Saturday, May 07, 2011

A Tribute to Mother

My mother has been gone for several years now, but her heritage of love and faith still inspires me every day. In honor of Mother's Day I am re-posting a tribute I wrote about her.

Mother's Quilts

The quilts tell her story. I finger the bright prints and smooth the muted solids. I trace the stitching on intricate designs or snap a simple nine-patch design over a bed. And when I do, each quilt whispers her story.

I asked my mother many times to tell me her story. Usually she refused to offer more than the briefest of details. “Not much in my life,” she would say, “is worth telling.” So I am left with the quilts—the bits and pieces of my mother’s story.

Like the quilter who stitched them, the quilts are sturdy. The stitching speaks of one who can endure repeated trials without coming apart. Mother’s trials were all too many. She was raised in a crowded household by a preoccupied and distant mother. The reality of the depression was a constant presence on the Iowa farm. Mother loved learning and longed for a good education, but there was no way to get into town for high school, so she was forced to quit school at age 13. She married at 21 and worked with my father on the farm from sunup to sundown. Farm life was a constant struggle against the capricious whims of drought and crop failure. There was never more than just enough money to get by. When she was a young mother, her brother committed suicide and her sister’s only son drowned. When Mother was in her fifties, my father was killed in a tractor accident, leaving her with a farm and a construction business to run by herself in addition to her job as a nurse’s aide. Just a few years later her infant grandson died of a rare illness. Through it all she remained strong and uncomplaining. Only sturdy women like my mother endure the bits and pieces of hardship and pain without bitterness.

The bright hodgepodge of prints in her quilts tells of one who was frugal. Mother used only scraps of fabric for her quilts. Others might plan and purchase colors and prints for a coordinated palette, but Mother was content to use what she had. “Make do or do without” was a proverb she lived by, first of necessity during the long years of the depression and the lean years on the farm, and then from sheer habit. So her quilts are pieced from leftover fabric, from fabric others gave her, from the good pieces saved from discarded garments. One of her most beautiful quilts was stitched on white blocks that were cut from my father’s white dress shirts after he died. In her later years, she promised that when she had sewn up all the scraps she had, she would go out and buy fabric like the modern quilters did. I knew that day would never come—and it didn’t. After her death my sisters and I found boxes of fabric scraps ready to be sewn into quilt tops.

Two of Mother’s quilts were made especially for my children. Sara’s is a beautifully pieced and embroidered “Sunbonnet Sue” pattern put together with strips of pink. John’s quilt pattern is called “Bow Tie” and is pieced with bright blue. Both quilts speak softly to me of Mother’s love for children. No one could name all the little ones who came in and out of her life. When the depression forced her to quit school, she became a hired girl for families in her Iowa community. She would go to their homes and help out when the mothers had their babies. Later she married and had four children of her own. A nephew needed a home, so he was added to our family. Still there was room for more, so she and my father became foster parents. Through the years 14 different foster children called her Mama. After my father died, she became a relief housemother at a children’s home and became “Grandma Clurg” to hundreds of other children who needed warm hugs, loving smiles, and gentle words of wisdom. Each child was precious to her—bits and pieces added to her heart.

I’m not sure how many quilts my mother made in her lifetime. Only a few were truly works of art. The rest were pretty to look at, but made for service. “My quilts aren’t beautiful,” Mother would say, “but they are meant to be used!” Such service is a part of Mother’s story as well, for she loved to help others. She prepared countless meals for family, guests, and church potluck dinners. At any family gathering, we expected to find Mother in the kitchen washing dishes or quietly finding a way to clean, straighten, or make someone else comfortable. Mother had no desire to stop serving as she aged. After she left her position at the children’s home, Mother became a private duty nurse. She finally retired for the last time when she was 70 and began her volunteer work at the community hospital, accumulating hundreds of hours of service. In her younger years she taught Sunday School classes, and in her later years she was a regular helper in Vacation Bible School. When her 80th summer approached, my sister and her husband invited Mother to go with them on a road trip through the northwestern states. Mother was disappointed that the trip caused her to miss helping with Vacation Bible School. Yes, like her quilts, Mother was created to serve.

Not all of mother’s quilting became bedding. She used some of her scraps to make potholders. Those potholders remind me that much of Mother’s life was spent in the kitchen. She was known in our family and our church for her cooking skills. She seemed to put a delicious meal on the table with no effort at all. Her cream cheese mints, hot rolls, and chocolate chip cookies were her trademarks. My daughter once asked her, “Grandma, why do your chocolate chip cookies taste so much better than anyone else’s?” Mother’s immediate reply was, “Because there’s a little love in every bite!” Even as a widow living alone in a small house, she kept her freezer stocked full of food ready for company. Her death came just 12 days before Christmas in 1998. We were not surprised to find that the Christmas dinner for the family was already there in the freezer: the turkey, the pies, the rolls, the vegetables, and, of course, the chocolate chip cookies, with bits and pieces of love in every bite.

Not all of the stories in Mother’s quilts are hers. Each family member has stories told by the quilts. We love to admire the quilt tops and take turns pointing out, “I had a shirt out of that!” or “That was my Easter dress!” We recall first days of school, dates, bedroom curtains, school trips, and 4-H projects. My niece is a young adult now, but she claims the quilts can transport her back to her childhood. She says, “It's always amazing to me that looking at a tiny scrap of fabric on a quilt can evoke such deep emotions. I can see a quilt piece and remember the exact outfit made from that fabric. Suddenly I feel like I'm 10 years old again, wearing that outfit and heading to church or going to school.” Mother’s quilts tell the bits and pieces of our lives, too.

Mother took the random bits and pieces of her circumstances and stitched them into a life that was loving, sturdy, frugal, and serving. God’s hand placed the final stitches. With timing as loving and kind as Mother’s sewing, He gave Mother’s life a gentle goodnight. Surrounded by family and at peace, she died as she had lived—quietly and lovingly.

There will be no more quilts made by my mother’s loving hands. But we will still discover more of her story and ours. The quilt of Mother’s life lives on, warming our hearts just as her handmade quilts warmed our bodies, and reminding us of the bits and pieces of a life well lived.

Copyright pending


Mary Ann Melton said...

What a beautiful tribute!

James said...

What a great tribute! I loved it.