As a newly minted United Methodist minister, my son Zachary moved to the Pacific Northwest to serve as an associate pastor in Washington State. He was trying to make his new apartment a home by adding his own personal touches which often tend to be more contemporary than traditional.
I asked him if he needed a bedspread. He quickly replied, "Actually, I'd like to have that old quilt that your great–grandmother made." I was delighted to send him that quilt. I was even more delighted that he asked for it because, in a sense, that quilt represents the fabric of our family. A traditional touch.
I was not privileged to meet my great–grandmother Ella Smith. She died about a year after she finished the quilt. However, based on stories passed down to us, she was a midwife who knew a bit about wildcrafting as well. She was a "cradle to the grave" kind of woman. She birthed seven children of her own. Giving birth created a sort of sisterhood because she lived in a very rural area where doctors were scarce. Drawing from her own experiences, she helped other sisters in the community give birth. She could wildcraft leaves and roots to make medicines and teas, and some families called upon her to help dress their relatives for burial.
Although Brother Snow is most definitely a fictional character in Chinaberry Summer, I couldn't resist allowing him take a moment of "personal privilege" to give a nod to my great-grandmother Ella in a pivotal moment in the story. We don't get the opportunity to meet many people like her anymore. They don't really exist in our modern world of hospitals and corner drug stores. (Thank goodness for hospitals and corner drug stores.) Unfortunately, we modern folks have lost much of our independent American spirit of knowing how to live off the land.
Now about that quilt. Ella stitched her name and the date, 1933, in one square. And she didn't stitch her first name on the quilt. She signed it Mother Smith because it was being passed down as a family gift and it was more important for her to be remembered as a grandmother.
That quilt had been hanging in an honored place on a quilt rack in my home for a very long time. I had it for over twenty-five years. Sometimes you see something so often that you forget to notice it. It would have been easy for my son to forget all about the quilt, but he didn't, and so it winged its way to Washington State by way of the local post office.
That old quilt has great significance for me. Of course, I never knew my great-grandmother, but I am part of her. It's not a beautiful quilt, but it's her work. She cut the squares, triangles, and other assorted patches; and the stitches were made by her hand. It is most certainly unique, one of a kind.
The design may not appear special, but each shape of thepatchwork is made of fabric from her daily life, maybe leftover scraps from dresses she was making or, very likely, pieces of flour sacks from her kitchen.
I'd like to think that on a cold winter's night in Washington State, my son will snuggle under that quilt to get a good night's rest. And as he does, he'll be covered by the love passed down to him from someone more than eighty years ago who carefully stitched her chosen name and passed along a gift that required enormous work. A benediction of sorts. A remembrance of a grandmother for a great–great–grandson she would never know.