Until I was eight or nine years old, my family lived in what had been my father’s parent’s home on a large corner lot in Grand Cane, Louisiana. There were pecan trees, fig trees, pear trees, a large magnolia tree that one of my sisters claimed and a smaller holly tree that was mine. The holly tree had a break in the limbs that provided a window into the side yard and provided a stage where I could sing my heart out. My present day friends have never heard me sing. There is a reason. I do not imagine I was any more melodic as a young child. I did however, have a hearty laughter that could be heard two blocks away. I was surprised on many occasion while sitting in my holly tree, singing out to the world, to see Miss Mary Ann (Emergency Mom) opening the side door and calling, “Martha, are you home?” Surprised, because she would have had to walk right past my tree to get to that door, and could not have escaped hearing my singing debut.
There was a deep screen porch that ran most of the way across the front of the house. On that porch was a wooden swing. We lived on that porch. We celebrated birthdays on that porch. We waited for rides on that porch. We played out long summer days on that porch. Late in the afternoon, waiting on my father to return home from a vet call, my mother would often be swinging on the porch. Supper would be ready and waiting on the stove. I would lie down on the swing with my head in her lap and listen to the thump, thump of her foot across the wooden floor pushing the swing back and forth. She more often than not rooted around in my hair, looked behind my ears, inspected the back of my neck. (I am not crazy about having my face and ears touched, I haven’t put that together before now, but maybe I am reserving those intimacies for a mother and a swing.) Once I packed a suitcase, determined to run away from home to the Dunn’s. The Dunns lived catty-corner across the street. I did not know that I had chosen to run away to their house the same week they went to visit family in Chicago. I thump, thump, swung in that porch swing until it got dark and then some. At some point, I dragged that large dark blue samsonite suitcase back to my bedroom. I lived out of that suitcase determined to wait the Dunn’s return. It is immeasurably sad to be left by people who do not even know you are waiting on them.
In the 60s, houses did not have central heat and air, at least most did not. Our house had one window unit air conditioner that was in the kitchen where the door stayed closed while it ran. Funny, but I do not remember being hot when I was a child, and believe me it was HOT in Louisiana in the summer. Large older homes are known for being drafty and this house was no exception. In the winter, we used several open-flame gas heaters placed strategically around the house, just close enough where you might not quite start freezing again before reaching the next way station.
My mother’s father lived with us for many years. His room was off the kitchen in the back of the house. I do not remember whether he actually lived with us at that point, or just came to visit from time to time, but I remember this as his room. I also remember waking up in the winter when the house was all dark and finding a lit heater and backing up to it in my long flannel gown. I was a bed-wetter and would often get up after wetting the bed and find a heater to warm up to. One night, I stood waiting backed up to a heater. Waiting for my parents to come home from visiting friends down the street. Even though it seemed like the middle of the night, I am sure it was probably closer to 10 p.m., but memories exaggerate and loneliness grows heavier in the middle of the night. I remember feeling comforted by the thought that my grandfather was just a few steps away, sleeping in his bed.
A few years ago, a quilting friend and I went to the Gee’s Bend Quilt Exhibit at the High Museum in Atlanta. The Gee’s Bend quilters were a group of women who lived in the isolated African-American hamlet of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. They often used scraps left over from the cotton factories where they worked to make quilts to keep their families warm. They used any fabrics that they had, including heavy corduroy and denim. As I walked among the quilts of their past, a memory as clear as day came floating up from my past. So deep, that I had not remembered it since I was 8 or 9. On top of my grandfather’s bed was a crazy quilt made from a variety of wools and corduroys. I remember the colors. I remember the textures of the quilt. It was decorated in the usual way that crazy quilts are, with lots of embroidery stitches and a myriad of small, rich fabrics. I had not thought about that quilt for 40 years. How had it found its way back?
When I make a quilt for someone, I tell them to make sure they use the quilt. They will not honor me by folding it neatly and putting it in a closet. I would rather it get washed so many times from use that it sheds its batting and loses it shape, than to be put away and forgotten. Quilts, like memories, can fade and be forgotten, but can just as easily come floating back to the surface when the time is right.
I do not know what happened to that quilt. I am not even sure my memory of that quilt is correct, but I can see it lying on my grandfather’s bed. However, the joy and the associations I was able to recall of my childhood in that house, as I walked through that quilt exhibit, makes it irrelevant. It does not matter that the quilt may only exist in my memories, because there it will remain forever…a piece of my grandfather, a piece of a childhood, a piece of night… all sewn together.