The homeliest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them.

margaret olley

Have you ever read Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’? I read this wonderful book out loud to my children last year. Every evening, we would sit on one of their beds, snuggled together, one of them brushing my hair (so nice!), as we laughed and cried over the tales of the March sisters. They talk about the characters now as if they are old friends. When we had finished the final chapter, we celebrated by watching the 1949 movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret O’Brien. I wanted to wait until we had finished reading so that they could form their own images in their minds of what the characters looked like.

One of my favourite parts is when Meg and Mr Brooke marry and move in to their “tiny house, with a little garden behind and a lawn about as big as a pocket handkerchief in the front”. I love the descriptions of this small, simple home that is filled with love. Meg’s family and friends all help with the cleaning, arranging, decorating and furnishing of the home, each taking on tasks that they are particularly skilled in. Everyone seems so invested in making this little home as cosy and as beautiful as possible for the young newlyweds, and when Meg’s mother asks “Does it seem like home, and do you feel as if you should be happy here?”, Meg replies “Yes, Mother, perfectly satisfied, thanks to you all, and so happy that I can’t talk about it,” with a look that was far better than words’.

I think we can put this into practice in our own homes. For example, making the bed is quite a dull task. I can either pull the covers up and be done with it. Or, I can think about the person who will be sleeping in this bed, about how much I love them, and how I want them to have a good nights sleep. Then I will make sure that the sheets are smooth, that the pillows are plumped up, that the cushions are arranged in a way that looks inviting and cosy. The person who sleeps in this bed will feel cared for, cherished and loved.

Here is an excerpt from the book:-

“There were no marble-topped tables, long mirrors, or lace curtains in the little parlor, but simple furniture, plenty of books, a fine picture or two, a stand of flowers in the bay window, and, scattered all about, the pretty gifts which came from friendly hands and were the fairer for the loving messages they brought.

I don’t think the Parian Psyche Laurie gave lost any of its beauty because John put up the bracket it stood upon, that any upholsterer could have draped the plain muslin curtains more gracefully than Amy’s artistic hand, or that any store-room was ever better provided with good wishes, merry words, and happy hopes than that in which Jo and her mother put away Meg’s few boxes, barrels, and bundles, and I am morally certain that the spandy new kitchen never could have looked so cozy and neat if Hannah had not arranged every pot and pan a dozen times over, and laid the fire all ready for lighting the minute `Mis. Brooke came home’. I also doubt if any young matron ever began life with so rich a supply of dusters, holders, and piece bags, for Beth made enough to last till the silver wedding came round, and invented three different kinds of dishcloths for the express service of the bridal china.

People who hire all these things done for them never know what they lose, for the homeliest tasks get beautified if loving hands do them, and Meg found so many proofs of this that everything in her small nest, from the kitchen roller to the silver vase on her parlor table, was eloquent of home love and tender forethought.”

Image:- Yellow Tablecloth with Cornflowers (1995) by Margaret Olley

What I have learnt from Milly Molly Mandy.

We have, once again,  just finished reading Milly Molly Mandy, the children’s book about a little girl and her family, which was first published in 1925. I love reading these books to my children, as I get as much pleasure as they do (maybe more?) hearing about life in the English countryside in the 1920’s, learning about how they lived their lives, what was important to them, how they grew their own food and sewed their own clothes.

When I am feeling particularly stressed at the end of the day, I like reading about how Mother baked apple turnovers and made jam from the blackberries that Milly Molly Mandy collected. I find it soothing. It seems a long way away from paying the phone bill, updating policy manuals and doing my tax return.

I have also learnt a thing or two from these books:-

Children do not need much to be happy.

Milly Molly Mandy and her friends spend long days fishing for tadpoles, planting pumpkin seeds, making dolls, and picking blackberries.  Their parents are too busy running their farms and shops to be setting up guided play experiences for them.  They do not get driven to ballet lessons and soccer practice; they don’t have playrooms full of the latest toys or wardrobes bursting with fashionable clothes.

When they are not helping with chores or at school, they are free to explore, to learn from and to be entertained by the world around them.

They are also given a lot more responsibilities than children are nowadays. While I am not advocating a return to the work-houses, I do know that children relish being given ‘grown-up’ jobs to do. The children in Milly Molly Mandy cook onions, paint  fences, and polish the brass. These tasks all present challenges, adventures and good deal of fun.

Different generations can live quite happily and productively together.

Milly Molly Mandy lives with her Mother, Father, Uncle, Auntie, Grandmother and Grandfather in their nice white cottage with the thatched roof and “everybody…had some particular job to do-even Milly Molly Mandy”. For example, Mother cooked the dinners and washed the clothes, Grandma did the knitting, Grandpa took the vegetables to market in his pony-cart and Milly Molly Many ran errands.

While I know that this is an exaggerated version of family life in the 1920’s, it was certainly more common then than it is now. Indeed, there are many cultures today where nursing homes are unheard of, and the elderly live with their families, contributing where they can to the running of the household.

Although this is often not a viable or preferable option for many people, it would be nice to see it being encouraged and facilitated by governments through programs such as home visits by healthcare professionals and adequate carer allowances for family members.

‘Make do and mend’ is a sensible and sustainable approach to living.

In the chapter where Milly Molly Mandy is given her own bedroom, her mother and father do not drive to the nearest Ikea and pick up a brand-new, cheaply made and imported bedroom suite that is likely to fall apart within the next five years.

Instead, she keeps the bed she already has, and her Mother dyes the bedspread green “so she has a nice new bedspread”. She also dyes the curtains while she is at it. Grandpa buys a little chest of drawers from the second-hand market, which Uncle paints apple-green. He also paints the frame of an old mirror, to hang on the wall. Finally, Grandma embroiders little birds onto a linen cloth to go on top of the dresser.

Milly Molly Mandy’s bedroom is made all the more special by the love and care that has gone into creating it. Now that it is so cheap and easy to buy everything brand-new, we seem to have lost this ability to repair and refurbish. This book reminds me to think twice before I throw something away and replace it with something new – Can it be fixed? Do I already have something that I can use instead? Do I really need to replace it? If so, can I find one second-hand?

I love being able to share the stories of Milly Molly Mandy with my children, just as my own mother did with me when I was a child. Even she read them when she was young! The stories are as entertaining and relevant today as they were nearly 90 years ago.

Did you read these stories when you were young? Are there any children’s books that have taught you important life lessons? What was your favourite book as a child?