In preparing for a pre-July 4th Alzheimer’s program, I was drawn to the story of Betsy Ross and the role she played, however apocryphal, in fashioning America’s first flag. My mostly female audience, I hoped, would enjoy hearing about one of their own for a change — instead of the usual Dead White Males hogging pages in history textbooks.

In some respects, Betsy was a thoroughly modern woman: eloping at 21 to marry her first husband in New Jersey (of all places!); a successful business owner; the mother of seven daughters who persevered despite losing two of them and being widowed three times by the age of 65.

It was her contribution to the design of the American flag though that resonated with me most as an artist. Legend has it that George Washington preferred a 6-pointed star but assented to 5 once Betsy showed him how simple it was to make. (Days later, I discovered that 6 can be done just as easily.) Origami is a magical art, and Betsy’s version, if indeed it ever occurred or took place as imagined, received oohs and ahhs when I demonstrated it. It was also amusing to think of the founding fathers being schooled by a seasoned seamstress.

With Betsy’s example as a jumping-off point, we started decorating, personalizing, and combining pre-cut, 5-pointed stars into shapes with 10 or more points. (Click on images to enlarge.)

Several aides took advantage of the different colors to make stars that echoed the flags of their native countries. Later, we attached everyone’s work to a skeletal flag made of red, white, and blue rope, and took pictures of staff and individual residents standing in front of it.

Staff and aides

I’m not sure how George or Betsy would have felt seeing them, but to me, the stars embodied the freedom of expression and diversity that characterize America today.

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At certain points throughout the workshop, I encouraged residents to reflect on the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in their own lives, and to share any thoughts they had. One woman spoke about being a good person, another about finding joy in the relationship she had had with her husband. Staying personal, I wondered how they coped with their loss of independence. The answer that came back surprised me with the depth of its wisdom: as long as one remained true to herself, one would always be free regardless of circumstances.

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