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Losing the Norman Rockwell Façade — Or Maybe Not

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, at least according to posts on Facebook, Instagram, and any number of other social media platforms. Photos bursting out of their frames depicting juicy turkeys, delicious sides and perfectly decorated homes make others wonder what they are missing. Why isn’t their life picture perfect? Where have they gone wrong? I’m not letting myself off the hook one bit. I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to portraying that all is right in the kingdom.

Even. When. It’s. Not.

Why we do it

People have different reasons for putting their best foot forward for others. Personally, I do it not to represent a fake version of my reality, but because I have seen enough of the ugly side of humanity on social media to get me through at least a couple of lifetimes. I grew tired of inflammatory political rhetoric and posts alluding to personal dramas— enough so that I hid several repeat offenders from my social media newsfeeds. I didn’t want to focus on the less appealing side of reality. I found myself posting less and less. I put aside my blog because I found a positive blog was not what many people were wanting.

It was called to my attention that I became “that gal,” the one who has a life in which nothing seems to ever go wrong; either that, or the one who just doesn’t “get it” because she’s happy all the time.

Neither could be further from the truth.

Tara Royer Steele's uplifting book and her Junkberry Pie were a welcome addition to our Thanksgiving

I choose to not let my personal problems—the ones we all have— consume me to a point where I share it with anyone willing to listen (or read). I “play it close to the vest” and only those closest to me know which monsters under the bed keep me awake at night. We all have our crosses to bear. I try as hard as I can to set those aside in favor of focusing on the many blessings that far outweigh the occasional “harder hits” of life.

As for worldly problems, no matter how badly I want to change them, I can't. I turn those over to God before bedtime. I have Him on speed-dial and, as they say, He’ll be up late anyway.

Norman Rockwell was depressed, but…

Buried beneath each stroke of Norman Perceval Rockwell’s brush was a private battle of depression, insecurity, and anxiety. When his parents moved to Manhattan following his grandmother’s death, the eight-year-old, pigeon-toed “new kid on the block” found himself unable to adapt. Much smaller than his peers, he was an outsider in a school that stressed athletic activity and prowess. This played heavily into his insecurities, as did the fact that mean-spirited comments from classmates made him feel self-conscious about his unusual middle name.

Rockwell found solace in the one thing he knew was his strong-suit, painting.

Postage stamp of "United States of America, Circa 1993" -self portrait

A second family relocation to a small village home near the soothing waters of the Atlantic proved to be a positive move for young Rockwell. He blended easily into the friendly, seaside community and quickly became much more confident. Already knowing exactly in which direction he wanted his life to go, he dropped out of high school before the age of 16 and entered the National Academy of Design at his own expense. By 19, he became the art editor of Boy Scouts of America’s Boys Life, a first step in a lucrative career that would eventually usher him into the fame he found at Saturday Evening Post.

Doesn’t that sound idyllic? While Norman

Rockwell is, for the most part, a household name, what’s less known is that the painter who seemed to see the world through rose colored glasses had his own share of problems. The well-known philanderer’s marriage to Wife #1 (Irene) ended in divorce. He was left for another man by Wife #2 (Mary), then remarried Wife #3 (Molly) who had a drinking problem and who died unexpectedly at the age of 51. He lost many paintings in a 1943 fire that destroyed his studio, and was considered a traitor by both art critics and the general populace when his art began to address what he felt was prime examples of social injustice.

Each of the occurrences renewed his lifelong struggle with a somewhat fragile emotional state. Through it all, Rockwell painted his way into our hearts by presenting his nostalgic images of an almost perfect American way of life.

He chose to portray the positive.

We all search for something. We believe that “if you build it, [it] will come,” as if by some magical manifestation we can telepathically beat a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving or Christmas into submission, and POOF! It will be right there, in the comfort of our own home. If we bake the turkey, decorate the house, and invite the family, we’ll create for ourselves the perfect Facebook-worthy holiday.

But is that really the way it works?

A Covid reset

Covid messed with our heads, whether we had it or didn’t, took the shot, or refused. Our lives were clipping along just fine until the Covid bomb rattled our freedom to move about the country. It prevented us from staying close to loved ones by way of family gatherings and, for some, shook the financial ground on which ordinary people had built their futures.

We came out of the pandemic different people. Covid affected each of us, in one way or another.

Lanny and I took a couple of trips this year, but quickly learned enjoying restaurants, sightseeing, museums, etc. doesn’t quite hold the same charm when you’re breathing through a mandatory face covering. We had to pay for on-site restaurants that couldn’t serve, game rooms and pools that couldn’t be used, housekeeping that was no longer offered, and a host of other amenities that were not available due to Covid restrictions.

From Biloxi and Gulfport, Mississippi to Tyler, Flint and Lindale, Texas, we were still able to capture some fond travel memories, but it did require some adjustments on our part.

Like most people, we finally retreated into the welcoming parameters of our home. I read (a lot!), cooked and baked enough to exhaust Martha Stewart, organized everything on site, took classes with limited numbers of participants, dabbled in new crafts, enjoyed long walks in a local park and did whatever I chose to do that didn’t require being around a bunch of people.

We added this little nugget, Junipurr, to our family. Immediately, she became a caretaker when her human Mom had a bad cold.

We found ways to enjoy the simple things. We picked blueberries and bought fresh peaches on our trip to Echo Springs Blueberry Farm in East Texas, and Margie and I lost ourselves for a day in Houston's Van Gogh exhibit, another artist who created his way through his problems. (Well, that is until...)

I avoided watching the news, traded music for Podcasts and kept my gratitude journal close at hand for documenting that we “avoided the plague” and for reminding myself that since we are fortunate enough to not have to work outside of the home in a pandemic, we’re fortunate enough. I gained new appreciation for those who did.

And I did a lot of thinking.

Clarity, those “Ah-ha!” moments

Persian poet Rumi wrote, “The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” What I “heard” during those long months of not being able to safely get back to our old lives was that I had definitey emerged a different person after somewhat forced isolation.

Time alone with Lanny brought us closer, and we gained a new appreciation for each other. It taught us renewed patience. I am now closer to many of my oldest and dearest friends than ever, as each of us watched people we knew be taken away by a virus that simply would not give up.

We shared a wonderful, peaceful Friendsgiving with longtime friends, Mary and Don

I came to appreciate more those in my life who are a source of joy— the ones who find happiness among the sadness of today’s non-Rockwell world; those who don’t create unnecessary drama; those who want to live each day to the fullest, even when “the fullest” might mean something as simple as the warmth of good cup of coffee and finding a few moments to read a book.

But also, as the hours slipped into days and days into months, I finally woke up to realize many of the things I should have recognized years ago. Solitude brought clarity to the things I too easily accepted as passable behavior so that I could stay close to certain people in my life.

Aloneness taught me that giving too much of myself away, expecting absolutely nothing in return, was a surefire way to end up resenting the (thankfully, very few) takers in my world. Spending time with my thoughts allowed me to also see that I am no longer willing to put up with disrespect from those who dish it out too freely, then feel no remorse.

Perhaps Covid offered me – and maybe many of you—an escape from the boiling pot. There’s a fable that suggests that if a frog is put into a pot of tepid water which is then brought slowly to a boil, it will not sense the danger and will be boiled to death. But if you place the frog directly into a pot of boiling water, it will jump out immediately to save itself.

Sometimes we come to accept negative things or behaviors that have gotten worse over time. Because it happens slowly, we assimilate, we accept, and we keep going. But if we “jump out of the boiling pot” long enough for the “Ah-ha!” moment to kick in, we can clearly see what has happened. And there is no way we will be willing to jump back into the pot… But, rest assured, it’ll keep boiling, with or without us.

Peace at all costs is no peace at all. And I quietly committed to respecting myself more than I had in years past.

To “Rockwell,” or not… That is the question

When I’m completely honest with myself, I— like everyone else— realize my Facebook life has holes in it. In my real world, there is a constant low rumble of potential family drama that could break loose at any given moment. There is worry about the health of the people I love. There is concern about the future of those around me, as well as the normal existential angst about what the future years might bring for Lanny, or for me (Serenity Prayer, Connie, Serenity Prayer).

But meanwhile, among the moments of real life that brings us all to our knees, I “bake cookies” and post “the best of the batch” on Facebook because I don’t want to show “the ones that are too burnt to eat.”

Rockwell painted for us a Shangri-La image of America in his 323 “Saturday Evening Post” covers. He also used his talent to depict a time of unrest in an increasingly socially conscious society. He did not waste his time focusing on the things that were personally difficult. He chose to offer, instead, a way of life to which ordinary people could aspire.

Perhaps that’s what we all do when we put the best we have to offer on social media, or when we smile brightly and say, “Great! I’m fine! Thanks!” when asked how we’re doing. Does this make it less true? I don’t think so. If you’re a Baby Boomer who’s been around the block a time or two, you know all too well that “life happens.” Loved ones die, families splinter, couples split, friendship ties sever, kids disappoint you, illness strikes…

But between the inevitable tears, there is abundant joy. The older we get, the more we yearn for peace and happiness. While it might seem fake to “put on a happy face” and pretend everything is okay, I believe, at times, it’s a necessary survival tactic. It’s acknowledging that, while things might not look so rosy right now, we choose to keep the faith that there are better days ahead, right around the corner.

Norman Rockwell died in 1978 at the age of 84, leaving behind scores of now-priceless sentimental images depicting a wholesome, near-perfect everyday America. He gave us a taste of something to strive for. Although his life was far from perfect, he was able to seek and therefore find beauty in the simple things in life. He perceived, and therefore created, a better world view through his art.

Perhaps that’s what we all do when we offer the best, filtered views of our lives in the photos we share and the posts we create on social media. It’s not that each day of our lives is made of Rockwell moments. It’s more that we haven’t lost faith and sight of the fact that, for the most part, most of our moments are worth remembering.

This season, bloom where you are planted. Love the ones who respect you and never make you question. Put your best foot forward. Be quiet and listen to the wisdom that comes from solitude. Be brave enough to look for “beauty among the ashes.”

And keep sharing the pics of the “perfect cookies” ~ for life is mostly sweet.

Wishing you a wonderful December, with many hugs,


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