Tell Your Stories: The Quilting Connection *
Imagining Argentina is a novel by Lawrence Thornton based on the facts of the "disappeareds," the people of Argentina who mysteriously disappeared, taken by the military from their homes and never heard from again. The book focuses on Carlos, a playwright searching for his wife, Cecelia, an editor and writer, who has disappeared. Early in his search Carlos visits Amos and Sara Sternberg, survivors of Auschwitz. Amos says to Carlos, in Carlos' searching for Cecelia: "'You may find a way to keep her alive, but your way of life is in the stories' . . . Carlos listened to the night birds, calling from invisible trees. He wanted Amos to continue, wanted more from the old man. . . .'Tell your stories,' Amos [said to Carlos] . . . and with that injunction Carlos rose and went to his room feeling for the first time since he'd seen Raimundo Garcia open his eyes that someone else truly knew what he'd seen and believed in it without a moment's hesitation" (80).
The stories, this is what Willa Cather brings us, the stories of determined (not always "right" women, oftentimes "wise" women), of crises of heart and mind, of land and landscape, of insider and outsider. Tucked into these large stories--the novels O Pioneers and Sapphira and the Slave Girl and the short story "Old Mrs. Harris"--are tiny references to piecing and quilting, larger references to the landscapes of relationships--slave to free, daughter to mother, friend to friend, husband to wife, sister to brother--and within that, sites of the interior landscapes of writing desk, rocking chair, kitchen, and table.
Though I've read all of Cather's novels and many of her short stories at least once and have taken the graduate Cather seminar at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I am not a Cather scholar. I am, however, a writer and a teacher of writing. And I am a quilter, modestly so, not the designer that one of my quilting friends is, and not the dollmaker that another friend is, and not the historian of a third quilting friend. Since my move to Tennessee ten years ago, my quilts have become more modest and increasingly smaller projects-crib quilts, wall hangings, pillows, table runners, and place mats. Freddy Moran's Freddy's House inspired a dozen house-block place mats last Christmas with siding, roofs, and skies in red and green, some--for the cat lovers in the family--with cats in window, others with Santa peeking over the sill. It's not as easy as it looks making Freddy houses. It's all about color, but it's also all about value-lights and darks. Freddy is about breaking the rules, doing the unexpected. "Just an observation," she writes. "I consider red a neutral" (25).
I have a weak memory of Cather and quilts. Of course back in1986 when I was enrolled in the Cather seminar, I was just four years into quilting, and Tennessee was a state through which we drove to reach North Carolina where we lived five years.
Over winter break 2001-2002, I read the two Cather novels and the Cather short story that would be the core texts for the Cather Spring Festival in Red Cloud, Nebraska, May 2002. The words "quilt," "quilting," "quilt-making," "piece," and "piecing" hardly appear. Alexandra, in O Pioneers! and the mother of her sister-in-law, Mrs. Lee, "patched and pieced and quilted" (189) the only reference to quilting in the entire novel. In the story "Old Mrs. Harris," Mrs. Harris "would begin to feel the hard slats under her, and the heaviness of the old home-made quilts, with weight but little warmth, on top of her" (94). This is the only reference to quilts in the story.
Of the three texts for the Cather Festival, Sapphira and the Slave Girl contains the most references to quilts and piecing. Including the word "patchwork," my count shows seven uses. Nancy, sleeping outside Mrs. Colbert's bedroom door in the winter had on "heavy quilts" (61). When Nancy slept at the home of Till and her Uncle Jeff, "Her mammy would maybe come and put an extra quilt over her and then she would drift off to sleep again" (68). Till wraps up in a "wool-stuffed bed quilt" (69). Till is described as "Sitting on the doorstep huddled in her quilt" (73). Mrs. Colbert asks Jezebel, "Have you quilts enough. . . . (88). Nancy "wrapped a quilt about her shoulders" (195). And in the last chapter, the first person narrator of the novel "was allowed to sit with them (Nancy, her mother, and Mrs. Blake) and sew patchwork" (287).
In the Cather seminar, when I was a graduate student, each of us was to compose a long paper. The idea I worked on had to do with the "ethereal" quality of Cather's men. I argued that Neighbor Rosicky, of the short story of the same name, epitomized that "ethereal" quality of Cather's male characters. But I struggled to make the argument. Fortunately during this same semester, I also audited a course in children's literature in which each of us kept a journal. Quickly that journal became not only about the children's fiction, but about my other courses, including the Cather seminar. It was in the process of writing that journal that I finally realized that I wasn't really writing about Neighbor Rosicky. I was writing about my father.
My father, "a foreign student from Denmark," was the fourteenth of fifteen children. His parents, like my mother's, valued education. Everyone in the family took a trip as a kind of coming-of-age ritual. For my father and an older brother the trips were to the U.S. for further education. My father had graduated from the Royal Agricultural School in Copenhagen, earned his masters degree at Michigan State, and then came to Iowa State for his Ph.D. That was when he met my mother, a former high school home economics teacher working on her masters, writing her thesis on home management houses. My mother was from Sioux City, Iowa, one of ten children. She visited my father's family in Denmark during the summer of 1936 and in August of 1937 she traveled by train from Sioux City to New York where on August 4 she lunched with friends before setting sail for Denmark. She arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany, on August 10, and was in Copenhagen at 7 the next morning. My father met her at the hotel; they arranged for her wedding bouquet-she carried Margaret carnations-and had dinner with the Danish family. At 3 p.m. the following day, August 12, my parents were at the photographers to have their wedding pictures taken. Then a limousine driver, with instructions to get them to the church in the little fishing village of Tisvilde, northwest of Copenhagen, precisely at 6 p.m., picked them up, and drove them to the church. The pastor at their wedding was "the pastor to the King" from Copenhagen. He spoke my father's vows in Danish and my mother's in English and said the Lord's prayer one line at a time, first in Danish, then in English.
How do I know all this? Because my mother was a writer and she kept copies. After her wedding and honeymoon, my mother typed a thirteen-page double-spaced letter to her U.S. family describing her trip, her bouquet, the photographer, the wedding, the family dinner at the summer house afterward, and my parents' honeymoon to Garmisch-Partenkirken. From the time of their marriage on August 12, 1937 until their move to Nebraska in January 1949, my mother composed over one hundred letters to her family and friends in the U.S.
We came to the U.S. just after my eighth birthday and my first memory of U.S. school is 3rd grade at Huntington Elementary in University Place, in Lincoln, Nebraska, a few blocks from where we lived in a two-story white frame house with a wrap-around porch. My father could walk to work on the Ag Campus at Nebraska and the family could walk to church at First United Methodist, across the street from Nebraska Wesleyan University. Early on, my father got all three of us children involved in the Sunshine Dairy Club led by Elton Lux. And that's how I first knew of Sara Rhodes Dillow because I bought my first junior Jersey show calf from her father, John Rhodes. By fifth grade, Mrs. Logan, Mary Jo's mother, started a 4-H Club--the Uni-Betha 4-H Club--and that's when I began to learn to sew. In those days, Gold's Department Store and Miller and Paine in Lincoln had big fabric departments with tall cutting tables where we could lay out our patterns and buy only as much wool as we needed. In 8th grade I made my own costumes for the dance recital. In high school I continued sewing through the Nifty Northeast 4-H Club, and our leader, Birdie Hutchinson. As a senior home economics-journalism major at Nebraska, I finally enrolled in a required sewing-design class. And to my good fortune, Judy Bucklin Lane also was in the class.
After college, I moved from Nebraska for almost seven years. When I returned in 1970 for what turned out to be twenty-two more years, I was married with two young children, and Bill was a new assistant professor on the animal science faculty at Nebraska because Frank Baker, the department chair, had said, come on back, we need one of our own. We immediately became part of First United Methodist Church and that's how I met Lois Wilson, through Sunday School. Soon Judy Lane joined the church, and our friendship from college renewed.
In 1982 I saw an announcement of a sampler lap quilting class taught by a young mom, Mary Obrist. For all the sewing I had done-I made most of my own clothes for many years-I never had pieced and quilted. My mother prepared beautiful and delicious meals and kneaded bread four loaves at a time. But she did not sew. Her sisters, my aunts Helen and Marian, did, and encouraged me long distance from Sioux City. Neither did I grow up with quilts in the house. In Denmark, my mother had been a handweaver, and had continued that for a time after our move to the U.S. But there had been no quilts and no quilting, and I remember none from our visits to the family home in Sioux City. Learning about Mary's class I thought lap quilting was something I could handle- not a big frame in the house, manageable. And that's how I began quilting, twenty years ago, in Mary Obrist's basement workroom where Mary's projects hung on the walls, where Mary with her large elegant hands, a big chunky gold watch on her wrist, met us with a new quilt block every week. Judy and I took the class together, Lois took a similar one the next year and thereafter we began to meet Friday afternoons to quilt. We knew Sara was in Fremont and within a few years we began what we fondly began to call "The Quarterly Meeting," times for gathering around the table for show and tell and for consultations about our quilting projects. Even though I have for ten years been at much farther remove than when we began, we continue to have "The Quarterly Meeting," in whole or in part once or twice a year. These continuing connections are grace-filled, among the most treasured relationships of my life.
Last winter, re-reading the Cather Festival texts, I was surprised by what was there and what was not there that I hadn't thought so much about in 1986 when I immersed in Cather and criticism of Cather. Much of Cather commentary has to do with landscape--the outside landscape, the flatness of the land, the harshness of the seasons, particularly in the works set in the midwest. Reading, it occurred to me that quilters--and others--could look to where the quilting terms occur and from that re-define landscape from exterior to interior spaces--the kitchen, the desk, the chairs, the quilting frames--and, could extend the redefinition of the landscape to include the "landscape" of relationships. It's all there in the Festival texts.
In my home office, the Freddy Moran house blocks scream. Fireflies skim over Crayola bright blue, deep purple spills into black, row houses stand in oranges and purple in what could be an urban scene; orange tulips poke up amidst green leaves, gardening ladies stand in dresses and overalls with hats on their heads and hoes and seed packets in their hands. The house sidings are crazy: zoo animals, stripes with miniature pumpkins, gold stars on a moss green backdrop, stars in light blue, pink, and turquoise. But I want these blocks to scream even more loudly so search again through my brights to stack and re-stack the fabrics to see how loudly I can turn up the volume.
Here's Freddy on her quilts: "The blocks are jumbled, messy, and chaotic, and the design makes no sense. I force myself to keep going, keep designing, until eventually I see order emerging from the chaos: 10 colors don't work, but 100 colors do! I use lots of orange and hot pink, purple with red with yellow. I am always impressed by what a few additions of assorted brights will do, just like putting hot pink, orange, purple and red into my quilts" (22).
On the living room floor I line up eleven blocks where nearly everything about these houses is unexpected-lions in the windows, plants in the sky, roofs in purple and magenta, turquoise-splattered doors and windows.
Writing is a lot like quilting. In quilting it helps to start early, stack the fabrics, listen to what they have to say. As I come into and out of the room, I ponder the stacks, move things around, notice what happens with arrangement. With writing-start early, I tell the students, get something down on paper, anything. Keep writing, in your journal, at the keyboard. Listen to your words. What are they saying? What does this piece of writing want to be? What does it want to say?
What happens if I move bright green next to dull, if I move a paragraph from the middle of a draft up to the top to start. What happens if I use prints that read like solids, surprising the viewer when that viewer moves nearer seeing, as she does, that what she thought was there-plain-is not at all, but rather a busy, small tight print. What if that writing-it begins with houses and quilting-moves to something entirely different-to story, to listening, to experimenting, to breaking the rules in quilting, and writing also breaking the rules--using second person, starting a "research" paper with a story, not a thesis statement.
The authors of the book With Sacred Threads write about quilting this way:
" . . . in a quilt, each seam covers the unknotted end of the last seam, making every piece and every seam secure and part of the whole" (xii). "Quilting is not unique in its capacity to bind the sacred and the everyday. Like other disciplines or practices or artistic expressions, quilting is rich in both symbolism and traditions.. . . . the sacred exists in the routine happenings of our lives. With thread in hand, we found we were able to bridge generations and remember our heritage and hopes" (xiii).
As Amos says to Carlos, "Tell your stories."
A Short List of Books for Red Cloud, Nebraska
Cameron, Julia. The Artist's Way. New York: Putnam, 2002.
Cather, Willa. Obscure Destinies. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1974.
____. O Pioneers! Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974.
____. Sapphira and the Slave Girl. New York: Vintage/Random House, 1975.
Friedman, Bonnie. Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction, and Other Dilemmas in the Writer's Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
Goldberg, Natalie. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Boston: Shambhala, 1986.
Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Knopf, 1995.
Mazloomi, Carolyn. Spirits of the Cloth: Contemporary African American Quilts. New York: Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1998.
Moran, Freddy. Freddy's House: Brilliant Color in Quilts. Lafayette, California: C&T Publishing, 1999.
Nelson, G. Lynn, Writing and Being: Taking Back our Lives through the Power of Language. Philadelphia: Innisfree Press, 1994.
Rico, Gabriele. Pain and Possibility: Writing Your Way Through Personal Crisis. New York: Putnam, 1991.
Thornton, Lawrence. Imagining Argentina. New York: Bantam, 1988.
Towner-Larsen, Susan and Barbara Brewer Davis. With Sacred Threads: Quilting and the Spiritual Life. Cleveland: United Church Press, 2000.
* Author's Note: This text is an edited version of the talk I gave in Red Cloud, Nebraska, May 4, 2002, at the closing banquet of the annual Willa Cather Spring Festival. The theme for the festival was memory, memoir, and quilting. My mother-in-law in Crete, Nebraska sent me a copy of the newspaper clipping from her local paper announcing the festival and the program so after my return to Tennessee I thought, maybe she'd like to read what I said.
Though I did not include it here, the talk began with writing. I asked everyone: "What have you seen or heard today that you want to tell someone else?" We wrote for two minutes or so and then shared around the tables for another two minutes. Then I began the talk.
In the spot just before the paragraph that begins, "In my home office. . . ." I showed slides of quilts from the time periods of the Willa Cather texts that were the Festival focus. These slides were collected by Sara Rhodes Dillow and Sara also provided the text for narration. And then I showed slides of quilts from the four of us of The Quarterly Meeting.
In the version here, just before the last bigger paragraph, I again asked the Festival banquet attendees (approximately 200 people) to write. I said: "I teach my students that the way to begin a piece of writing is the way to end a piece of writing. So, let's go back to the beginning. Take another half minute to end the way we began. With writing. What will you take home with you from this Festival? What will be your story?"
It was only while heading east and south on the Interstates from Nebraska to Tennessee that I realized that quilting is another part of my literate life history as important as words and writing, the foremothers in my learning to be a quiltmaker as important as the foremothers and forefathers in my learning to be a reader and a writer. Fall 2002.