Jane Langford – The Art of Making A Home
Their names are legend: Vesta, Roman goddess of home and hearth. Demeter, Greek goddess of the harvest. Jane Langford—Brooks, Georgia goddess of…wait, who?
Okay, so she doesn’t wear a flowing white robe or spend her spare time chasing down errant demi-gods. And she’s unquestionably real. Yet Jane is something many of us have only read about, a figure of near-mythical proportions in modern society: an honest-to-goodness homemaker (a.k.a. “domestic goddess”), the kind who turns running a household into a true art. The kind who knows how to make a house into a home.
What does she do that’s so special? Well, she bakes brownies, cookies, cakes and breads for committee meetings, school groups and just for the fun of it. (We’re talking real, from-scratch baked goods, here. No “just add water and eggs” involved.) She quilts. She’s a master gardener. She grows her own grapes and—if the deer don’t get to them first—turns them into jelly. She knows how to get the stains out of almost anything with two simple items.
She also wins prizes for sewing projects, prepares big holiday meals for her extended family and tends her garden regularly. As a member of a stunning number of charitable and women’s organizations as well as two churches, she’s worked to support the burn center in Augusta and the hospice center at Christian City. She’s sewed for Totes for Tots, a program that provides tote bags for children entering foster care—children whose possessions would otherwise be carried from place to place in a plastic grocery sack.
Jane is so accomplished that she was recently named 2011 Georgia Homemaker of the Year by the Georgia Homemakers Council. The award requires nominees to submit extensive documentation and photographs of their many projects and abilities along with letters of reference. The sheer amount of paperwork alone would daunt most of us, even presuming we knew how to sew like a pro or bake something that involved actual flour in the first place. But for Jane, home arts are simply a way of life.
A Fayette County native, she graduated from Fayette County High School in 1957, attended what was then West Georgia College, and then graduated from Georgia State with a degree in English and a minor in art. She married her high school sweetheart and stayed married to him until his death a few years ago. Together, they raised three children. She taught kindergarten for fifteen years before leaving the profession to become a full-time homemaker. She and several other mothers sewed all the Tucker High School drill team flags. And when her son found a bolt of camouflage material on a shopping trip, she made him a pair of pants—long before such items were readily available in stores. He wore them “until they were threadbare.” The list of things she’s made, baked, sewed, crafted and created over the years is virtually endless.
Jane points out that her way of life was quite common at one time. “People forget,” she says, “that Fayette County used to be an agricultural county. The whole area used to be small farms. I grew up on one of them.” She recalls a life of raising vegetables and livestock, cooking every meal and sewing her own clothing. “I’ve been sewing and cooking since I was about 10,” she says. “It’s just how we lived.”
In this age of commercial manufacturing and hectic schedules, most of us live very differently. Stain removers come in a series of tiny bottles, color-coded by stain type. Vegetables are bar-coded, except in the months we have access to a farmer’s market. Pants, shirts and skirts come from stores. While a good tailor is indispensable, many of us wouldn’t have any idea where to find a dressmaker, let alone have any clue how to go about making an article of clothing ourselves. Canning would most likely result in suicide by botulism. We’ve lost much of the know-how that used to be handed down through generations and we often lack the time to learn or implement these disappearing arts.
“There’s a lot of interest in homemaking from younger generations,” Jane says. “The problem is, they don’t have any time. It’s too hard to raise a family on one income and there are so many things keeping people busy these days.”
Keeping the tradition of homemaking alive is a main goal of organizations like the Homemaker’s Council. Each year, in addition to its many charitable activities, the group provides sewing, cooking and other home arts demonstrations at the Georgia National Fair in Perry. These sessions always draw a crowd and there are always a multitude of questions from the audience.
“People just don’t know how to do these things anymore,” Jane explains. “But they are certainly interested. It’s funny. The question I get asked the most is how to get stains out of things. I always say, just pour a cup of Cascade and a cup of Clorox II in a glass bowl and soak the stain. You’d be amazed what that will take out. Of course, you can’t use it on everything.”
Jane isn’t the only one to notice a resurgence of interest in traditional home arts. Over the last ten years, knitting has risen to remarkable heights as a hobby among the under-40 crowd. Articles on baking, cleaning, organizing and pinching pennies continue to be popular in both print and online publications. Perhaps most importantly, the concept of making rather than buying seems to be losing the stigma that has plagued it for the last few decades. It is once again becoming cool to bake things from scratch and make your own sugar scrub, even if today’s homemakers prefer the term “domestic goddess.”
This change in attitudes might be due, at least in part, to the fact that we’re getting farther and farther away from the time when raising a family and caring for the home were a woman’s only respectable life choice. Many, if not most, women alive in the US today had the option to go to college, to have a career outside the home and to refrain from having children if they so chose. Such choices were not always a given and, as with most things, homemaking is vastly more attractive as an option than as a compulsory activity. Today, more and more people, male and female, are looking for ways to incorporate traditional home arts into modern life.
The return to domestic arts may also have something to do with the current state of our economy and environment. When conspicuous consumption was king, buying the newest and best was always preferable to buying something used or repurposing something already owned. Not everyone has that choice any more. People are considering each expenditure and exploring options they might once have ignored. They are repairing rather than replacing and giving time rather than money.
Jane Langford wholeheartedly approves. One of her favorite treasures is a sampler stitched with a saying she grew up with: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”
“People also forget that this used to be a poor county. I bet you’ve never seen a feedbag dress,” she says with a smile. “Once upon a time, livestock feed came in sacks and there wasn’t very much cloth, so we made dresses out of the bags. We used what we had and we were happy, too.”
She still makes dresses, though not out of burlap bags. She sewed for her daughter and for her granddaughters in turn. She enters sewing projects in competitions and has an entry in the Georgia National Fair each fall. She made all the window treatments in her home. In fact, she made many of the items in her home, which is built on the site of her husband’s family farm in south Fayette County. She takes pride in the fact that they never hired a decorator and that the comfortable, lovely rooms were designed by her own hand.
One side of the old brick fireplace remains exposed in the foyer, offering a fascinating historical counterpoint to the modern hardwoods and moldings. In her bedroom are a pair of lamps with custom shades she made for her mother-in-law, then inherited. Her kitchen would inspire envy in the most saintly.
But while she has, in her own words, been blessed with a comfortable living, she continues to live by the adage she learned as a child. In fact, she still prepares her coffee in a percolator and watches her programs on a console television. After all, they work. So why replace them? And one of her most prized sewing projects is a quilt she made for her grandson out of old sports jerseys and team t-shirts. The stitch work on the piece is immaculate and she was even able to keep the buttons on some of the shirts.
“All of this would have been just thrown away,” Jane points out. “Now it’s warm and useful and fun to look at. And full of memories.”
When you think about it, memories and tradition are a big part of what makes Jane’s talents so special. Certainly, her abilities have saved money and waste over the years, but they’ve also created some amazing memories. Imagine being able to walk through your home, touching item after item and saying, “When I made this…”
Jane and homemakers like her also create a lasting legacy. Jane no longer cans, but she passed the know-how along. Now her daughter grows cucumbers in her garden and cans her own pickles each year. Her son, who lives in the home next door, now runs his father’s family 250-acre farm as a forestry farm. And the sports quilt so lovingly and skillfully worked for her grandson will be a prized possession for years to come, one that he may someday pass down to his own child—along with the story of the woman who made it.
As the holiday season approaches, Jane is preparing for a series of large family dinners. Labor Day, a major holiday in their family due to a preponderance of late-summer birthdays, was a huge affair again this year. Soon, Jane’s treasure-filled home will be filled with scents of roasting turkey for Thanksgiving and baking cookies for Christmas.
“If I had to pick a specialty, I guess it would be my rolls,” she says. “My family loves my homemade yeast rolls. I mean, they like the other stuff, too. But they really love those rolls. I make a lot of rolls.”
Her son, Dan, points out what makes his mother so unique. “When I was growing up, lots of kids had moms who baked and sewed. It’s not that what she does is so unusual—although it probably is by today’s standards—it’s that she does it with such grace and generosity. She’s never looking to impress other people. We use the good china and sterling at family dinners because it’s a special occasion. But it isn’t the plates or the food that make it special, it’s all of us being together.”
As the holidays approach, we might each take a page out of Jane’s book. We can’t all become domestic goddesses overnight, of course. Nor should we try. The stress of the attempt would unquestionably outweigh any potential benefit. But perhaps we can keep in mind her philosophy of giving self rather than stuff and of making memories rather than money.
As we choose our holiday decorations, set our tables with the special-occasion china and vacuum under that club chair that hasn’t moved since April, let’s all make a pact to remember that perfect isn’t the only beautiful. Let’s try to focus more on our families and friends and less on whether the tree topper is leaning four degrees off center. Let’s try to create holiday celebrations that are just like Jane’s marvelous quilt: warm and useful and fun to look at. And full of memories.