Betty had white hair, mint green earrings and used a walker. She stood behind the empty chair at the table we were having breakfast at and asked if she could sit with us.
It was our second morning at Wesley Acres Retirement home, where we were staying for a few days in the Tudor style guest house. Jon had already given a talk there the day before and he was scheduled to give three more talks before we left Iowa. I saw a table for two when we first walked into the dining room and feeling antisocial was thinking we should grab it, but Jon walked right past it and sat down at a table set for four.
Moments later Betty appeared. Her earrings caught my eye, mint green snowflakes. She was as friendly as everyone we met in Iowa, but by the time we were done eating, we had made a deeper connection. It began when I told her I liked her earrings and she told me she made them. “Do you know what tatting is?” she asked. Tatting, that handmade, tiny lacy edge on so many of the vintage hankies I’ve collected over the past few years. I told Betty how I used hankies in my art and then she got out of her chair and from a pretty pink pouch tied to her walker, she pulled out two hankies, with tatting that she had made, and gave them to me.
Then Betty told us how she learned tatting. It was the winter of 1935-36 and it was so cold they could only heat two rooms of their small farm house. There were six children and her mother said to keep them from driving her crazy she would teach the three oldest tatting. Even Betty’s brother learned. The rest of her sibling didn’t keep it up, but Betty never stopped. Even today, at 94 she’s still doing it. The difference is that now she doesn’t even have to even look at what she’s doing, it’s all by touch. She uses tatting to make hankies, earrings and greeting cards.
When I called Betty an artist, she didn’t believe it, but I think she liked the idea of it. And I know she is an artist, because once she started creating, she never stopped. And for me, Betty’s story is the story behind all the handmade hankies that come to me and that I use in my work. When I look at one of those finely detailed handmade hankies, I think of the woman who made it. I think that maybe it was the only way she had to express her creativity. And so she made hankie after hankie. Each one affirming that she is an artist even if consciously she doesn’t see herself as one. And if the time she grew up in a different time or the situation she grew up in was different, maybe she’d be painting or doing performance art or making videos instead.
So now, each time I see some tatting on a hankie that someone sends me or I already have in my collection, I’m going to think of Betty, who put a face to the story. The story of the artist who created what she could when she could and didn’t give up.