Clara’s Quilts

One of my fond childhood memories – all twisted up in the sad bits – is of sleeping in the same room my mother slept in when she was a child. At the time, of course, I had no concept that it was special or somewhat of a legacy experience. While the mattresses changed over time, here I was in the same iron bed frame that surrounded my own mom.

At the time, I also didn’t realize that the experiences I was having were so vastly different from those of my cohort. Certainly I realized we were poor and I felt the uneasy shame of secrets about just how poor we were… stories for another day… because this is about good bits.

The bedroom was one of two, flanking a dangerously steep staircase on the second floor of a classic Sears Roebuck home. People would order these homes from a catalog and put them together like enormous puzzles. This home was originally four rooms in all. Two rooms downstairs and two up, with a porch wrapping around two sides of the house.

Grandma’s room was across the “hall” which was, in fact, nothing more than a stepped-down landing that joined the doorways of the room. Under her double bed lived a white enameled chamber pot with a red stripe running around the edge of the lid. That was one of my jobs, as a very young child, to carry that pot down the steep stairs, out through the add-on kitchen and around the back of the house down a path to the outhouse to empty it. I lived in fear of spilling its contents on the journey.

In the bedroom I shared with my brother across from grandma’s room were two matching beds. Decades before we slept there, my mother and her sisters slept in one and her brothers all slept in the other. They must have been practically stacked like cordwood… four to six children per bed. My bed had a high small window above it, which was open a great deal of the year. Grandma believed that fresh air was important, so when it was far too chilly for comfort, that window would still be open and grandma would pile the quilts on our bodies… one atop another atop another. Now, they sell weighted blankets to give folks this sensation. It’s the soft weight… heavy enough that movement seems difficult… thick enough that you feel safe… and you stayed. You stayed until you were awakened by your bladder or the smell of breakfast. You prayed for the latter.

There are so many stories in that space and time…. the fear of the hoot owl outside, the loneliness and lack of intellectual stimulation, the raised voices and tensions of poverty, the tired adults, the neglected children, the survival mode we all found ourselves in…  but there were moments of utter indulgence as well. I remember sucking on slivers of honeycomb pulled fresh from my aunt’s hive. There was fishing as the sun rose and watching my grandfather cook our catch in a cast iron skillet over open flame by the lake. I chomped on carrots straight from the ground and washed them down with cold creek water from a mason jar. I recall hiding in the green bean tee-pee trellises, long after we’d finished the chore of picking beans, and whispering secrets to my brother in the sun dapples there. I miss slabs of homemade bread topped with goat milk butter. I can almost hear the sounds of that place… the cacophony of clucking chickens, the hooves of baby goats prancing on dry dirt, the splashing of the creek where it broadened and then narrowed to a bit of falls. I long for the suspension of time that I’ve felt in only one other place since.

Today, though, it is the quilts that bring my memory to focus on the homestead. I miss the quilts. There is a perfect imperfection to quilts, regardless of how tight and careful the stitch. After washings and use, the different squares wear in different ways, batting puckers here and there, and the whole lot softens in a wonderful way. There is no duplicating that. No high-priced facsimile found in any branded shop will ever compare to a quilt that was patched together by candle or kerosene light in the stillness of night while children slept nearby.

I miss their substance. I long for that soft drowning… being absolutely engulfed in mismatched quilts pulled from the cupboard nearby. I do not miss Grandma at all. I lived in fear of her most of the time, but I understand her more with each passing day. I do not miss the house and in the years after her death, it was purchased and renovated so as to make it practically unrecognizable anyhow. Those things are all gone. The outhouse gave way to indoor plumbing while we still lived there. There were no more baths in the copper tub in the front room after that, no more mad-dashes by moonlight to the outhouse, no more hauling water by hand for grandma. I wonder how many times she pumped that handle while raising thirteen children in that farmhouse.

These things are all gone. These ways are all gone, but today I wax nostalgic for the quilts. I’m going to buy some old quilts. I don’t want to make a new one… I want the well-worn quilts of my memory. I want the imperfections. I don’t want the stains, though. I smile.  So, I’ve researched overdying processes. I want to find the lost quilts, the unloved and misused quilts. I want to gather a stack together. I’ll play around with dying them to mask unwanted stains while allowing patterns to remain. I find myself wondering what grandma would make of such an idea.

I think of the time women spent laying out scraps to make the prettiest patterns possible. Is it sacrilege, perhaps, to consider stripping them of color or dying over their hues? Ah, but then I think… grandma and her ilk were making due with what they had. They were taking scraps from children’s clothes that were beyond mending, pretty church frocks that had worn through, colorful sheets torn in washing… they were stitching together memories and doing it in as pretty a way as possible in what must have seemed like bleak circumstances at best.  When we were tucked in under those quilts, we were nestled in cotton and history and suffering and exhaustion and resilience and creativity… all patched together in pinwheel patterns or crisp rows of colorful squares.

So, I suspect that if grandma had found a quilt that was stained, she would have taken to it with a bar of fells naptha soap and lots of elbow grease. If it was beyond help, she would have dyed the damn quilt top… or simply flipped the quilt over and gone on to deal with more pressing issues like homesteading to feed her brood.

None of Grandma Clara’s quilts remain, to my knowledge, at least not in the hands of my family. My other grandmother did pass down a quilt and the last time I saw it, it hung over a window in my father’s house. Of all the things in that house, I think that is the only thing I pine for. To be wrapped up in the work of a woman I never met… Grandma Marie… that would be wonderful indeed. I suspect I would not dare to dye her quilt… I’d take to it with needle and thread and mend it religiously until it found its way to my daughter’s hands.

The quilts, I suppose, are a metaphor for the sorting and culling I’m doing in my life and of my memories. I am pulling out the scraps, weighing their value and usefulness… I’m playing around with their placement to see if patterns emerge… I am considering form and substance… deciding there is room and reason for both. I’m stitching things together in a way that suits my life in the here and the now. I am keeping what is good, discarding scraps that are of no use, and trying my best to find the luxury and comfort in perfect imperfection. I’m quilting in my own way, Clara.


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