By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
PATCHWORK WAS what my great-grandmother called the colorful quilt that covered the bed in my room. I was born a few months past the close of the Big War; my sailor father was in the South Pacific until I was 18 months old, returning to my secure and loving multi-generational world late in the game. Because he chose to go to college on the GI bill and caused my mother to keep her full-time job in what was still considered a man's world, we lived with the great-grands in the big house on the corner. It wasn't until a few years later (when my Dad went with Pop to the bank to secure, with a handshake, a $2000 loan to build our own house) that I realized not everyone lived in such a warm, cozy arrangement.
Purple, by Chelsea Bottinelli.
Years later, when I was an adult, my mother told me that Mamie... the name given my great-grandmother by generations prior to mine... burst into tears when she found out a baby was due; she had already taken my cousin, a few years my senior, as an infant during his mother's protracted hospitalization. Her home had only been toddler-free for a few months when she got the news. She was nearing 70 by that time and probably exhausted: I'd have cried too. But to her credit, I never sensed anything but devotion from her; that, and a fierce determination to curb my tom-boy inclinations and make a lady of me.
My generation didn't have the gazillion toys that kids do now; we had a lot less stuff and a lot more time for imagination and exploration. Most valuable of all, we had space to fritter away the unassigned hours and observe life as it unfolded around us. I was an artistic type: an early reader with a wealth of books and comics, records to sing to and a treasure trove of paints and coloring books. My collection of dollies included antiques that belonged to my mother before me, and in my Sagittarian enthusiasm I could usually be found swinging them into the air to play catch, or breaking one of their arms so I could be their nurse. Mamie found this less than edifying for a young lady; and one day, when I was about five and rifling through the linens for a tea towel to cover my ailing patient, she raised an eyebrow and said, "That baby needs a patchwork."
So began my introduction to quilting, to the vast charm of lady skills and an abiding love for texture, color and creation. Mamie called in the troops; her sister and sister-in-law came to visit from opposite ends of the state. The household filled up with a signature energy that, looking back, I think of as turn of the century; hospitality, food and conversation were served up with a graciousness that transcended the brash confidence and rush to modernity of the early 50s. Each day the things that rightfully belonged on the dining room table were moved to the side board and the process of piecing began. Stacks of material appeared from a box in the attic already cut, sorted by color and pressed. The women were going to make a patchwork and I was directed to make a much smaller one for my dolly.
If I close my eyes and listen, I can still hear their quiet conversation; talk of family, of friends and then a pause, as they considered a swatch of fabric. "Wasn't this one of Patty's school dresses?" Aunty Clara would ask. "I remember this, it was one of your favorite aprons," Aunty May would declare, rummaging through the pile to find a similar color. "Foster loved this shirt," Mamie would sigh, caressing the cloth. The Grands would go on that way most of the morning, laughing, reminiscing and slowly filling in the colors of their patchwork, pinning the pieces into place on the neutral backing; deliberately and lovingly passing on their knowledge and tradition to another generation; effortlessly seaming the past with the present and creating for the future.
Our own Chelsea Bottinelli is an extraordinary quilter, an artist in fabric. When I asked her about her work, I found a common denominator that didn't surprise me; she began her love of fabric and quilting as an extension of her relationship with her mother. Here is what she wrote:
My first direct experience with making a quilt was in high school. My mother started a tradition with my older sister, Alana, of making a quilt together. She continued that with me, and then with my younger sister, Megan. It was a wonderful way to bond with each other; we went to the fabric store and picked out the fabrics and quilt pattern, and then spent several weeks cutting and piecing the top when we had free time. My quilt is a tree pattern in all different shades of green with brown corduroy borders and binding. I love it because it reminds me of my Mom and the time we spent together making it -- it's now been fifteen years since we did it. The squares are not perfect; there are some places that need repair from daily use, it's got a corner that has been chewed by my dog, and it is my favorite blanket. My mom lives in Colorado and I am in Florida, so I can't readily curl up with her on the couch whenever I need a little Mama energy ... so I curl up with my quilt instead. It warms my heart as well as my body.
I started combining painting with quilting in college when I was blessed with an opportunity to work with a wonderful artist named Ellen Anne Eddy. I was in an art program in Chicago, and part of our study program included an apprenticeship; mine was with Ellen. She had a small apartment with lots of cats; she taught me how to dye fabric and how to use “free-motion sewing” to physically draw with thread on fabric. We would sew, watch movies, laugh and talk. Ellen inspired me, encouraged me, and taught me so much in our time together.
My process is more isolated than that now, I don't work with anyone else. But of course there are the obvious metaphors in every piece that I make. Stitches represent the connection we have to everyone and everything in this world...sheer fabrics and layers represent the layers of our lives...how we choose to reveal some parts of ourselves and mask others...how our lives overlap with other people's lives and create new colors, textures, and patterns. We are richer for these connections, and when we step back from the everyday moments and view them in the context of the bigger picture, we can find beauty in that picture, and repetition, and grace.
The Grands were mercifully patient with me during those long hours of creation, years ago. I'm sure it wasn't easy; I brought more energy to the project than they knew what to do with. The process took more focus than I had available, being eager to move on to the next thing, but each step was new enough to keep me on task; at least for a while. After the selection and piecing, but before the binding, came the quilting itself: the Grands determined that I would learn several decorative stitches to outline each square. Looking back, I'm amazed at how that brief span of time imprinted my love of crafting, of creating, of expressing myself in unexplored mediums. I still have that doll quilt, hand-sewn in irregular fashion but surprisingly well made. And I still remember the voices that encouraged me, the faces that smiled down at me with their hands guiding mine, the stories of the fabrics and of the people that wore them. It was a stitch in time; a pinning of bright memory into my psyche. As Chelsea put it, perfectly: grace.
It will soon be Mother's Day and while some of us had wonderful mothers, others of us didn't; usually, it's a bit of both. Life is messy; it's a patchwork. My own mother has been gone for a startling amount of years. She was not a quilter; she never found time for crafting. She taught me to crochet when I was about six, guiding my fingers through the looping of thin pastel floss at the edge of a pillow case. In later years she would laugh and tell me that she'd have taught me even earlier if she'd known I would keep her in afghans year after year. I had caught, from the Grands, the bug of industry, a love of bringing something forth. Decades would come and go before a computer keyboard would replace my need for hand work; something constantly in the motion of creation. And for that lifetime of joy and pleasure, I can thank the many mothers in my life.
Our lives are, of course, a patchwork, aren't they? We think of them as a whole cloth, looking at our present moment to evaluate them, yet we're a collection of all the events and happenstance of our years. Some of that fabric of our experience is not so attractive a color perhaps, not so perfectly matched to the next bit or connected to the whole in perfect symmetry; but it's ours, personal and authentic. We are composed of swatches designed of great happiness, squares of dark despair, occasional snips of shocking, exciting color and others, drab with tedium. Each piece that goes into our personal design is different from the next; shifting, growing, changing. None is quite the same as the piece before it. Those of us that were mentored have an easier go than others, but we are all weaving with the same thread, crafting the same product. The fabric comes from that box in our emotional attic, where we've stored all that's gone before: time is the needle that stitches it all together, and love is the thread that holds it fast.
So here's to the mothers and the grands and all those that came before. Here's to those who teach, encourage, share and nurture. In grateful appreciation, let's salute those who connect us to our past as they point us toward our future; we cannot get where we're going without knowing where we've been. We cannot be whole unless we look at the entire patchwork that we are and see the beauty in the constant thread of our humanness, the hope and creativity of our choices. Event by event, decision by decision, stitch by stitch -- we are both creation and grace, formed by the generations that imprinted us, modeling to generations that will take their colors, and ours, into the future. Our choice to deliberately create in beauty is a gift to God/dess, future generations and ourselves. Happy Mother's Day. Pass it on.