I must admit, with more than a bit of embarrassment, that I considered her somehow frail as I watched the fingers gnarled with the ravages of “arthur-itis” struggle to thread the slender needle known as a “between” through all those years of my childhood. Tying the knot was still another challenge, generally accomplished with that peculiar, frustrated puff of breath that ruffled the wispy hair on her forehead. And yet, the sacred family mythos holds that Elsie Hannah Royce Boardman, my paternal grandmother, raised six children, two orphaned nephews and countless flocks of turkeys, baked 40 loaves of bread a week on a wood burning stove, and once insisted that my uncle carry her to the Baptist church supper on the back of his motorcycle, lest the people of God be deprived of the pies she clutched in each hand on that long, bumpy trip through the cornfields.
As my cousins and I gathered and traded precious scraps of those myths, gleaned over the years, or perhaps it was only as I raised my own child, I somehow came to believe that Elsie must have taught herself to quilt simply so she’d have an excuse to sit down!
When I was a little girl, I got to help. Gramma would come to visit and she’d sort through my mom’s scrap basket, picking bits that caught her fancy. My job was to draw the pieces on the fabric using a very sharp pencil and a scrap of a Cheerios box, cut precisely to the shape of a hexagon. Then out would come the long, sharp scissors and Gramma would reduce the fabric scraps to a lacy honeycomb of my old dresses and bits of curtains and aprons. I felt important.
Years later, as a young mother myself, I decided to learn to quilt. I picked a pattern from a magazine, bought some fabric I really didn’t like, though it was the “right” colors, and began, laboriously, to cut. After a week or so I had a block done. I was frustrated. My fingers were burned from trying to iron what wouldn’t lay flat. And I still didn’t like the fabric!
I looked at my one tidy, borderline ugly block and realized with a shock that I needed 41 more, exactly like it. I put all the fabric away and went back to finish my Bachelor’s degree.
Years passed. Toward the end of her journey, when she was 90 years old or more, Elsie began to take apart the quilt tops she had made. We thought she was confused and great effort was made among the family to rescue whole quilts from her wandering fingers.
After she passed away, my aunt began the long task of dividing the quilts among the many granddaughters. I, being among the youngest, was presented with one of the “least of these.” It’s a Grandmother’s Flower Garden pattern just like I used to help her make, about double bed sized, full of bright colors and the slightly funky prints of the 1970’s, and it’s one of the ones she had begun to take apart.
More years passed. And then a few more. Eventually we moved back to Atlanta. Atlanta has a lot of used bookstores. One day, with a bit of extra time before an appointment, I stopped into one of those bookstores.
I sniffed deeply, breathing in all the books, wandering here and there, just looking. Then, down on a shelf near the floor, I spotted a book that was somehow calling to me, the way books do to some people.
Liberated Quilt-making by a woman named Gwen Marston. I sat abruptly, right on the floor, and started to read. Soon tears ran down my cheeks. Here was a book that understood!
The book understood how hard it is for some people to work with just three fabrics. And how overwhelming it is to make 42 fussy, perfect blocks, all just alike. It understood why many people think quilting is not for them. And then, as I kept reading, I found another way. Lots and lots of fabrics? No problem! Crooked lines? Sure! Lots of different blocks? Absolutely!
And the tears kept running down my cheeks as I realized that I might be a quilter after all!
It took a while. Several classes. A grasp of the importance of ironing as you go. No rules about color. (Well, only a couple!) What kind of thread. How to use a rotary cutter. (Miraculous!)
I made a few small quilts. Enough to be encouraged. And then I discovered that I was going to be a Grammy. Somehow, in that moment, with the news of my first granddaughter, I became a real quilter.
Each quilt has had its own story. And its own things to teach. They still do!
Mostly what I’ve learned is that I am an artist. That the colors will all work out if you stare at them long enough and throw a couple extras in. And, if you like wonky quilts with crooked lines, plan them that way.
I’ve made almost enough quilts by now to keep my whole family warm. The baby quilts for my friend’s twin boys are about done. I have a plan, and most of the fabric, for what comes next.
In the meantime, I’ve started to teach the girls about picking colors they like and deciding what to put where. They’re not quite ready for sewing machines and rotary cutters yet, but they will be. Somewhere, Gramma Elsie is concentrating on threading a needle and blowing up the hair on her forehead. And I grin and wipe away a few tears as I notice the littlest of the granddaughters doing exactly the same thing when she’s intent on something, which is most of the time.
Elsie’s Flower Garden quilt, pictured above, is put carefully away, still just a top. There’s no pattern to her editing. Just some torn seams and missing bits here and there. I’ve had it for more than 20 years now and I always meant to have it fixed.
I’m a quilter though, and I’m just not sure.