Coffee with Mimi: A life well lived, by any measure

Published 3:43 pm Thursday, May 4, 2017

By Mimi Becker
Contributing writer
Anna Mary Robertson was born on September 7, 1860 in Greenwich, NY. Her father was a farmer and ran a flax mill. She grew up in a large family of five boys and five girls. Life as a young child was as you would expect for the period. She attended a one room school for only a short time.

When she was 12, she left home to go into service on the farm of a wealthy family. For the next 15 years, Anna continued to work as a domestic employee in the homes of various wealthy families. At the age of 27, she met a “hired man” on one of the farms. They married and moved to Virginia. For the next twenty years, they lived and worked on a succession of farms.

Life was, at times, difficult. But, Anna was hard working. She earned extra income from selling potato chips. She saved enough money to purchase a dairy cow and began selling milk and butter. Eventually the family purchased their own farm.

Anna and her husband, Robert, had ten children. Five of the children did not survive infancy. In 1927, Anna’s husband died of a heart attack and she was left to run the farm which she did, with the help of a son. In 1936, she retired and moved to live with a daughter. Anna died in 1961 at the age of 101.

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But, as you might have guessed, that is definitely not the whole story.

As a child, in the middle of 9 siblings in what likely was a time of financial difficulty, you would think a child’s attention was mostly filled with day to day chores and making do. Well, that was true for Anna, but it was a positive as well. You see, Anna had a creative side. She loved to paint. Someone in that limited time she attended school gave her some art lessons and she never let those lessons go.

Anna mixed her own paints, using whatever she could find such as lemon and grape juices, grasses, flour paste, sawdust, slack lime and ground ochre. Later while in service, one of the families for whom she worked, noticed she was very interested in their collection of Currier and Ives prints. The purchased chalks and crayons for her.

In the adult, married years, there wasn’t much spare time for art, but the spirit was there and she created when she could. When retirement was upon her, she began painting in earnest. She offered her pieces for sale charging $3.00 to $5.00 each. She would display the works in store fronts.

In 1939 an art collector noticed the paintings in a drug store window. Being an astute investor, as well, he purchased every piece the drug store had in stock as well as ten from Anna’s home. Within one year three of Anna’s paintings were on exhibit in the New York Museum of Modern Art. The next year her first one woman show opened in New York.

And so, Grandma Moses became an art sensation at the age of 80. Her works which had sold in 1939 for $3.00 to $5.00 soon brought $8,000.00 – $10,000.00 and were exhibited all over the United States and Europe. In the 1950’s, exhibitions of her work broke attendance records all over the world. An art historian of the period called her “an inspiration for housewives, widows and retirees.”

While that sounds really complimentary, I think it is almost condescending to her and her impact on the broader picture.

In 1952 when Grandma Moses was 92, she wrote her autobiography, “My Life’s History”. She said, “I look back on my life like a good day’s work, it was done and I feel satisfied with it. I was happy and contented, I knew nothing better and made the best out of what life offered. And life is what we make it, always has been, always will be.”

I doubt Grandma Moses ever imagined she would become one of the most notable American artists of the 20th Century, or perhaps history. She couldn’t have known that in 2006, her painting, “Sugaring off”, would sell for $1.2 million. Her works are on a stamp, displayed in the White House and, upon her death, she was memorialized by President John Kennedy.

Yet, her words are simple, direct and incredibly inspiring. I do not begin to imagine that I, upon my retirement, will unearth some fabulous latent talent which will vault me to international acclaim and wealth for my descendants.

I do not minimize the artistic gifts of Anna Mary Robertson Moses because they are a unique, treasured and valued record of our American heritage. But, that statement of her life philosophy penned when she was 92 is truly a gift to our American story.

A young girl made the most of her time in school, was resourceful, industrious, positive and patient. She enjoyed her place in life, wherever it was; took risks and was open to new experiences when the opportunities presented themselves. She relied on friends, teachers, family and relationships throughout her life. She recognized the value in happiness, contentment and acceptance. And, near the end of an iconic American life made no indication one part of her life was more valued than any other.

Now, that is a life well lived by any measure and a true record of the American dream.