On a Second Act

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that, in America, there are no “second acts,” meaning that we usually get only one chance to make it, succeed, achieve, and you get no do-overs. He was wrong. History, especially American History, is filled with second-chancers who remade themselves, sometimes again and again. It’s one of the remarkable things about the US.

Take the story of Anna Robertson. She was born the year before the American Civil War began, in 1860, in a rural area of New York near the Vermont border. Anna’s family was poor, and, at the age of 12, Anna was “hired out” to live with another family as a servant. It was a position she would hold for the next 15 years of her life. At age 27, she met another hired hand who worked on the same farm she did, a man named Thomas, and the pair married and set up housekeeping in Virginia. The couple continued to follow work around that area, moving often as their services were needed by other, wealthier, families.

Finally, in 1901, the pair had saved enough money to purchase their own homestead near Verona, Virginia. However, the couple missed the life and seasons of upstate New York, and they returned to that area a few years later. Over the course of time, Anna had 10 children, but only 5 of them lived into adulthood. In 1927, Thomas died of a heart attack on their farm near Eagle Bridge, New York. He was 67. Anna never remarried, and, after trying to run the farm herself with the help of one of her sons, she sold off and moved into the house of one of her daughters in 1936 at age 76.

Now, most people Anna’s age would simply take it easy and enjoy her grandchildren and her “golden years” of retirement. Not Anna. All her life, no matter where her and Thomas moved, Anna made the house they lived in into a home with her decorating ability. She stitched, embroidered, painted, crafted, and created wonderful if simple depictions of the things she knew: Farming, the fields and woods, animals, houses, and children. In her retirement, she continued to create. Anna would re-use (we would say re-purpose today) items to make her objects, decorations, and even her medium. Professionals often call what Anna did “hobby art” as opposed to “folk art” because it has more in common with something done for oneself rather than for artistic or commercial reasons.

But, as happens to older people, especially those who worked their entire lives with their hands, arthritis set in. By her late 70s, Anna could no longer create embroidery or sew or even craft anymore, and it frustrated her. However, a relative made the suggestion that she continue to create using a large paintbrush, which, despite the arthritis, she could still wield. And, so, she did. And Anna continued to paint until near her death in 1961 at age 101. She would go on to paint hundreds of canvasses.

In 2006, one of her paintings sold for $1.2 million.

You know her as Grandma Moses.


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