Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Meaning of Art

One of the things Sweetheart was known for was her art. As she did with her family, she not only took her art very seriously, but she took it to another level. As with most things in her life, Sweetheart didn’t take so much as pride in what she did, but she was deliberate with it.

The Meaning of Art

Sweetheart never went to art school, or had much of any professional training as far as I know, though she was always eager to talk to artists if she could. But drawing and painting flowed through her veins, they rippled from her. She painted the way other people talk, as part of her everyday life. On her wedding trip in far western Canada, when she was 28, she was always sketching animals, children, the guides, the boatmen, not to create a portfolio, but the way she wrote of them in her diary — to set down her impressions. When she cruised round the world at 75, she was sketching the captain, the cooks, the cliffs they passed maybe in the early dawn, temple dancers, market women. She grew sketches as an apple tree grows apples. When she had her family in Toronto she would toss off place cards at table with comical sketches and verses. She made a “funny paper,” the Weekly Goosh, to tell absent members what was going on. This was not “art for art’s sake” — nothing so pretentious — but art for the sake of family fun.


Yet she also thought of painting as a very serious undertaking, in the service of truth, even sometimes a “higher” truth than that of appearances. When she painted a portrait she would start with the eyes, and then hang the face from them. Therefore the eyes in the finished picture would be strong, dark, almost burning. There is an unfinished portrait in the book (p. 228) which is almost nothing but eyes. That is, the rest of the face is there, but sketched in — it is the eyes which are finished, which dominate, which gaze at you. She would give her subjects a “soulful” look, something looking out through the eyes which someone just looking at the person might not see at all. Even a flight of old stone steps, or a bougainvillea bush, could radiate a sense of inner life, almost a spiritual essence that the casual eye would not see, that it was the painting’s chief purpose to bring out. Watercolor worked better for this than oils, because it seems to let the light through.

379942_MS_11-23-11-127She had excellent control of the watercolor brush. Of course it was also the only medium she could carry with her and set up in a market place. She did sometimes paint in oils, but watercolor suited her. Water color is light and luminous and  gave a deceptive impression of frailty  — almost of unimportance, as if it were just a quick sketch which could be thrown away. We did not throw them away of course, but we gathered stacks of sketchbooks which still lie on shelves somewhere and may never see daylight again, except for those in this book. She did do finished paintings when she could, and they too, like the sketches, have a “momentary” quality — a sense of capturing or recording a moment, and of themselves also being momentary — quick, fleeting, and alive.


What Family Means According to Sweetheart

Sweetheart had two different ideas about family, which contrasted strongly with each other yet in practice never seemed to clash.

What Family Means According to Sweetheart

She was passionately devoted to her immediate family: her husband first of all, then her four children, and in course of time their children — she had nine grandchildren — and theirs. The letters in this book were all written to a very small number of people: first her husband while he lived (until 1935), then her son (died 1945) and her three daughters, with the understanding that the letters would be shared with spouses and the older grandchildren. But that is already enough “audience” to give the letters almost a sense of public reports. You rarely get a sense that something is written intimately to one person alone. Yet clearly the letters are not for the general public, but for a close family circle; and that is why they are so lively.


But as this circle gradually widens, we come to her second idea of family, almost a universal one. Interviewed on the radio in 1949, when she was 84, she observed that all the foreign people she met on her travels, even if she shared no common language with them, “all seem like my own family.” That was because “after you’ve been a foreigner you find there aren’t any.” But of course it was only because she had such a warm and strong relationship with her own family that she was able to extend that to others.

Late in life she wrote some accounts of her early childhood and her experiences of God, that she hoped would somehow be passed on to “the family.” Just whom did she have in mind? Children, grandchildren, spouses, friends, even strangers and “foreigners” who might be drawn in? The concept seems quite fluid. How widely could the sense of “family” be extended before it became too thin to have any life or meaning? I don’t think this question bothered her, because it was a matter of one person at a time reading the letters and forming a one-to-one friendship with Sweetheart and her family members — not some vast fellowship. Of course this wider “family” cannot bring us into the tight little original one. But it may provoke us to imagine even the possibility of a community somehow both personal and universal, held together not by ideas but by love. The Christian church at its best spreads the experience of a wandering preacher and his little band of fishermen hiking the hills of Galilee. Now we have Facebook and Twitter, electronic doors to instant multiplied friendships that, artificial as they may sometimes seem, still may convey something of what Sweetheart knew about the meaning of “family.”

Faith and Spirituality

Not many pages of this book speak directly of Rachel Wyse’s faith and spirituality, yet they were the mainspring of her life. She lived in a simple intimacy with God. She saw everything in the light of God. That is why I call the book A Gift of Light.

Perhaps this is best shown in little flashes that come to my memory. Some are in the book, others not.

Faith and Spirituality

When Rachel (or, as we always called her, Sweetheart) was a little girl, she didn’t like speaking to anyone if she could not see their face, even if it was just her mother in the next room. So when she prayed, she urgently needed to feel God’s presence, and not just say words into the air. She would not leave her bedtime prayers until she had “made God real” to herself. Sometimes she would hide behind the curtain. Often it did not happen, but when it did — there was no need to say anything at all.

She continually read the Bible. She would read it upside down, to make herself go more slowly and think about it. Sometimes she read it in French, for the same purpose.

In youth she would wander the hills. At sixteen she felt she had lost God. This was a disaster, and she vowed not to eat or sleep until she had found him. Late at night an old hymn came to her:

“Oh to be nothing, nothing!”

That was all right then; if she was nothing, it didn’t matter whether she had any faith or not.

At nineteen she had a terrible toothache and could not sleep for a week. She thought, “If Jesus were here he would heal me. But he is here, as he promised. So he must have already done it, and I am too blind to see!” Feeling daring and perhaps wicked, she put away all the medicines, went to bed, slept soundly and woke up perfectly well.

When her mother was dying of cancer, in great pain, she remonstrated with God, almost angrily: at least let her go in peace! After a long struggle she suddenly saw Christ holding her mother’s head in his hands, and heard a voice:

“With me it is always peace.” This is told at length in the book.

In Toronto she had a young maidservant who loved a young man who left her. She was devastated. Sweetheart said to her, “say to yourself, ‘If God doesn’t want him to be with me then I don’t want it either; if God does want it then I can’t miss it!'” Sweetheart would hear her at night in bed, through her tears:

If God wants it I can’t miss it, if he doesn’t, neither do I!

The boy came back. Sweetheart gave them a little candlelit party.

She told us a verse once:

If the good of today
Bring pride on the morrow,
No longer a good will it be.
But the sin of today,
Repented with sorrow,
May prove a great good unto thee.

She saw God in people; in her watercolor portraits, she often made them appear more spiritual or soulful than one would have thought. She was alive to small mercies, as once in San Antonio, Texas, where she was making sketches of soldiers in the hospital to send to their families, waiting for a bus in the heat, she asked for relief, and a delightful little breeze sprang up.

Her closeness to God gave her a sense of love for people, for animals, even, in childhood, for the devil. The family Bible had in front a big frightening picture of the devil; but little Rachel felt sorry for him. She thought in the end he must be a “good devil,” sent to keep us on our toes.

Chronicling a Life: The Process of Publishing A Gift of Life

All her long life (1864-1958), my grandmother Rachel was always writing letters, mostly to her family — she had four children and nine grandchildren — when she was apart from them or some of them. It was always exciting, in my childhood, when one of these letters arrived. “Look — there’s a letter from Sweetheart!”

Chronicling a Life: The Process of Publishing A Gift of Life

Not Rachel. We never called her that. For us her only name was Sweetheart. Before I knew the ordinary meaning of the word, I knew it as her name. Even now, whenever I hear the word, I think of her. She acquired it on her wedding trip to far western Canada in 1892. Jim, their Chinese servant, told them that the Chinese word for sweetheart was “Summunchiee.” So that was what they called each other. Later she became Sweetheart and he became Chiee. That was what we all called them. So please forgive me, reader, if I go on in the same way.

Charlottesville, VA
Charlottesville, VA

After Sweetheart left us, there were great stacks of these letters on closet shelves in my mother’s house in Charlottesville, VA, and many sketchbooks full of watercolors.  For years Mother wanted to put together a selection of these for the larger family. Her sisters wanted  her to do it as well. But it seemed an enormous job, and she had her own work — she was an accomplished painter, etcher and lithographer. She asked me if I could do it, or help her. I was teaching in England, with a young family. But in 1996 I reached retirement age. My children were grown, and my wife and I came to Charlottesville to look after Mother, who was a robust 96.

Here was my chance to attack the letters. Many were hand-written in Sweetheart’s elegant if hasty hand; others done on a typewriter with carbons. Mother had marked in red some of the more colorful passages. There were also two thick notebooks of almost daily entries from the journal she kept on her wedding trip to Nanaimo, near Vancouver, B. C., camping in the wilderness, written from May 1892 to July 1893. She wrote at length, freely and personally, apparently with no audience in mind but herself and Chiee. Mother’s eldest sister had whitened out some of the more amorously intimate passages, as too private for public eyes. Still a good deal remained, with detailed accounts of landscapes, animals, men, adventures and misadventures.

She had also written, fairly recently, memories of her early childhood in Salem, MA, and accounts of apparently miraculous experiences when she was a young woman, convincing her that God was both real and active in human affairs. She wanted these passed on to her children, though of course she did not know how it would be done.

I read many pages copying passages which seemed to light up more than others.Eventually I photocopied about 180 pages, illustrated by watercolors, in about thirty copies which I sent round to the family.

But was that the end? Devoted as she was to her own family, Sweetheart also had a sense that her family was everybody. When she traveled she was always talking to people, with a lively personal interest which drew them out, even when she could not speak their language.. Strangers who saw the letters felt drawn into the family circle.

That is why  I came to feel she could speak to a much wider public, though still as “family.”