Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Becoming Mary Pickersgill


Blog 29

Becoming Mary Pickersgill

Mary Pickersgill?  Who is she? Why should I care? Tell her story? Why?

Those were the thoughts racing through my head when I was invited to tell Mary’s story at the Association of Lodging Professionals Conference in Baltimore this year.

I love Baltimore.  I was born in Baltimore. I started my teaching career in Baltimore.
There’s lots to love in Baltimore and wouldn’t it be nice to give the conference attendees a glimpse into what’s wonderful about Charm City?

I was given 5-7 minutes to tell her story.Mary Young Pickersgill - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

Mary Pickersgill was the woman who sewed the Star Spangled Banner – the one that is hanging in the Smithsonian’s American History Museum.  The flag that one sees upon entering that museum.  If you haven’t seen it, you really should. Everyone knows Betsy Ross, who sewed the first American Flag, but very few know of Mary Pickersgill.

All good historical stories begin with research.  So I sat at my trusty computer and googled “Mary Pickersgill” to see what would pop up.  Truthfully, it wasn’t much, but it was enough for a start.  The most fruitful research was at the Flag House in Baltimore, which is where Mary Pickersgill lived and worked and created the flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore in 1814.

Mary’s home has been beautifully restored to show us how she lived and where she worked.  It was a reality check on the conditions of her life rather than some romanticized picture of this woman’s life.  Life in Baltimore in the early 19th century was truly exciting because of the commerce brought to the city because of its Port.

Star-Spangled Banner Flag HouseHowever, it was also a time without central heat or indoor plumbing.

It was a time when infant mortality and maternal mortality were high. Children often didn’t live to become adults. Mary had 4 children.  Only one survived childhood to become an adult. Life expectancy was low. In the early 19th century in the US, the life expectancy was 29.  Mary was widowed at the age of 29.

As a widow, Mary needed an income to support herself and her daughter.  So, she came to Baltimore because of the Port and the opportunity it afforded her. When she was approached about making this flag, which was to be 30 X 42 feet, she said “yes.”

Mary and her daughter, 2 nieces, one indentured servant, and her mother created this flag during June and July, 1813, without the aid of a sewing machine, without electric lighting, without air conditioning, without indoor plumbing, all while wearing clothing that was restrictive and cumbersome to wear.

 As I learned about her, I was struck by her accomplishments later in life.  She earned enough from her flag making business to buy her home, as unbelievable accomplishment for her time.  But what really made me her biggest fan is her commitment to women, long before the suffragette movement had manifested.  As a widow, she understood the economic perils of living without a husband. So, she founded the first retirement home for widows and other desperate women. That first home is still in existence today in Towson, MD. Just recently, it was renamed as the Pickersgill Retirement Community.

Mary Pickersgill is one of our unsung heroes. It was a privilege to bring just a piece of her story to the conference.  The last lines of my piece were:
“There was this man, a lawyer from Frederick, MD…his name was Key…Francis Scott Key.  He wrote the most glorious poem about the flag still flying when the shelling had stopped. I hear tell it’s be set to music. Would you like to hear it?”


The crowd said, “Yes!”

I continued. “Ladies and Gentlemen, please rise for the United States Naval Academy Brass Quintet.” Sporting full dress uniforms, the musicians came on stage and played the “Star Spangled Banner.”   There were goose bumps, there were tears.  And for just a moment there was a swell of patriotism that defied the climate in which we find ourselves in 2022.

That’s why I tell stories.

My Legacy as a Singer

 Blog 28
My Legacy as a Singer

I am a Singer Feather Weight Portable Sewing Machine. The best of my kind at the time. I was compact and light, weighing only 12 pounds.  I had my own suitcase, and lots of attachments.  My best attachment was the button holer.  Put that thing on me and I could turn out perfect button hole after perfect button hole. I had templates for every conceivable size of button hole.
On August 5, 1950, I was gifted to Claiborne Trott, by her husband Merritt Trott, on the occasion of Claiborne Beth’s birth.  Things were very different then.  Men were excluded from the delivery room.  Mothers were often anesthetized to make the delivery easier for the doctors, and this birth was no different. Merritt expressed his outrage at the middle of the night delivery, but was told that gestation took exactly 9 months.
It wasn’t long before Clai put me to work.  She loved to sew. It was her creative outlet.  She made everything.  Beth’s clothes, her clothes, shirts for her husband and her son. Curtains for the house. Slip covers for the furniture. Doll clothes for the school bazaar.  She made everything she could because making one’s clothes was thrifty, and economical at the time.
 I could go at a thousand miles per minute.  Clai would stomp down on the foot pedal and I took off.  Sometimes I surmised that this was a frustration or perhaps an angry outlet for Clai. She always set me up on the dining room table so that her scowl and the sound of my roar were very, very public.
When Beth was 11 or 12, Clai decided it was time Beth learned to sew.  Beth wanted so many lovely store-bought clothes that were not in the budget.  But with me on her side, she could work magic, often sewing something so cool, so fashionable, that Beth would steal labels from her Nana’s clothes that were bought at Garfinkle’s, a very expensive, very exclusive department store in Washington, DC, and sew them in her own clothes.

Beth was really gifted at making clothes.  She made her own bathing suit, prom gowns, costumes for theatrical productions. You name it. She made it.
When Beth turned 21, Clai and Merritt gifted her a brand new, top of the line, portable Singer Sewing Machine.  It was much bigger and heavier than I.  It had a case that clamped on the sides for transport, not the protection of its very own suitcase. It had special stitches for making button holes, not an attachment. It could hem things with a blind stitch. I was abandoned. Clai was now working outside the home, and I stayed locked up for many, many years.
Fast forward to 1993.  Beth was married and had 2 sons.  Halloween was coming and Beth had promised the boys she would make their costumes every year.  In 1993, she was running out of time.  Clai brought me out of the closed and took me to Beth’s house, where mother and daughter sat at opposite ends of the dining room table sewing frantically.  Clai was making a pirate’s costume, while Beth worked on a dinosaur. The buzzing of the 2 machines was music to my ears. The costumes were fabulous.
Fast forward to 2010.  Clai passed on to what ever is next for humans leaving me, her beloved Singer Feather Weight Portable Sewing Machine, behind. I went to live with Beth.  Beth wasn’t making clothes anymore.  It wasn’t economical anymore, and in fact, was a bit of a luxury.  Besides, Beth still had her 1971 machine.  But that 1971 machine hadn’t held up as well as I. Beth could not count on her machine to make the beautiful, precise stitches that were so necessary to any project. It couldn’t keep the right tension on the needle anymore. She kept getting it repaired, until that guy retired. There was nowhere for her to turn. Thankfully, she had already taken me for a much-needed tune-up and I was ready to rock and roll.
And then she was asked to perform a sacred duty. Beth was asked to make the quilt for the newest grandchild.
Finding the right fabric was challenging. Fabric stores are no longer plentiful. There were trips to the local Hobby Lobby and Walmart.  There were trips to a JoAn’s Fabrics 100 miles away.  There was a quilt store not far from where this newest grandchild lived…483 miles from Beth.  It was there that the right fabrics came together.

After Beth had decided on a pattern and cut the fabric, she brought me out of hiding. It was so lovely to be out in the fresh air and the light, being put to work, knowing I was useful and had shown up that younger machine. I still purred like a kitten. My stitches were perfect and even.

As much as I would like to claim that I did the quilting as well as the piecing, I cannot.  I am too small to handle the size of quilts and such.  And as much as Beth would like to claim that she quilted it by hand, she can’t.  Something that gets as much use as a baby quilt should be quilted by machine.  Beth has a friend who provided the machine and the instruction to properly quilt it.  

It is a beautiful quilt.  And like all quilts, it is a labor of love.

The Color of Joy


Blog #27

The Color of Joy

My younger son moved his family back to the East Coast in 2020 which put me within driving distance of my grandson. I was now on call for Nana Duty!

Nana Duty is the sacred invitation to babysit. This allows me a bird’s eye view of my son’s married life, and lots of quality time with the grandkids.  I was asked to participate when they bought their first house.  I was asked to participate when there were multiple doctor appointments for Mama and the second grandson on his way into the world.  I was asked to participate when the new grandbaby needed some time in the ICU until he could breathe steadily on his own.  I was asked to participate when there was shoulder surgery for Papa. I was asked to participate when the babies were exposed to Covid-19 and had to quarantine.

I was happy to help.      

I was grateful that I had the time and the means to drop everything and report for Nana Duty. I was happy to sleep on an air mattress after I supplied a feather bed to make it more comfortable. I was happy to be the chief cook and bottle washer while on duty.  Happy to do the grocery shopping, do the laundry, take big brother on an adventure while Mom and Dad took a nap when the baby took a nap.

But this new house of theirs…. It’s gray.

The walls are gray with white trim.

The furniture is gray.

The blankets for cozy TV viewing are gray.

The curtains are gray.

The baby’s sleeper is gray.

The landscape is gray and white.

I was thinking I might not get out of my pajamas on this day only to realize…

 My pajamas are gray!

My bathrobe is gray!!!

I had been infected with GRAY!

Why was I living in 50 Shades of Gray?

Other than my hair, which is 50 shades of gray, I didn’t feel gray….

I found myself asking, “What color is joy?”

I don’t know that joy has a specific color, but I do know that joy is colorful and not gray.

Joy comes in many colors.

The color of the sky the day after a snowstorm, the pristine white of new fallen snow that gives the cardinal its best backdrop, my grandson’s rosy cheeks after a romp in the snow, the beauty of the roses shared among loved ones, the color of the redwoods, the color of the ocean, of the sunset, of the sunrise, all bring me joy.

Joy has many sounds.

The squeals of delight of young children at being alive, the purring of a beloved pet, the sounds of music from any source, the whir of the sewing machine, the roar of the crowd anywhere, a shared belly laugh, the roar of the surf, words of thanks, words of praise, all bring me joy.

Joy’s partner is love.


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Surrounded by Excellence

 Blog 26: Surrounded by Excellence
Reflections on the VASA Virtual Gathering 2021

The Virginia Storytelling Association (VASA) had its annual Gathering virtually this year, and even though I am truly “Zoomed-out”, I was blown away by the caliber of this year’s event.
The event was organized and coordinated by Mylinda Butterworth, who graduated with me from East Tennessee State’s Master’s program in Storytelling.  Organizing, coordinating, and marketing conferences is Mylinda’s strong suit.  In fact, her Capstone Project was a how-to guide for such events.  Even knowing her for the last 14 years didn’t stop me from being blown away.
The talent that Mylinda brought together for this event was astonishing. As the event was not limited by its geography, Mylinda was able to reach across the country to find incredible storytellers. Featured tellers Laura Packer, Adam Booth, and Carrie Sue Ayver gave us a smorgasbord of stories, taking us to lands and times that spanned the entire range of time and space.   Their skill, their joy, and their connection to the audience (via Zoom, no less!!) were inspiring. I had the privilege of being the opening act for the Friday night concert and I was humbled to be in such company.  Jane Dorfman, another VASA member had the same opportunity Saturday evening and her performance was the best I have ever seen her give.
Artists Standing Strong Together (ASST) partnered with VASA to bring other regional tellers to the conference, increasing the depth and breadth of the stories we heard. Thanks to Sheila Arnold, we were introduced to 10 more tellers, some of whom were new to me which is always a treat.  
AND…there were 14 workshops!  
Everything I attended was beyond my expectations. The level of excellence in the workshops was mind boggling.  I was humbled by the standard of excellence that was demonstrated in each and every performance and workshop. I was blown away by the degree to which everyone had honed their craft. Truth be told, I was just a tad intimidated by the company I was keeping last weekend.
Andy Offut Irvin always says, “Show me, don’t tell me.” The presenters showed me what excellence looks like. The workshops showed me how to get there from here. There is something incredibly wonderful about being surrounded by excellence. It felt a bit like a warm embrace.  
Thanks Mylinda. Thanks VASA.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Blog 25: Coaching for VASA

 Blog 25: Coaching for VASA

It’s all about trust.
Personal stories are precious to us, well, because, they ARE personal.
When I am moved, or inspired, or cajoled into creating a personal story, the story that emerges from the creative cocoon is my baby.
Precious to behold, with no real thought about when, where, or why it would be told.
If I bring this new creation to a coach, it is with the hope that the coach will not only get the point of the story, but will treat it (and me) with care.  I trust that the coach will know how to grow the story into one that is performance worthy. 

Recently, I had the privilege of coaching members of the Virginia Storytelling Association (VASA) and honestly, I did not consciously go into the coaching session preparing myself to handle anyone’s “baby.”

I listened to each teller, being present to the story. The glorious thing about being present is that I disappear, and I become part of that creative vessel from which we all drink.  
It is my absolute favorite thing to do, and is immensely satisfying.
I hope the tellers realize what a gift they gave me when they gave me their trust.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Horticulture and Storytelling? Who Knew?

 Horticulture and Storytelling? Who Knew?

It never occurred to me that I would be doing a storytelling workshop with students in a horticulture class, but I really did that and the results were amazing!

My friend, Jerry Kelly has been teaching Horticulture for the last 5 years and has turned the program into an award-winning one with national recognition.  He and his students (like everyone else) are struggling with pandemic fatigue and online schooling.  And then Jerry had an idea.

Why not integrate the arts into their activities? Let’s invent some Eco-literacy Crosswalks!


Journaling, Mindfulness, Poetry, and Storytelling were integrated into the curriculum.  There were two storytelling classes.  The first was an abbreviated Storytelling 101, which ended with photographs I had taken in my travels.  We brainstormed about the kinds of stories each picture evoked and had great fun doing so.  There was a 2 week break, during which the students crafted a story drawing on images from Nature.


Today there were brand new stories waiting to be told.  There was a      Por-quoi story, several fairy tales, a story from the point of view of a seed being planted by a toddler. There were poems that had imagery that was astonishing, considering the ages of the students.  And I had been asked to take one of the stories “from page to stage” which I did with a bit of hesitation and trepidation.

I told “False Holly,” a myth about protecting the planet and had everything any self-respecting myth would have - Battle between good and evil forces, a beneficent emperor, a loyal warrior who held a powerful secret, the daughter who was the secret and held the health of the planet in her hands, and a bittersweet ending.  It was an easy tale to tell, and I was able to demonstrate the power of storytelling one more time to a new audience.




Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Who is Molly MacGregor?

Blog #23
Who is Molly MacGregor?

Molly MacGregor tells the very best folktales and fairy tales.  I inhabit her body and soul each month when she tells stories to the tiny humans and their grown-ups at the local library.  She has evolved over a period of years to become someone I am quite fond of, and she has asked that I tell her story.

Molly is a storyteller from Once Upon a Time, a place where there are heroes and dragons, fair maids and feisty ones.  She was a cook by trade, before she was summarily dismissed by Old King Cole because he is not a “merry old soul.”   She lives with her son, Jack, who you might think you know because of that story about a giant and some magic beans. Molly swears that story is “poppycock and balderdash!”  Molly will tell you a story about Jack that is true.

Molly also tells tales from the far corners of Once Upon a Time, not because she has travelled, but because the stories had.  Learning about a new place, or a new story brings joy to Molly’s heart.  Sharing stories with you makes her soul sing. She is a figment of my imagination, but her evolution was not a single act of creation. 
Molly burst forth after collaborating with The Muse.

Molly is a name I have always loved.  In fact, I wanted to change my name to Molly because my mother always introduced me as, “My daughter, Beth. No, it’s not short for Elizabeth.  It’s just plain Beth.”  I didn’t want to be “just plain anything!”  My parents would not hear of a name change. It was the 1950’s.

My paternal grandmother was from Scotland, and a MacGregor.  We didn’t know much about my dad’s family, much less the history of the Macgregor Clan.  Apparently, it wasn’t considered important.  When I went to Scotland several years ago, I didn’t want to leave.  The Scottish Highlands called to a part of my soul, grounding me and uplifting me all at the same time, which I didn’t understand.  When I returned and was sharing the photos with my niece, I tried to explain this experience.  
Her response was, “Did you forget we are Scottish?”

Fast forward a couple of years.  Although I had been telling stories at our local library once a month for over a decade, attendance was dwindling. It was true for all of the library programming, not just mine. That offered little comfort.  Some Saturday mornings, no children wanted to hear a tale.  Disheartening and discouraging.  Needed to up my game I thought, make it special. So, after conferring with the Muse, I donned my costume, picked up the accent I reserved for Celtic Festivals, and gave my storyteller a name. Molly MacGregor.

Costumes were expected when I began telling at Celtic Festivals. While they didn’t need to be entirely authentic, the costume did at least need to suggest a much earlier time.  As a theatre person turned storyteller, I welcomed the chance to dress up. 
That was many years ago.  

I have since heard storytellers voice opinions about costumes, both positive and negative, and a storytelling uniform versus a costume. I have seen storytellers run the gamut from costume to uniform to “Are you really going to get onstage wearing that???” From where I stand, storytelling is a performance art with at least as many variations on that theme as there are tellers. Each unique, each wonderful, each bringing stories that remind us what it means to be human.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.