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In my family, as in many others, some traditions and possessions are passed on through generations while some are discarded or lost over time. I have done my share of paring down, preferring stories rather than things, but I have kept a family quilt.
The quilt is a wild hodgepodge. There are blocks resembling sunflowers, petals pinwheeling out from the centre disc. Some are made with floral violet-print pieces or red-black-and-white paisley each with an incongruous rust-coloured centre. There are variations of a pattern called Dresden Plate. The fabric pieces fanning out from a circular centre in an array of red gingham, neon squiggles and pastel florals – side by side by side – with no discernible order in their placement.
All these pieces were once clothes and I like to think about which outfits might have been worn to a wedding, to do the shopping, to a funeral or to clean the kitchen.
It was my great-grandmother Jemima who originally pieced this riot of colour. Granny Jemima always made her own clothes in the latest styles and the loudest colours. When those clothes reached their end, she would rework them into quilts. Granny Jemima died shortly before I was born, but stories about her continue to be told. In her last years, when her son pressured her to walk with the aid of a cane, she carried it looped over her arm instead. Still, it saw some use. One day while she was out, a youth riding by on a bicycle screamed, “Get out of the way, you old hag!” whereupon she jabbed her cane through the spokes of his wheel, catapulting him over the handlebars. She then said, “That’ll teach you to respect your elders!”
Alas, spunk is not immortality and when she died parts of her life were left unfinished. This included the quilt, which was nothing but flower pieces. My grandmother Myrna saved those unfinished fabric flowers. She found them when cleaning out her mother-in-law’s effects from the apartment on the top floor of her home. Grandma Myrna was something of an anachronism. As a young woman she travelled through Canada and the United States playing semi-professional baseball. She married for love, a man whose legs had been crushed in a mine cave-in – married him after the accident – and spent her adult life as mother, wife and breadwinner. Known among friends as the grandmother other grandmas aspired to be, she taught us everything from how to make her famous raisin biscuits to how to throw a softball.
When Myrna’s mind began to snag and unravel, she moved into a nursing home. Then it fell to my mother to sort through her mother’s things.
When my mother, Joanne, found those unfinished quilt pieces made from the outfits she had seen hundreds of times, she, too, kept them. She took in the stray fabric as she had taken in stray animals as a child and children as an adult. Sometimes youths came to her home for the occasional meal and stayed for years. My mother has the efficient practicality and kindness you would expect from her being a nurse. Her brand of kindness is not meek. She goes through life putting in order the world around her with a seemingly indefatigable forcefulness and joy. “Lived life with gusto!” is what she jokes will be carved on her tombstone.
Not being a quilter herself, my mother gathered the fabric pieces and passed them to her sister-in-law. Finally, decades after the process was begun, my aunt Shelley assembled the quilt. My artisan of an aunt, lover of handicrafts, is always making something for someone. She learned to knit as a child and continued from there to master many textile arts. Aunt Shelley loved the look of traditional quilts so taught herself how to make them. She lovingly completed this family quilt and gave it back to my mother, who realized that its colours bordered on garish and that almost no one would want it, except maybe her non-conformist daughter.
The quilt is part of my heritage, like the women themselves; pieces of each are stitched into me. In my teen years, I was known for living life loud and I was frequently told that I resembled Granny Jemima. This was often said while I was sporting vintage orange bell-bottoms with the white polka dots. While I never played sports or married for love, I have followed the spirit of Grandma Myrna’s tradition about making your own path by choosing to be a single mother. My mother and I may not be cut from the same cloth in personality, but we do share an uncompromising practicality and a tendency to take in strays. As a child, I took beading lessons from my Aunt Shelley, but as an adult I have learned, from watching her example, what cannot be taught in a class: to keep pursuing your art, whatever that may be.
Maybe I like this quilt because it is a story. It serves as a reminder of kinship, the women who brought it into being and the threads that weave us together. This then becomes my inheritance; in the cool of night I snuggle under the bright warmth of this quilt – an heirloom made with love, through time, by the hands of a group of women who, together, assembled a quilt and made a family.
Naomi Rogers lives in Belleville, Ont.