(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.