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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Granny's Quilt

Last night as I was tossing the quilt onto Katie's bed, old memories came flooding back. The quilt is a patchwork pattern called "SunBonnet Sue." Each doll is made from scraps of clothes Granny had left over from dresses she sewed for herself and for her daughters. I have had the quilt for as long as I can remember. It traveled with me through more moves than I have fingers to count.

Granny Box owned a modern sewing machine. It was a portable machine, in a beautiful case. It lived under her bed. I can't remember ever seeing it out of the case. Not one time. Granny also owned an old treadle machine. Most of my memories of her involve that old sewing machine. I would go stay with her sometimes during the summer. Her back was hunched, and her hands gnarled. Yet, she sat for hours at that old machine. The whir and clack of the machine lulled me to sleep many nights as she worked by lamplight in her bedroom.

Granny raised 6 children in hard times. Her husband was disabled, leaving her to provide an income for the family. She and the kids picked cotton to put food on the table. In season, they traveled to California with extended family to pick in the orchards. It was a hard life, much of it living as sharecroppers. With little money for luxuries such as store bought dresses, Granny became an expert seamstress. She made masterpiece artwork quilts for her beds, designed and stitched exquisite dresses for her girls, and practically clothed the boys - all from that treadle sewing machine.

By the time I came along, the years of hard work and the onset of severe arthritis made her hand twisted, gnarled, worn, and wrinkled. I vaguely remember her working as a receptionist in a hospital when I was a tiny girl, a huge step up in life after all those hard years in the fields. Granny's tall, slender frame was stooped and bent. She still rolled her short gray hair in pincurls on Saturday night to look good for church.

Her hard life was apparent in her lifestyle. When she passed away and we sorted through her things we discovered that she had saved all of her bread ties. Bread sacks were carefully washed and folded in drawers, and clothes given to her as birthday gifts - with tags attached - filled her closet. Why wear new clothes if the old ones were not worn completely out?

But back to the sewing machine. One summer, a particularly hot and dry summer, I spent a week or two with her in Piggot, Arkansas. I was totally engrossed in my Barbie dolls, as well as Little House on the Prairie (stop laughing). I wanted to pretend 1800's with my dolls, but they had no suitable clothes. Granny Box took this on as an exciting project. She threw open cedar chests, dug through piles of scraps left from formal gowns she had stitched for dances a lifetime ago, and went to work creating a new wardrobe for Barbie. She showed me how to sew, and we worked together to create a tiny patchwork quilt for my dolls. I picked out laces and ribbon to adorn the elegant gowns for my dolls. When we were finished, I thought I had hit the jackpot.

What I understand now as an adult is that every pump of that treadle sewing machine, every winding by hand of the bobbin, every stitch made with her gnarled hands brought her pain. Yet she never complained, and was excited to be able to demonstrate love. I learned to love sewing that summer, and more than that I learned to appreciate my Granny's talents. This stooped, bent, old woman was an artist at heart.

Parkinson's disease hit Granny hard. I was not able to go stay with her any more. She came and stayed with us, often for long periods of time, but the disease made it hard for her to communicate. She became extraordinarily critical, and unreasonably fearful. She lost most of her mobility, having to shuffle her feet to move around the house. But in all of the stages of the disease, she kept a project going on that old treadle sewing machine. I don't know how she managed to continue sewing, but she did. The machine finally stood silent after Granny collapsed with a stroke. She never went back home, instead eventually passing away in a nursing home.

That machine now sits in my old bedroom at Mom's house. Its drawers are still organized just the way Granny left them. It has not made a sound in many, many years now. It sits silent, at long last resting after years of use. But every time I see it, I remember that last beautiful summer of sewing. That summer that Granny found a way to use her favorite talent to love her granddaughter.

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