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Encounters 2, Presidential Ladies

December 16, 2016

December, 2016, another election behind us, and the inauguration of the new president is up front. All eyes are upon him, wondering how he will lead the country, but standing next to the President of the United States is the First Lady. In this century we know a lot about first ladies, and we are well aware of their importance, but that was not always true. With a few exceptions, they seemed to prefer staying out of the limelight, focusing their light on their presidents, illuminating him with their grace, wit, and accomplishments.

Women have always held the most important job; that of wife and mother, the supporter, listener, adviser, and companion to all who live in her household.She doesn’t get a salary, nor does she expect to be paid except in good will and her own pride of accomplishment in her home and family. I recently encountered Martha Washington in a biography, Martha Washington, An American Life by Patricia Brady.

The first president’s wife was a paragon of virtue, and her husbands could not have been successful nor happy without her. She refused to be called “Your Grace,” “Your Highness,” or any of the European modes of addressing rulers’ wives, and she was never called “First Lady” because the President had no permanent home and was called simply “Mr. President.”

“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” said the wise L.P. Hartley. Fortunately we can visit the past in the lives of those who lived there. Martha Dandridge was born in New Kent County, Virginia in 1731. She was called Patsy, the first of eight siblings. Her mother, Francis Jones Dandridge, was pregnant for most of 25 years. Mary, her last child and Patsy’s youngest sibling, was born in 1756, but died seven years later. Keeping children alive in the 18th century was a harrowing job for any mother.

Patsy Dandridge was a fourth generation Virginian. For more than a hundred years her maternal grandparents had been respected landowning gentry, not wealthy, but with strong family and community ties. They were among the first part of the English-Virginia world of tobacco planters.

To help her always pregnant mother, Patsy would have learned how to gather eggs, kill fowl, make dies, spin, weave, make clothes and household items, gather feathers and herbs, salt and smoke meat and fish, bake bread, cook, wash clothes, make soap and candles, cook and knit. Because her parents were landowners, Patsy learned to read and write, do sums, ride a horse, and dance the complicated dances of the Tidewater country. She was expected to converse politely, sing, pour tea, and embroider.

And — she would have helped with the children. Patsy always loved children. She might have enjoyed a dozen of her own, if she had been so blessed. Life has a way of throwing obstacles. Would she find a husband – a man she could love and happily marry?                       Want to know more? Stay tuned—Encounters


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