from sun up to sun down. The gringa hates to iron. I don’t purchase a single stitch of clothing if it has to be ironed or sent to the dry cleaners. The gringa believes that Spandex is the single greatest invention on this darn planet. I would have been one of the worst dressed colonists. That’s for darn sure. Poor, poor Mary. What an awful holiday memory.

But maybe Mary enjoys entertaining guests. The gringa knows many women who jump at the chance of being the hostess with the mostest. Maybe having company will cheer up poor, dear Mary.

Let’s see, January 7, 1769… it’s a Saturday! Perfect day for company, right? Wrong. Poor, poor Mary records that she is “tired almost to death” from waiting on her visitors. What about Christian hospitality? Mary’s spirit is a little lacking in such feelings because her feet ached as if her bones had been “laid bare”. Egad! Poor soul! Mary claimed she had no rest at all throughout the week. The gringa’s guess is that it must take that long to prepare for a single afternoon of company.

Dear readers, I believe I would have become a hermit or an eccentric old woman to keep company at bay rather than suffer the likes of what poor Mary endured! All the extra work to prepare for guests meant that she didn’t even have time to take care of cleaning and ironing her own clothes! What a horror! Throw a party and then not have a single thing to wear the following week! Who knew?! Poor Mary couldn’t believe there was possibly a single person who had such a miserable life as her own… “Did ever poore creature [have su]ch a life before.”

On February 12, a day the gringa would look forward to with romance only 2 days away, poor Mary was miserable again. So miserable and on the Sabbath as well. Once again, no rest on the Sabbath for Mary. She pens, “I hoped for some rest but am forst to get dinner and slave hard all day long”.

A week later, on the next Sabbath, the gringa’s insight into Mary takes a dark turn. Perhaps Mary’s life is not really all that bad. Maybe the problem is with Mary, or at least her religion. The gringa thinks Mary lives in perpetual stress due to the “fear of God” nature of her religion and the demands she believes it makes of her. Consider her words:

“I went to the Newlig[ht] meten with greate delight and offer[ed] my self to be a member with them. [They] seemed to be very glad but I was sudingly seased with a great horr[or] and darkeness. E[ven] think darkeness as migh[t] be felt. O, my God, why has thou forsaken me… I came home before the worship began, most distrest.”

Things weren’t any better for Mary the next day. She writes that she is still “in greate darkness still”. The following Sabbath she was still too troubled to attend her religious meeting. Her emotional and religious crisis stretches on into March.

On the 12th of that month she wrote that she was trying to get her clothes ready to attend the meeting despite the fact that she felt “as much distress as my heart can hold.” Two people came to visit her and she recorded that “I am forced to get diner and cannot go to metan atall. Alas, how unhappy and meresabel I am. I feele banished from God and all good.”

The gringa just feels for poor, poor Mary. I remember feeling miserable. It was called an unhappy marriage. The gringa just packed up and ran away from home. As the gringa reads Mary’s words of suffering my mind is screaming, “Run away, Mary! Run away!” But, back then, where would she go? How would she survive?

In April the gringa finds out what happens to naughty women of Mary’s time. Friday, Mary has some visitors. One of her guests is a woman named Tabthea. Mary writes that Tabthea quarrels with “our peopel”  and “Semon Cooper turned her out of doors and threw her over the fence”. The gringa thinks, “What in the world was wrong with those people?” I mean, the history I was taught was all about the generosity and goodness of the early American colonists, their goodness related to their religious beliefs. But here you have a woman who argues a point and then a man tosses her, not just out of the house, but OVER A FENCE! Outrageous!

Throughout April and May, a time when the gringa would be celebrating the arrival of Spring, poor Mary talks over and over again about her distress. It is all related to how much trouble she has with the labor demands of keeping her clothes cleaned and ironed. Things got so bad that on a Saturday, trying to prepare for the Sabbath, she records that she is simply “dirty and distressed as ever”. By the time Sabbath arrives there are “No cloths irond” and she is simply “freted and tired almost to death”.  The next week was no better. Poor Mary had “Much hard worke, dirty and distrest.” She later receives a lady guest who is having problems with her sons. Mary’s perspective is that “We seeme to have little or no sence of any thing but our troubels.” It seems Mary’s depression was the common plight of the female American colonist.

July 13, 1769 is an anniversary of sorts for Mary. It marks the 40th year since she married and came to America with her husband. And how does Mary feel about this? Yes, the dear readers have guessed it, morose, little Mary is not reflecting with gladness… “here have I seene little els but harde labour and sorrow, crosses of every kind. I think in every repect the state of my affairs is more then forty times worse then when I came here first, except that I am nearer the desierered haven.”

The gringa thinks that it’s safe to say that American historians have romanticized a history that is anything but romantic. The colonists could have done themselves a favor, as well as the indigenous people they ended up massacring, by just staying home across the pond!  And that’s enough of poor Mary for now! The gringa is thoroughly depressed and needs a walk in the park because I’m darn sure not doing any laundry anytime soon!

 

Source: nationalhumanitiescenter.org

Image Credit: roleofwomenincolonialtimes.weebly.com