Saturday, May 11, 2013

Happy Mother’s Day!

First of all, I want to wish a Happy Mother’s Day to mothers everywhere!  I hope  you are all blessed with children as caring and thoughtful as mine.  And I hope you will excuse me for indulging in a tribute to my lovely mother, Martha Duke Borg. 
Mom and Me, Winter 1945

As a child I knew I loved my mother and that she loved me, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized what an extraordinary person she was and what a special childhood she gave to me and my brother and sister.

Martha Elizabeth Duke was born in January of 1910.  She was over a month premature and since there was no central heating she was kept warm with hot water bottles and blankets.  In spite of her precarious beginning, she survived and soon grew into a normal healthy little girl. 

Martha Elizabeth Duke in 1912

My maternal grandmother, Hazel Whitcraft Duke, being an artistic woman, imparted that trait both genetically and by example to her children.  Since child care was rarely an option, Mom recalled spending time in her mother’s millinery shop before she was old enough for school.  And in order to keep little Martha out of trouble, her mother taught her how to make miniature hats which were proudly displayed in the window of the shop.  Many decades later, Mom made a little display recalling those miniature hats of her childhood: 

By the time Mom was 8 years old, her mother was struggling as a single parent to raise Mom and her 6 year old brother Bill.  My grandmother was a rare bird in those days—a career woman.  It wasn’t easy, as you can imagine, especially when the Depression came along.  Grandma began as a talented milliner, and late worked for a company that established hat shops in department stores throughout the Midwest.  This necessitated the family moving to a different town or city every year or so.  (At one time they lived in Waukegan, Illinois, and Mom remembers knowing Jack Benny, whose father owned a haberdashery shop near where Grandma worked.)  Contrary to what you might think, moving frequently brought this family of three even closer together.  Mom often recalled all the fun they had as a family, even though there was rarely any money once their basic necessities were met.  Laughter didn’t cost a cent.

As Mom grew up, she learned to make her own clothes, designing the patterns herself.  She loved to draw and paint, and her goal was to become an art teacher.  By the time Mom was a teenager, the family had settled down in La Porte, Indiana, where Grandma worked for a local department store in various capacities, eventually becoming the head buyer for the ladies’ wear department.  To illustrate what a modern woman my grandmother was, beginning in the 1930s she was flying to New York on buying trips, rather than taking the train.  As an article in the local newspaper on the occasion of Grandma’s first trip by airplane stated, ”It was her first flight and was most thrilling, but of course Mrs. Duke has to become air-minded because her son, Bill, is a recent graduate of the Boeing School of Aeronautics in Oakland, Calif., and is now connected with the United Airlines.”  (He later became the head mechanic for American Airlines at Midway Airport.)

Here is a photo of my grandmother, Hazel Whitcraft Duke, boarding a United Airlines passenger plane at Midway Airport in Chicago on August 24, 1934, for her first airplane trip to New York.  Looks a bit primitive, doesn’t it?

As soon as my mother was old enough to get a work permit, she began working every day after school, and on Saturdays at the department store.

My Mother, the Flapper

After graduating from high school in 1928  (Wouldn’t it have been fun to come of age in the “Roaring Twenties”?) she had saved enough to enroll at the Art Institute of Chicago.

       Two of Mom’s watercolors done circa 1929-30 while a student at the Art Institute

She attended classes at the Art Institute for close to two years, living in a boarding house for girls and waiting tables for her keep.  But then illness forced her to drop out of school, and she returned to La Porte and resumed working at the department store, contributing her income to the family.  About this time she met my father, and after a courtship of 7 years, (trying to outwait the Depression?) they were married.  Mom was 27 and Dad was 29.  There were no wedding photos, but this is one of my favorite pictures of them at that time.

Bernard and Martha Borg, circa 1937

Now her job was being a housewife and mother.  Time were hard—the Depression was still going strong, and then came World War II with its own set of difficulties.  From her earliest years, Mom was able to make something out of nothing.  The old adage:  Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” could have been written by and for my mother.  I must admit that at times while growing up, I was embarrassed by this frugality—I didn’t realize  then that it was fueled by necessity. 

Mom taught herself to do everything--upholster, make slipcovers and curtains, as well as our clothes, do carpentry, plumbing, and fix just about anything that needed fixing or make anything that needed making.  She found time to be involved in our school functions, and she was a girl scout leader for many years.  I well remember one time she had our entire girl scout troop making Christmas cookies on card tables throughout our house.  Can you imagine the chaos, not to mention the mess, with cookie dough everywhere?  But it didn’t faze Mom in the least.

In spite of her busy home life, Mom never lost the art “bug”, though, and throughout the rest of her life she never stopped learning new things about art.

In the early to mid 1950s, with all three of us settled in school, Mom taught at a community crafts program, teaching any craft that the adult students wished to learn.  Often she had no background in a certain craft, so she taught herself how to do it, frequently without any instruction books to help her.  She would keep a couple of lessons ahead of the class, both learning and teaching at the same time.  In the storeroom of the community center, she once found an old table-sized loom in pieces.  Never having done any weaving before, she still managed to put the loom back together, taught herself how to “string” it, and learned to weave throw rugs so that she could teach her students yet another craft.

In our small town, there was no place to buy craft supplies, so to make it easier for her students to acquire what they needed, Mom acquired a retail sales license and opened “The Craft Shop” on our small back porch.  It was crammed full of supplies for crafts like basket weaving, pottery making, copper enameling, bead weaving and other bead work, sketching, painting, and plaster casting to name just a few.  With that wondrous back porch to keep us occupied, my younger brother and I were never bored, nor were the neighbor kids!  We were always able to find interesting projects to keep us occupied.

After her family was grown and Mom and Dad were “empty-nesters”, Mom became interested in crafts that were popular in the 1970s:  Apple-Head Dolls, Cornhusk Dolls, etc.  She found a market for her doll creations and they were sold throughout the country for several years.

She then became fascinated with the beautiful Russian Faberge eggs and taught herself the art of decorating goose (and other) eggs.  She became so good at it that she was invited to join an exclusive national Egg Art group and she and Dad attended shows all over the country.  The creations of all the women in this group were astoundingly beautiful.  What set Mom’s pieces apart from the rest, though, was the fact that aside from some of the more basic embellishments, most of the materials that went into Mom’s creations were “found objects”, bought at garage and yard sales.  She managed to combine them into pieces that rivaled those that had cost hundreds of dollars to make.

The egg shown below is one of my favorites.  Mom sliced a goose egg lengthwise into 8 sections.  (Can you imagine trying to do that?)  She then hinged the sections together,  and inserted on the fronts and backs of the center six sections her paintings of songbirds, finally added gold braid and other embellishments.
This is the closed egg resting on it’s side.

This is one side of the egg when opened up

And this is the reverse side


 Another of my favorites is made from a chicken egg nested inside a duck egg, which is nested inside a goose egg.  Notice the birds and the tiny flowers—all of which were handmade by Mom.

This shadow box is very special to me.  Nearly everything in this little kitchen scene is made from eggs—the pot-bellied stove, chandelier, wall pocket, fruit bowl, coal scuttle, “salt-glazed” butter churn, and all the little knick-knacks.  And the blue striped “wallpaper” is leftover fabric from one of my maternity dresses!


This is my darling Bird Girl.  Mom made the cornhusk doll and all the birds and other animals that she is feeding.  This fragile beauty lives under a glass dome, which I removed so that I could get a better photograph.

Mom made hundreds of egg creations over the years and sold most of them.  She made many Christmas ornaments, cake toppers for wedding cakes, and very elegant Faberge-like items.  She made a lovely Victorian clock out of a huge ostrich egg, and an elaborate perfume container out of a beautiful black emu egg.  Unfortunately, I do not have good photos of those stunning pieces.

Some of the joy went out of Mom's life when my father passed away in 1995, But in spite of that, she was unstoppable.   Even  well into her 80s, Mom continued to take art lessons, belonged to a local art league, and exhibited and sold her oils, acrylics, and watercolors.  She was living proof that you’re never too old to learn.  Sadly, about this time she developed macular degeneration, which affected her eyesight.  But that didn’t stop Mom!  She continued to do lovely paintings and create unique greeting cards until the last year of her life.

  Mom painted this when she was in her 80s.  It is a scene showing a walking trail in a local park.  In the lower right corner of the frame, Mom inserted a photograph of her and my father which was taken at that very same trail some 60 years earlier.


Even after her eyesight began failing her badly, Mom stayed creative and kept a positive attitude, saying that her art became more abstract as her eyes got worse.  Above are some of the greeting cards that she made in her late 80s and early 90s.


 Martha Duke Borg in 2003 at the age of 93

Until the last 8 months of her life, Mom lived independently in her own home, and even after she became ill, she was able to remain in her beloved home with a live-in caregiver.  And perhaps it will come as no surprise to you that Mom had designed that home herself, over 40 years earlier.

My mother passed away in 2005 at the age of 95.  She had been in less than perfect health much of her life, and I know she never expected to live even half that long.  When we celebrated her last birthday, she was surprised when we reminded her that she was 95 years old!

I know I'm biased, but I think my mother was a truly remarkable woman, and I miss her every day!