Grandma Moses: Painter of Rural America'


September 01, 1999|By Zibby Oneal

Editor's note: A chapter from the life of the artist who painted primitive landscapes until her death at 101., One morning at breakfast, Anna Mary's father told her that he'd dreamed about her the night before. Anna Mary Robertson was a little girl and she was curious about that dream. "Was it good or bad, Pa?" "That depends on the future," her father replied. "Dreams cast their shadows before us."

Her father had dreamed that he was standing in a room where many people were gathered, all of them shouting and clapping their hands. What, he wondered, could be going on? Then, in the dream, he saw Anna Mary coming toward him, walking on the shoulders of the people in the crowd. It seemed that the people were clapping for Anna Mary.

It was a strange dream. Anna Mary's mother thought it was all foolishness. But many years later, when Anna Mary Robertson had become an old woman known and loved the world around as the painter called Grandma Moses, she remembered her father's dream. Then she wondered whether dreams truly did cast their shadows into the future.

Anna Mary was born on a farm in eastern New York State, north of Albany, in the year 1860, just as the United States was entering the Civil War. She lived to be one hundred and one years old. When she was born, Lincoln was not yet President. There were only thirty-three states in the Union. In her lifetime, she saw the coming of electricity, cars, TV, and jet planes. Yet when she began to paint, most often she painted scenes from the childhood world she remembered.

Anna Mary was one of ten children. There were five boys and five girls, Anna Mary and three of her brothers being oldest. Later the other children came along. "We came in bunches," she said, "like radishes."

When Anna Mary was old enough, she began to do her share of housework and to help her mother with the younger children. She didn't mind rocking the baby's cradle so much, but she preferred being outdoors with her brothers.

In winter they skated on the glassy black ice of frozen ponds. When the snow was deep, they got out their sleds and headed for the field above the orchard. Lester had the only real sled with iron runners. Horace had an upended wash bench. Arthur had a dustpan, and Anna Mary had a shovel. On these, they coasted the hill until their noses were numbed by the zero weather.

Sometimes there were sleigh rides. Their father would hitch the horses to their old red sleigh, and off they'd go, breaking a path through the snow to the main road. Then back again they came, around the barn, the children huddled under straw and blankets in the feathery falling snow.

In March, when the thaws began, Mr. Robertson tapped into the maple trees in the woods to collect sap from which to make maple syrup. It was the children's job to gather the sap buckets and carry them in damp, mittened hands to the large outdoor kettle where the sap was boiled all day over an open fire. Their reward was maple syrup on their pancakes, and a tea made of syrup and sweet fern fronds.

They chased the Thanksgiving turkey around the barnyard, intent on catching it for the holiday feast. At Christmastime, they trudged through deep snow into the silent woods, following their father, to cut a tall and fragrant tree.

Their days were spent in work and games, close to the outdoors and the changing seasons. Much, much later, when Anna Mary began to paint, her pictures recalled these happy days.

From GRANDMA MOSES: Painter of Rural America, by Zibby Oneal. Text Copyright (copyright symbol) Zibby Oneal, 1986. Illustrations (copyright symbol) Donna Ruff, 1986. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking Children's Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc.

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