There is a quilt on every bed in my grandmother’s battered farmhouse. Most of the patchwork blankets are generations old. Their bindings sport holes of wear. Newer quilts flaunt their fresh, rich colors in Grandma’s room. My first attempt at quilting hangs on her wall. The colors are bright, but the shapes are ever-so-slightly askew. Nevertheless, every uneven stitch holds meaning. Each crooked patch tells a story.
Years ago, during our annual family reunion at Grandma’s farm, my cleaning project was the musty linen closet. I discovered a vibrant quilt top while sorting through the handmade towels, table clothes and bedding. It was patterned in a radiating star, the Star of Bethlehem. My head reeled with the stories this quilt might tell.
I brought the top to my grandmother. She would remember. “It was given to Annie,” she said, a 1930s-era barter for the medical services of my great-aunt. The quilter spent hours cutting tiny pieces and then hand-stitching them together. For the maker, the quilt was a means to health care during the parched days of the Depression.
Later that weekend my grandmother placed her meditations book into my hands. She pointed a shaky finger to the day’s lesson: “Opening your heart and home to those in need.” Then she shared old stories of how abolitionists used quilt code to signal slaves. Quilts displayed ciphers hidden in the Log Cabin, Hourglass, Drunkard’s Path and North Star patterns, among others. They were maps to freedom seen by all, understood by few. Quilts made with black cloth and featuring log cabins beckoned from clotheslines in front of houses that promised fugitive slaves warm meals, beds, safety and friendship. They meant home.
It dawned on me at that moment that every quilt is someone’s story, a colorful history coded into a bright array of patchwork. The Depression quilt and the safe-haven quilts tell stories of survival. It was then I decided to make a quilt that told my grandmother’s story. Hers is also a story of survival.
My grandmother spent her life caring for others. She made her home a welcoming haven. Family member, friend, neighbor and even stranger could count on a warm meal and bed at the farm. The Watkins man conveniently chose mealtimes to peddle his trove of spices, mixes and flavorings at the farm. And he was always given a place at the table. Even during the Depression, there was always an extra plate, though the homestead was not a place of wealth.
The family lived day to day, like most did, always dependent on the next rain for the crops to come in. In the Dust Bowl years, the children wore hand-me-down clothes from the neighbors and feed-sack creations. Grandma would remake the hand-me-downs, carefully pulling stitches at the seams and refitting the clothes to ever-growing children. My aunt Kathryn loved her Nutrena pellet food-sack coat. The orange of the feed sack washed out to leave a jaunty print behind, fitting for a young girl’s wardrobe.
Grandma used every scrap of fabric and put away every piece of metal or paper for another time. Years of pack-ratting resulted in closets and crawl spaces filled to the rafters with Saturday Evening Posts, vegetable remedies and bitters, and even wooden clogs, aprons and dresses from the Old Country. Farm animals had long abandoned outbuildings, crowded out by discarded furniture, broken down Fords and tractors, and even horse-drawn wagons. Hence each reunion was a virtual treasure hunt for antique goodies, as well as a nostalgic trip down memory lane for all sixty-four of my grandmother’s descendants.
Unlike my ancestors, I don’t depend on Grandma’s farm for subsistence of body. For me it means a warm meal and safe bed for my soul – subsistence of spirit.
I remember annual vacations at the farm. It was the most carefree time I have ever known. I ran wild with my cousins. We plucked mulberries from the trees, snuck into Grandpa’s candy drawer and ate fresh-baked cinnamon rolls during the days. We climbed into the featherbeds upstairs and told ghost stories at night. Our parents reminisced in the kitchen below us, their laughter eventually lulling us to sleep.
I take my own family to the farm now. I spend the days making repairs, cooking, cleaning and occasionally short-sheeting a bed or two. My son runs with his cousins, experiencing the freedom of spirit that I still feel in this old house. I tuck him into bed, and it’s my turn to laugh until midnight with my cousins, aunts and uncles in the kitchen.
I have more good memories of my time at the farm than from any other period of my life. It’s there that I return my focus to living every moment, not worrying about tomorrow or next week. It’s there that I find my peace and my soul. I find rejuvenation to go home, to create a story for myself that may end up on a quilt someday.
My grandmother created not just a house, but a home – a place of shelter for the body and spirit, not only for her children and grandchildren, but for neighbors and strangers alike. Her life was hard, backbreaking at times. But I do not have to ask her why she worked so hard. I can see why when she watches her great-grandchildren play at her feet. Her gentle smile and sparkling eyes are affirmation enough. This is the story her quilt tells.