The Best Literary Writing About Mothers and Motherhood

Pansies by Carol Barrett

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Review by Carole Mertz

Maggie Nelson centered her Bluets around its “blue” theme and Inger Christensen around the alphabet. In her book Pansies, Carol Barrett shaped her vignettes around the personality and culture of an Apostolic Lutheran babysitter. Teenage babysitter Abigail is hired to care for the author’s child Sarah. This collection conveys a profile of the babysitter and of how her character influenced the author’s family.

For the writing of Pansies, Barrett, a clinical psychologist, received the support of two grants, one a GAP grant from the State of Washington, the other from Union Institute & University. As a specialist in women’s studies, gerontology, and religious studies, Barrett also received awards from NEA, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Science Foundation. She is an educator in the Creativity Studies Program of Saybrook University and is published widely in the areas of her expertise.

Close to Barrett’s home lived a community of Apostolic Lutherans of Finnish descent. In her opening vignette, Barrett tells us that “Apostolics cotton to what is plain.” (13)  Further, the children of these large families (the Faithful disallow birth control) “border a man’s table like pansies.” This vignette may be about pansies and their hardiness; it also refers to the Apostolic society and its prolific character.

Within the broader theme of child-rearing and the author’s respect for the Apostolics, we are drawn to Abigail’s serene nature. It’s easy to imagine how much Baby Sarah must have benefited from Abigail’s patience and creativity.

“Abigail has a streak of artistic genius running through her hands,” Barrett relays (27). She creates ornate chalk drawings, makes beautiful fruit bowls from play dough, shows Sarah how to roll the dough, adds movable paper figures to Sarah’s storybooks, and creates a “mail box” when Sarah complains she doesn’t get mail “like big people.” Within this creative streak are lessons Sarah can learn, even at her young age.

The author conveys an openness to the Apostolic group, which lives by daily practices and beliefs that contrast to her own. She is aware of judgments against the group, (women are criticized, for example, for bearing so many children, for wearing their hair in a bun, etc.), but Barrett transcends the prejudices.

For example, in “Formula” (35), Barrett describes a disaster: a young mother dies at home leaving two young children alone. A three-year-old toddler gives dry cereal to his baby sister, tries to keep her diaper dry by stuffing toilet paper into it, and when he hears a knock at the door, pushes a chair forward to unlock the door. Through this vignette, Barrett shows how children are taught to “look out for the next one in line.”

“News” (31) demonstrates a similar trait. Abigail learns from her mother that a house fire has occurred. Family members are saved, but the house and all possessions are lost. Abigail cannot stop talking about it. She is relating what must be done to help the destitute family. Her mother is already preparing a care package. By contrast, Barrett experiences her nightly news on TV in a more distant way. “Abbie does not see the world as I do,” she writes. “The tragedies in her life are ones she can do something about.”

We experience other differences in customs when we learn Abigail doesn’t know how to open a can of soup and when we read descriptions of an Apostolic church wedding. (The bride carries no flowers, the groom wears no tie. These are “signs of the world” to be avoided.)

Through her delicate illustrations, Barrett brings to the fore Abigail’s grace and the quiet enthusiasm she carried into Sarah’s playroom. Pansies amply demonstrates the bond that grew between babysitter and child and the respect the author affords the vibrant Apostolic community.

Pansies
by Carol Barrett
Sonder Press, 2018, $10.00 Paperback
ISBN 9780999750131

 


Carole Mertz has published recent reviews at Mom Egg Review, Dreamers Creative Writing, Eclectica, and other journals. Carole studied the Fine Arts in Salzburg Austria. She is an Oberlin College graduate. Carole lives with her husband in Parma, Ohio where she teaches classical music.

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