Today- I want to talk about great grandmothers + quilts.
Unlike many, I had the privilege of getting to know my great-grandmother. She was a very present force throughout most of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories of Christmas and other holidays revolve around her and her home. Easily I can still recall the crocheted blankets flung across the back of her scratchy old couch; a collection of aged National Geographic, pages curled and yellowing; the sag and swoop of her tiny front porch; her hedge of blue hydrangeas, their heads nodding to the fat-bellied wasps swarming around them; and especially the little hat always perched atop her white crown, concealing hair like wisps of cloud. Despite her gathering age, she was the undisputed leader of the family. Given a seat of prominence at family dinners, deferred to, listened to. She was our matriarch-- sitting in her rocker, hands folded, an inscrutable smile playing across her lips. Occasionally, she would just laugh and say that's great. A phrase that quickly became her mantra-- that we jokingly repeated to each other. In my childish mind, it seemed the only thing she ever said-- but looking back now, remembering how she smiled and laughed with us.. the phrase almost seems like a blessing. As if she was watching her family, so many different generations mingling together, branching from different stations and walks of life..as if seeing us together before her...well, it was just great.
Here's something else about my great-grandmother: she made quilts. These weren't just blankets made of hastily patched squares but rather intricately arranged works of art-- composed of triangles, hexagons, rectangles--stitched of fabric exhibiting variant textures and hues pieced into swirls and patterns that reminded me of stained glass, of mosaics, sometimes even of the three-dimensional depths of a kaleidoscope. She stitched these quilts until her fingers became too stiff and gnarled with arthritis to continue. I was lucky enough to receive one of her last creations: a simple design of sky blue, pink, and delicate spring green. I still have it-- its draped across the bed in our guest room now. I remember at the time--even at 7 years old--feeling special for receiving such a gift. Even at such a young age, I knew handmade items carried special value.
This may sound odd to those who just don't understand--but I believe there is truly something special, perhaps even magical, about handmade quilts.
During and before the American Civil War, quilts were actually used as a secret code to warn and guide escaping slaves of the safe havens or dangers ahead. Abolitionists and other "conductors" on the underground railroad would drape ornate quilts over their window or porch ledges. There was a whole language hidden in the quilt stitching. Keep going. Danger here. or You're safe here, stop and rest. Codes and messages hidden save for the eyes of those who had learned to read the symbols.
Although our circumstances of course were not so dire or desperate as those of history, I think there was a message tucked and stitched into my grandmother's quilts. One much simpler: easy for a little girl to understand. It was a message of love and comfort. A reminder of the warmth and strength that envelops you when surrounded by a loving family. A reminder that life is just great
For more information on the quilt code,
check out Jacqueline Tobin's informative book
Hidden in Plain View