by Lauren Spencer King
There is a print that hung in my mother’s bathroom. Within the frame are three women working in a field. They are bent over at the waist at such an angle that you can’t see their faces. Their labor looks hard and tireless, but also necessary. They have layers of blouses, skirts and dresses all in muted colors and the soft brown tones of the earth upon which they are silhouetted against. Each with their head covered and their hair tucked into bonnets, their aprons tied around their waists and then tied again to form a pouch in which they hold the scraps of wheat they are collecting. All three women hold small handfuls of leftover mismatched stalks.
This print is a replica of a painting entitled The Gleaners by the french artist Jean-François Millet. The original was painted in 1857 on the heels of the French Revolution. It was not well received when it showed for the first time in the salon. It made the upper-class uneasy about their already unsteady position in relation to the uprising of the working-class. But, Millet was committed to painting things as they were, nothing was idealized. His aim was to reveal the truth about living, what it was to be human, to reveal that struggle. No pastoral scenes of leisurely picnics or elaborately dressed women having a fête in the garden. All of the innocence and frivolity of the Rococo period died with the royal family. His paintings were about representing the hardships of the everyday. They depicted the work of farmers and bread makers, of a husband and wife praying over the fresh grave of their child. His paintings were of people trying to survive the circumstances of their life, of unforeseen losses and defining hardships that became their namesake. Millet himself grew up in poverty and on a farm; if anything he was just painting what he knew, and telling the story of where he came from.
The Gleaners now hangs in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. I saw this painting with my mother when I was living there. She was visiting for the holidays and we spent the day at the museum. I remember seeing it across the room, the humble subject matter hanging in its heavy gilded frame. I called her over as I walked towards it, with a feeling in me like we were going to visit a family heirloom, something that belonged to us. In its presence I felt a feeling of familiarity, not just because I recognized it from years of looking at the print, and seeing slides of it in art history classes. But also because since I was little I was told that we were related to the painter, who shared his last name with my grandmother. Her maiden name was Millet and she was a painter herself. In the story of this occupational and genealogical connection my mother always did the telling convincingly, but would sometimes hint at a tiny bit of doubt, on whose account I do not know. “I mean, I don’t know, it’s just what nana always said…,” she would sometimes add on at the end. It always made me wonder if this was something that really was true or if this was just a family fiction, something my grandmother had only wanted to be true, and used her greatest skill to create a fantasy for herself, constructing her ideal identity.
My grandmother died when I was just reaching my early adolescence, so it was never something that I could confirm with her. And this was a story my mother only told me, never my brother, or anyone else in the family. Now that she has also died it falls on me to decide if I want to make this story a fact, and to choose how I want to do the telling to others. And to my future children, who could carry on the bloodline of this story or not. To call it a story seems right, as stories can be both truth or fiction. But what do we call something that has elements of both? Perhaps those are what we call memories.
I came across this print recently while packing up boxes. I stared at it trying to decide if it was something I wanted to keep. This is the process I have to go through with every single item in my mother’s home, which is the house I grew up in. The importance of objects takes on a whole new definition when someone dies. In one moment they are just things, and in the next they become imbedded with new meaning. My mother’s nightgown, her sheets, her eye glasses strewn all over the house, stacks of check books with just a few checks missing in each, a drawer full of important documents and old passports, her makeup brushes, a basement full of old christmas decorations and many suitcases that were used only once… these are just a few of the hundreds and hundreds of things that are left of her. These objects take on the role I need them to play in my grieving. At times they become a stand in for her. In others they become clues to piece together more of who she was. And at their worst they are merely empty shells and burdens. A house full of objects is what I have left of her.
The work of gleaning was traditionally done by women. The task fell upon the women to comb through what was left from the harvest. It’s how the poor learned to live with so little. It’s the gleaners’ job to pick up the scraps of what has been left behind, it’s how they fed their families. They spent long, arduous hours every day searching carefully through the fields for the forgotten, the lost, and the discarded, trying to piece together something that could in no way fill the void, but what was only a substitute. It’s what they did to survive.