Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts

Needles and Thread, Part III: Grandmother’s Quilts (part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My maternal grandmother, like most rural mountain women of her generation, was a prolific quilter. Her quilting frame was hung from the dining room ceiling where it could be raised and lowered by pulleys. It made her home the perfect place for a quilt-making gathering, but she would have been worried to pieces having outsiders in the way, so quilting bees were limited to family members.

When I was about nine years old, I was the recipient of one of those quilts. It featured the Little Dutch Girl pattern: a little girl in profile with her flared dress, a big sunbonnet hiding her face from view, and equally big shoes—wooden clogs, no doubt. In each square, the girl’s outfit was multi-hued, each square’s color combination different from the ones around it.

The colorful quilt served as my bedspread for several years, on the same antique cherry bed that had been my mother’s. She had restored it when she was a teen as part of a 4-H Room Improvement project which earned her a blue ribbon at the North Carolina State Fair. That same bed was used by my daughter when she was a girl and then by her own daughter.

Unfortunately, the quilt was not quite so long-lived as the bed, now more than 150 years old. While not exactly ephemera, quilts were made to be used. My Little Dutch Girl quilt was well-used, first by me and later by my daughter. It wore out.

By the time I learned to appreciate my quilt for both its personal and cultural heritage, it was too threadbare, stained, and torn to save it. But I couldn’t toss it. A few years ago, I cut the quilt into its squares and framed the few that weren’t too stained or frayed. One I gave to my mother, one I kept for myself; others I stashed away for children and grandchildren.

Now I’ve inherited a few more of Grandmother’s quilts. Unlike my girlhood quilt, I treat these with great respect. I don’t tuck them away where they can’t be appreciated, but I’ve learned not to expose them to daily use and abuse atop beds, either. These quilts hang side by side over a bedroom railing. Like MaMa’s Civil War bedspread, they are always on view and always available to provide extra cover on chilly nights—when they warm both body and soul.

I love these old quilts made by my grandmother, and I’m fascinated by the study of them. Her stitches were exquisite and her squares, large or tiny, were precise. But Grandmother didn’t exercise the same kind of care in other aspects of her quilt making. (Mother was right.)

Precision was not what you’d expect to find within Grandmother’s squares. One little Dutch girl’s profile, for instance, might vary from those around it. One’s shoes may be a little larger or smaller, while another’s might drop off the square entirely. Grandmother carelessly arranged colors. With Grandmother’s quilts, it’s not unusual to spot an aqua square somewhere in a row of royal blue ones. Or, you may find a wool or satin piece of fabric mixed in a row of cotton squares.

This quilt contains 148 border squares. 146 of them are black. The other two look like this.

Notice the random color placement of the “petals” in this quilt square. Can you spot the petal that was pieced together?

Whether it was plain old sloppiness, a preference for form over function, poor planning, or the “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without” philosophy stated on one of her many cross-stitched pieces, these little details simply didn’t seem to matter to Grandmother. And one thing’s for sure—her quilts are unique; they’ll never be mistaken for anyone else’s.

Among other fabrics, Grandmother used a red-checkered tablecloth, printed flour sacks, and old children’s pajamas to make this quilt.

Grandmother was a giggler and she kept me in stitches. Even now, looking at her quilts makes me chuckle. I think she’d have wanted it that way.

Needles and Thread, Part II: MaMa’s Treasure

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

I never knew my paternal grandmother. She died in 1942, about two and a half years before my parents married. After still another year, Grampa married Carolyn Usher Johnson, the woman I always knew as MaMa.

When Grampa and MaMa married, she moved into his three-bedroom home. As I was growing up, I thought the house was hopelessly old-fashioned with its mahogany furniture, Oriental rugs, ornate cuckoo clock, and velvet upholstered sofa and chairs adorned with crocheted antimacassars. An old wind-up Victrola, complete with its puzzled-dog-staring-into-the-horn icon and wax cylinders, always a fascination to us grandchildren, stood in the hall.

Once the last of the nine sons and stepsons was out of the house, two of the three bedrooms were reserved for company. When our family visited, we usually stayed in the front bedroom, which featured a porcelain pitcher and bowl on the antique washstand and a brightly colored, velvet crazy quilt on the bed. The bedspread in the second bedroom was much more sedate: a thin woven cotton spread in muted shades of brown.

After I was married with children of my own, I was happy when our young family moved to North Carolina because it meant being nearer both my husband’s and my extended families. I was especially eager for our children to get to know their only living set of great-grandparents.

When we went to see Grampa and MaMa in the summer of 1981, the term Alzheimers’ had only recently entered the popular lexicon to describe the most common form of dementia. MaMa had been diagnosed with this horrid disease not long before our visit. Her diagnosis came after she was found walking along the highway near their home in the middle of night, wearing nothing but a nightgown, unsure where she was or how she got there. But when we visited, she was perfectly lucid, even joking about that nighttime misadventure. She seemed quite competent.

We stood in the front yard saying our always stretched-out goodbyes when MaMa asked us to wait a few minutes more and disappeared into the house. She returned a few minutes later, carrying the brown bedspread I remembered from my childhood. As she presented it to me, she explained that her grandmother had woven the spread during the Civil War.

I was touched, but I demurred. Surely, she should give it to one of her sons’ children. It was their birthright. She was quick to say, “Oh, they’d just pack it away in a cedar chest. I know you’ll use it the way it was meant to be used.” Grampa, standing beside and ever so slightly behind her, silently gestured that we shouldn’t belabor the point. MaMa knew what she wanted and would be unduly upset if we declined. We accepted the spread.

It was the last time we saw her. MaMa died before we were able to make another visit to eastern North Carolina. We were even more honored,and now sobered, to be in possession of the spread with its rich heritage. But how were we to honor it?

It had been in regular use for over a hundred years and simply wouldn’t stand up to much more wear, especially in a house filled with cats, dogs, and active children. Yet, we knew we couldn’t let the spread spend the remainder of its days in the dark recesses of a cedar chest, no matter how much longer it could be preserved.

We had to find some other way to care for the special piece of history entrusted to us. Today, the treasured spread is folded over the loft rail overlooking our bedroom, a compromise that keeps it in sight but protects it from the risks of everyday use. We’re careful to keep it out of direct sunlight, to fold it loosely, and to rearrange its folds every so often to keep the fabric from weakening at fold points.

We honor it. We tell its story. I hope that’s good enough.

Move-In Day

Move-In Day

(Written on Saturday, August 19, 2017)

move in 5 better

It’s Move-In Day at the local college. Traffic has been a mess all week as students who live off campus, as well as student advisors and others with pre-move-in responsibilities, clog the roads for miles around. Roadside signs directing parents and new students to this or that area of campus begin several miles beyond town.

The campus itself is dotted with temporary identification and directional signage. Campus security personnel and ROTC students direct on-campus traffic while other staff, including my nearest neighbor, are on hand to help carry suitcases, boxes, and carts full of bedding and other necessities to dorm rooms—this being their fourteenth straight day on the job. They’ve been hectically sprucing up those same rooms and making sure all maintenance issues have been resolved in preparation for this weekend for weeks. 

Dorm parking lots are full of loaded pick-up trucks and rental trailers as parents help their fledglings move in. I’ve seen license tags from places as far away as New Hampshire, Texas, and Colorado. We’re used to out-of-staters. After all, we’re a tourist town as well as a college town, but the prevalence of far flung tags has been greater for the last few days. DSCF9247_LI

Students fill the campus and downtown sidewalks in groups of twos, threes, and fives. It’s an exhilerating time. Freshmen are getting acquainted with their roommates and other newbies. Their shared excitement, nervousness, and uncertainty creates an instant and strong bond. Upperclassmen are eager for reunions with friends. Some are all aflutter at the prospect of being back together with sweethearts after months apart. For a few, the start of the new year is bittersweet, having said sad good-byes to their steadies back home, but eager to greet friends and decorate their rooms.

Parking lots and dorm rooms are scenes for a fair share of teary-eyed goodbyes, but for the most part the damp cheeks belong to parents. More students than not are virtually shoving their families out the door. They want Mom and Dad to stop with the bed-making and drawer-filling and advice-giving. They want to get on with it. This is their time.

It’s a weekend unlike any other. No classes, no assignments. It’s get-acquainted time. Settle-in time. A few hours of relaxation with no academic stresses. Still, minds are a little muddled for many freshmen, who have more-than-ever moments of feeling like little kids on the inside while trying with all their might to be all grown up on the outside. Their innermost feelings and fears will not be spoken aloud.

Today is all about hope. It’s the beginning of a fresh start. Freshmen, especially, have a chance to make themselves anew, if they choose. No baggage follows them here. No one knows their academic, family, or personal backgrounds. They can scout out other like-minded folks; there are clubs and organizations aplenty for exploring new ideas and finding expression for their deepest interests. (In fact, some of these kids will be unrecognizable on their first weekend home—with radical hair colors and styles, tats in unlikely places, piercings on improbable body parts, and strange new ideas. They may sport heretofore unknown wardrobes to announce their current status.)

Meanwhile, vendors conglomerate just beyond the school’s boundaries to hawk mini-fridges, carpet remnants, and college-themed products for student rooms. Restaurants, retail stores, and churches display signs that say things like “Welcome Back” or “Welcome, Students.” One was different. It simply said, “Welcome Home.” In a microsecond I was transported to my own college days, and I realized this was the sign that got it right.

Even as a butterflies-in-the-stomach freshman, it was only a matter of days until I understood I’d found my home at my now alma mater. As I returned from semester and summer breaks for my next three years, I knew for certain I was coming home—home to roommates, classmates, hall parties (held for any or no reason). Home to favorite professors and classes for which I had a passion. Home to love interests, ball games, dances, bonfires, and concerts. Home to learning and my still unknown future. Of course, I still referred to that place from which I hailed as home, too, but it was my parents’ home. This was mine. All mine.

Welcome home, students! 

 

 

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

Needles and Thread, Part I: Workmanship

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

My mother is an expert needlewoman. At least, she was until arthritis and eyesight betrayed her. She grew up in an era when nearly all young girls learned to sew and excel at other needlework. When I was a girl, my mother made all my clothes before she taught me to sew, too.

She was a painstaking seamstress who worked on an item of clothing until it met the approval of her extraordinarily critical eye. Ripping out seams didn’t bother her one whit if it meant a better garment. A dart that didn’t end precisely at the right point, a facing that didn’t lie perfectly flat, a seam that puckered the tiniest bit—none of these flaws would do, no matter how slight.

I spent torturous hours standing on a stool where I was required to turn ever so slowly, like a music box ballerina (but not nearly so patiently), while she pinned and repinned a dress hem until it was perfectly straight, a fact she ensured with her trusty yardstick. Wherever needle and thread were concerned, Mother was a perfectionist.

My mother, like hers before her, tatted for years, making doilies, snowflake tree ornaments, and yards of knotted lace edging for collars, sleeves, and hemlines. She spent many an evening working on needlepoint, embroidery, crewel work, and cross-stitch, too. Needlework pieces made by either Mother or Grandmother covered the walls of my parents’ home: a zinnia bouquet, a North Carolina map, birds of America, twin Christmas “Partridge in a Pear Tree” wall hangings, along with humorous or pithy pearls of wisdom. “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” and”Nobody sits down until the cook sits down,” and “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without” are three memorable ones.

The combination cross-stitch and embroidery piece that long hung just inside Mother’s bathroom door has always been one of my favorites. Surrounded by basic embroidered designs depicting various bathroom scenes (a stick figure powdering her nose, an overflowing tub, someone nervously dancing on the wrong side of the door), are these cross-stitched words:

Who waits outside this door / One may never know / So hurry up, my dear / He, too, may have to go.

One day when I was visiting Mom, I wondered aloud about its provenance. I wasn’t a hundred percent certain, but I was pretty confident I’d seen this piece hanging in my grandparents’ house before it was in hers. Her response was sure and strong. “Mother made it. I’ve always been really proud of my needlework. Mother was never very careful with hers, and there’s a mistake in this picture.”

DSCF8888

Can you find a mistake?

She cheerfully volunteered to show me its fault as proof. She studied that piece, then studied some more trying to find the offending error. After a long few minutes, Mother said, “I can’t find anything wrong with it. I made it, after all!”

A perfectionist—and a cocky one at that.

No Touching

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

About this time of year I’m overcome with nostalgia. What brings it on is the flowering of touch-me-nots. My now grown children groan in exasperation whenever they hear me mention these wildflowers—they know what’s coming next.

It’s the story of how these jewel-toned flowers remind me it’s time for the school year to start in these parts. How I fondly remember watching the two of them emerge from a heavy fog as they walked up our newly-graded and graveled road after their first day of school barely more than a month after we moved up here on the diagonal. (Punkin was a fourth-grader, wishing she was back in the Brown School in Louisville. It was Cuddlebug’s very first day of school anywhere.) How their arrival home from late-summer school days was often delayed because they couldn’t resist the urge to stop along the way to do exactly the opposite of the warning implied by the plant’s name and pop the flowers’ seedpods. It’s an addictive pursuit, and it was a fun way to end the school day.

Handling a touch-me-not is a uniquely rewarding and giggle-worthy experience. The seedpods don’t look particularly fragile, but when they’re mature, the slightest movement causes a virtual explosion, with tiny seeds catapulting onto the landscape—no doubt the reason this wildflower is so prevalent in territory friendly to its needs. The steep banks along our country roads are saturated with touch-me-not plants right now.

Predictably, with all those explosive seedpods, touch-me-nots have taken over the roadsides.

Also known as jewelweed, this prolific wildflower may be either yellow or orange, each variety’s flowers freckled with deep reddish-brown spots near and in their deep throats. Their nectar-filled spurs make them attractive to hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. In appearance, they strike me as a cross between miniature orchids and larkspurs.Touch-me-nots are common throughout all of the U. S. with the exception of a few western states. They’re fascinating plants—beautiful, useful, quirky, and irresistible to kids of all ages. Once you’ve popped a few seedpods, you never outgrow the urge when you come upon a patch of these intriguing plants.

When a seedpod bursts open, either on its own or with a little human help, the hull instantly curls up into tight coils, like small, green springs. It’s all so fast you can’t see it happening. A captivating sight in itself. And even though you know that little explosion is coming and are waiting for it, it will inevitably make you jump in startled surprise.

The leaves are just as intriguing. If you find yourself in a patch of jewelweed on a dewy morning or just after a rain, its leaves will be the only dry thing around, displaying little beads of water on their surface. Dancing in sunlight, the water glistens like diamonds.

Submerge a leaf in water with its underside facing up and it turns silver. Pull it out and it will be dry, with only a few droplets of water here and there.

Touch-me-nots also have medicinal uses. The best-known and most practical use is as a remedy for itching. In fact, they’re often found in conveniently close proximity to itch-inducing poison ivy and stinging nettle. By breaking open the liquid-filled stems and spreading the watery sap on skin that’s been exposed to these plants or to insect bites or stings, you’ll most likely experience immediate relief.

And you can even eat the little seeds. They taste a lot like walnuts–really! Granted, it would take a lot of collecting to get enough to bake into a dish, but it’s a handy thing to know if you happen to find yourself lost and hungry in the midst of these delightful plants.

All this and nostalgia, too.

The sight of touch-me-nots, the start of the school year, the long held vision of our children in their first-day-of-school finery, the hint of autumn in the air, the memory of those first days of house-building—all these things represent the beginning of our life on the diagonal.

Kids, if you didn’t already realize, you might as well get used to it because whenever touch-me-nots are in bloom, I’ll continue to reminisce aloud about this giant tangle of sweet memories.

Polio: From Reign of Terror to Obscurity in One Generation

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Recently, I was recounting a childhood event in my life to my teenage grandchildren. I mentioned polio (paralytic poliomyelitis). “What’s polio?” asked the seventeen-year-old.

Wow—imagine that! To think this (mostly) childhood disease which terrorized U. S. parents for four epidemic-laden decades of the 20th century is unknown to today’s youth is almost unfathomable to someone like me who lived through that era. That there’s no reason for them to know about it is an amazing blessing.

It certainly wasn’t always like that. If you’re in the same boat as my grands, you may want to know there was a time when polio, a disease that’s been around since ancient times, was widespread in this country.

The U. S. experienced annual polio epidemics every summer between 1916 and 1955, with the worst outbreaks occurring in the 40s and 50s—the period of my childhood. Nineteen fifty-two was the peak year for the nation’s epidemic: 60,000 cases were reported. Three thousand victims died; 21,000 more were paralyzed.

Polio was, and is, a highly contagious, virus-caused disease which can be transmitted via contaminated water. That’s why public swimming pools were regularly closed during my childhood whenever a case was reported. Interestingly, most people who contracted polio never even knew it; they had no symptoms. For many others, symptoms were similar to the flu—a few days of high fever, sore throat, headache, abdominal distress. But for others . . .

My worst polio-associated image has always been the iron lung, that body-enveloping steel cylinder to which many polio victims were confined. Because polio attacked muscles, including those required for breathing, this mechanical breathing machine was the only survival hope for many. For some, like actress Mia Farrow, the iron lung was temporary, though it probably didn’t seem like it at the time.—she lived in one for eight months. For others, it was a life sentence. At least one victim was confined to an iron lung for more than forty years, until his death in 2003. 

Food and Drug Administration: iron lung ward, Rancho Los Amigos Hospital, CA.

Public domain photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention‘s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), identification number #6536.

Two of those terrorized mid-20th century parents were mine. When I awoke crying with a high fever in the middle of the night after a day of playing with other three-year-olds in a neighborhood mud puddle, they wasted no time rushing me to the hospital. I still retain the memory of being swooped up and cradled in my dad’s arms, tightly wrapped in a blanket. In my next remembered image, I was lying in a hospital bed, Daddy lying beside me, reading a Cornet magazine. I was terrified when I woke the next morning to find myself alone in that strange place. Mother arrived not long thereafter with a brand new pair of patent leather shoes for me to wear home. The diagnosis was tonsillitis. Their overreaction just shows how real the fear was.

Then came 1955. I was one of millions of reluctant kids dragged by our equally hopeful parents to stand in long, winding lines—in my case in the hot South Carolina summer sun—to get the brand new polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk. Hundreds of thousands had worked frantically to develop an effective vaccine, from scientists to test subjects to ordinary citizens raising funds for research and development.

This Pinterest photo was taken in Chicago in 1955. The line I stood in seemed every bit as long as we waited in the hot sun, dreading our fate: the first of a series of three shots. Later came the oral vaccine we took as a booster.

And just like that the epidemic was over. The residual effects, though, were not. Years late, a college classmate of mine wore leg braces and used crutches to get around campus. When I lived in Louisville, KY, in the 70s, three of my work colleagues, two of them wheelchair-bound, had contracted the disease in that city’s 1952 epidemic.

Some famous people who suffered from polio: Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Emmett Till; Jack Nicklaus; actors Alan Alda, Donald Sutherland, Mia Farrow; former Secretary of Defense and World Bank president Robert McNamara; ventriloquist (and voice of Tigger) Paul Winchell; artist Frida Kahlo; singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins, Dinah Shore; NYC ballet soloist Tranquil Le Clercq; photographer Dorothea Lange; former Washington Post executive editor Ben Bradlee; saxophonist David Sanborn; Olympic gold medalist (track and field) Wilma Rudolph; Tarzan portrayer and Olympic gold medalist (swimming) Johnny Weismuller; violinist Itzhak Perlman.

Even today, there’s no cure for polio. Survivors often have residual complications and can anticipate post-polio syndrome in later life—a return of weakening muscles and other issues. Our salvation is in prevention. And while polio is now virtually unheard of in the United States and most of the world thanks to global eradication efforts, the disease hasn’t yet been wiped out. Polio still exists in two or three countries in Asia and Africa and has, on occasion, been reintroduced into others. It wouldn’t take much for a resurgence to occur here. As long as it’s out there, I won’t be completely comforted.

And yet, I’m gleeful that my grandchildren, knowledgeable as they are, have no knowledge of polio, that they have no need to know. And ever thankful to the scientists and public servants who were, and are, committed to finding a way to curb this horrific scourge worldwide.

 

 

 

 

 

Avon Calling

(Part of my Blowing on Embers series)

Smell: the sense that triggers our strongest childhood memories.

While it’s the aroma of sauteed onions or fried chicken or vanilla and cinnamon wafting from the kitchen that conjures up distant memories for most people, my strongest scent memory comes from an altogether different place.

For as long as I can remember, my mother has used Avon’s moisturizing cream on her face. Today’s “new and improved” product no longer comes in that familiar green jar, and these days the contents don’t have much of a scent at all, but back in the old days the aroma was distinctive.

avon jar

As a girl, I often found myself slipping into my parents’ bedroom on the sly and heading straight towards Mother’s dresser. I could count on finding the ubiquitous green jar in one of two places—either in the top middle drawer or, more often, front and center on the dresser top. I stood there, furtively unscrewing the lid to take in a deep whiff. The scent brought me comfort and a profound sense of closeness to my mom—even though she was only two or three rooms away.

As far as I know, no one in our family ever knew about my fixation, and to this day, I can’t for the life of me explain why I didn’t just walk down the hall to wherever Mother happened to be and give her a hug. She was certainly huggable—and she was always there. But for some reason I found something alluring about surreptitiously getting my “Mom fix” from that little green jar. Maybe it was the concentration of the fragrance, somehow making my sense of Mother an even stronger presence than the real thing.

But what made this secret habit so funny, so bizarre, is this: I never liked how that cream smelled!

These days I keep an old empty Avon jar in my own dresser, just for the memories. I call it “Mom, Distilled.” I do miss that old scent, though.