A Fascinating Story: The Quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama

When I was raising my children in the small, rural Catskill mountain town of Bovina Center, New York, I discovered the art of quilting had never died there. It was always an active, vibrant, and visceral part of the secluded agricultural town of a few hundred residents. There I learned the lovely art of quilting from farm women and subsequently made many quilts: for my three children, who designed what they liked; friendship quilts; and, with my talented quilting friend, Marilyn Gallant, coordinated a town quilt that, more than three decades later, still hangs on a wall in the Bovina Historical Museum.
Not long ago, at the Crozet Library, I was looking through the video collection and found two about quilting: The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend and another, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend. The covers showed a very primitive black and white quilt with one red block. The lines were crooked and there appeared to be no plan or pattern. Puzzled and intrigued, I brought both videos home and over the next two evenings, watched a rich and fascinating quilting tradition of five generations of Arkansas women unfold before me.
These quilters also lived in a tiny rural town of 700 where quilting never faded as an art, and I felt an immediate kinship with them. Most were in my age group, seventh decade, and I felt particularly drawn to their history. For the quilters of Gee’s Bend were not the average southern women quilters; they were of African-American descent and traced their heritage directly back to slavery.
The town of Gee’s Bend came into the hands of Joseph Gee after the Creek Indians were “dispatched” by war in 1814. The narrow fifteen mile “quirky piece of geography” was comprised of thousands of secluded acres that were surrounded on three sides by the bridgeless Alabama River and its swamps. Gee established a cotton plantation and, following his death ten years later, the plantation passed through a succession of Gees, until eventually landing into the hands of Mark Pettway, a Gee relative to whom the plantation was indebted. With the property came with 101 slaves.
It was common for slaves to have their master’s surname and many of the quilters interviewed were named Pettway. “The Civil War brought ‘freedom,’ but little other change to the black residents of Gee’s Bend. They became tenant farmers, rather than chattel, and continued to farm the land.” The videos traced a long, difficult history that included the abject poverty of the Great Depression, a new white supremacist owner, who wanted to repopulate the town with white farmers, and so much more, until the quilters were discovered and came to prominence as national artists.
If you love quilting and have not heard of the Gee’s Bend quilters, I believe you will find this exceptional story a fascinating, beloved addition to your stash of quilting history.

NOTE: Quotes taken from “Gee’s Bend, The Architecture of the Quilt,” edited by Paul Arnett, Joanne Cubbs, Eugene W. Metcalf, Jr.

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May 11 – Mother’s Day 1994

May 11 – Mother's Day 1994.

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Vacation Time

I pour olive oil into my stainless fry pan and simmer sliced onions until they’re translucent, then add a thick homegrown pork chop, and brown it five minutes on each side. I add a cup of my homemade organic chicken broth and simmer the chop for another twenty-five minutes to fully tenderize it. As it simmers I wash and remove leaves from the organic collard greens I bought a few days ago. I pull some cooked, mashed acorn squash from the freezer, visitors from my compost in last summer’s garden. Next I cook the collards and instead of adding olive oil and a taste of balsamic vinegar, as I’d planned, I pour on some orange-garlic salad dressing I made last night.

So often I’ve heard people say, “I can’t be bothered cooking for just myself.” I find I wish they could experience the deep satisfaction that this half hour of food prep of home raised food gives me this evening. It’s a most delightful task in which I am mindful of every part of the preparation and cooking process, and in which my entire being is so peacefully and happily engaged. To have the time to prepare each step of a healthy, nurturing meal is a profound gift to me.

I retired a week ago, on the cusp of my seventieth birthday, and am in the process of re-creating my life yet once again. It is such a pleasure, these transition days. I have given myself a two-to-four week “vacation” during which I’m settling into my retirement home, going through all my possessions and letting go of those I no longer need, organizing my hobby areas—writing, editing, reading, sewing, quilting, and knitting into efficient work areas so they will be easily practical when I need one for the creative task I’ll do.

I wrote my retirement plan last August in a piece I titled “Two Years from Now: September 2013” and realize tonight that what I am so moved to write about at this moment is actually the first part of my plan. Here are the first two paragraphs I wrote then:

Two Years from Now – September 2013

I will retire at the end of this year and I envision the next chapter of my life as follows. I will well nurture each part of myself much better with increased time: my physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, and professional aspects. I am and have been for quite some time out of balance with these parts and greater balance is my primary goal in the life that will soon arrive. Physical : My health is pivotal. I will exercise well at least three times a week, (instead of just once or twice on a weekend, as I do now) if not more to maintain the good health I fortunately possess. I control my Type II diabetes with diet and exercise, and medication controls my hypercholestremia and hypertension, all of which lurk heavily in both my parents’ heritages.

I will have a dog, Lucy, in addition to Hilary and Button, my cats, and we’ll keep each other well exercised outdoors. I will garden more to raise more of my own food and may have chickens again, as I did on the farm all those years ago. I’d consider raising a pig or vealer but I’m too close to vegetarianism to have all that meat. A few chickens will be enough.

In my younger life, I would have viewed this re-organizational time as chaotic, as I look around and see the gathered (like with like) materials waiting to be structured, but I’m experiencing it as joyful confusion as I ponder how I will assemble this small house for the tasks and activities I want to do in my retirement.

After my “vacation,” I’ll organize my time into some daily commitments to my highest priorities and that will bring healthy structure to this next chapter of my life. Meanwhile, having this time this evening to prepare this food with my fullest attention and enjoyment reaches deeply into my soul.

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Exactly Where I Need to Be…

– I sit on the couch in front of my woodstove this morning, warmed and peace-filled by its gentle flames and emanating heat, and reflect that this holiday brings the perfect backdrop theme of re-birth to my life this day. Button is curled next to me, his head resting on the arm like a pillow, feet curled in the precious ways that deeply endear him to me. Otherwise, I am alone, which is what I need for now, to begin to let in the enormity of the change in my life just two days ago when I retired from the Rockbridge Area Free Clinic, closing out the year with the conclusion of my eleven years there.

When I cleared my desk, finished the last pieces of work for my successor, said good-bye to my Executive Director as she was leaving, and then I was alone. I completed a few more small tasks, and the inevitable moment arrived. I began to turn off the lights in the dental area for the last time, softly touched Alexander’s fur—our bright green alligator puppet who possesses a beautiful set of teeth whom we use to teach oral hygiene to area school children—then looked around at it all one final time: the green, blue, yellow, and mauve operatories,  and suddenly memories flooded back as tears leaked into my eyes—all the planning lunches with Carol, choosing these wall colors, these chair colors, and the myriad other decisions over the years that gave birth to this dental program.

They are incredible memories in retrospect and I say a silent thanks for all the time and good that has transpired inside these walls that I’ve been so grateful to be part of. I slowly walk to the other end of the clinic where I key my code into the alarm system for the last time, close the keypad cover, push open the already locked door into the cool afternoon, push the door closed, then pull on it to be sure it is locked. It is. I tenderly place my palm on the door as if I were touching the shoulder of dear friend when I say good-bye. Just as my body houses my soul, so does this building silently surround the daily, incredible acts of care by our small staff and cadre of professional volunteers. This is the final closing, for I no longer have a key to this door. I am outside the walls now; I can no longer let myself inside. Tears return to my eyes as this realization affirms that I have truly left this circle of people who donate their medical, dental, eye, mental health, and women’s health care skills to the uninsured, low-income residents in our county.

A wonderful quote by Ellen Goodman has soothed my soul in the past during times of deep transition like this one and I let her words wash over me again: “There’s a trick to the ‘graceful exit.’ It begins with the vision to recognize when a job, a life stage, or a relationship is over — and let it go. It means leaving what’s over without denying its validity or its past importance to our lives. It involves a sense of future, a belief that every exit line is an entry, that we are moving up, rather than out.”

Her perspective is perfect; the next chapter of my life waits and I know it’s going to be as good as these years here have been. I’ve long thought and planned, and my next career waits: more writing and editing and reading and cooking and gardening and knitting and sewing and quilting and…. not the least, more time with my family and John.

Yet I let my heart linger a little longer at the closed door, as the day moves toward late afternoon. What a journey this has been. I smile through tears as I think once again how graced I’ve been to have had a career that reflects the deepest desires and values I possess: to help others have a better life. Although I know this is exactly the right time for me to exit with grace, I have also known for a very long time that it would not be easy. I take a deep breath, exhale, then turn and walk toward my car, both of us alone in the large asphalt parking lot.

I drive to my Raphine home and pack the last few remnants of household goods into my car (Sunday was moving day) and contemplate that last night was the last night I’ll spend here. I’ve loved my decade in this sweet little Cape Cod. Starting tomorrow I’ll live full time in my retirement home, purchased more than a year ago, where I’ve been living on weekends. I won’t be driving 55 miles to work two counties away from the home that my heart has grown to know is my true home now, small and set on two quiet private acres with a stream, lots of trees, some open spaces where John and I created our first garden together last summer, and where I’ve got lots of other plans. I drive home, knowing I will go back to Rockbridge County. The house has not yet sold and my heart will draw me back for visits to the clinic. Our volunteer coordinator, Lynn, has sent me off with a volunteer application, after all.

Yet, now, in the solitude of this Christmas morning two days later, I gather together the gifts and cards I’ve not yet opened from my retirement party this past Monday night. Ever so slowly, as if I am handling sacred objects, I open each gift and card. I let the words and the physical gifts of caring into my heart. My emotions tumble around like a kaleidoscope: I cry, I smile, I feel the sadness of loss, I feel the gratitude of having shared these years with these amazing people. I reflect that the memories these tangibles will evoke each time I see or use one of them will gift me over and over with a panoramic slideshow of my time with the giver – this coffee mug, that tea cosy, the three beautifully hand-crochet-covered wooden clothes hangers, the Christmas cactus, the abundant cooking utensils for my now increased time for my beloved hobby, the embroidered bureau scarf, the wall plaque that tells the gifts of retirement, the mug and tea set—all this and there’s also so much more, when I begin to think of the unforgettable moments with our patients.

I break for a minute to make a cup of tea. While I’m waiting for the water to boil, I glance out my kitchen window into the silent yard and as I turn away, movement catches my eye. I turn back. A small parade of deer—one, two, three…—six in all pass by the bare trees at a leisurely pace ten feet from my window. Then one pauses and looks at the window as if she senses my nearness. We both remain still for several seconds and then I watch the line of deer as they continue on with their journey. I suddenly smile at them, for somewhere deep inside I feel reaffirmed that, at this moment, I am exactly where I need to be.

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Silent Gifts

“Everybody’s forgotten about us down here,” the chunky young man said to me, his brown eyes sad. “I didn’t want to hurt my back working in the coal mines and wind up disabled with no insurance.” We sat in the dental triage tent at a Remote Area Medical mission in Wise, Virginia, one of the poorest parts of our state. For three days, more than 1700 volunteers gathered from all over to donate free medical, dental, and vision skills to thousands of uninsured men, women, and children.

For most of my time there, which started at 5:30 am on Friday and ended about noon on Sunday, I was a “runner,” charged with the compassionate handover of each patient from their current station to their next. My cherished friend John and I were taking dental triage patients to hygiene, fillings, or extraction stations, then passing them on to the next person for their care.

It was the brief walk I took with each patient that I remember most. I would ask their name and give them mine, shake their hand, and look into each pair of eyes. Most smiled as I said I was here for the first time, then asked if this was their first time. Some were returnees who come annually for this, the only possibility for their care; others were first-timers, like John and me.

“I’ve been blown away with what I’m seeing happen here,” I’d say, my heart filled with emotion. Most responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes, it’s wonderful what people are doing for us here,” then look at me and say, “Thank you.”

Tears well as I remember saying softly, “Please know it’s an honor for me to be here.”

John and I didn’t know what to expect when we decided we would go. We just wanted to go. Now, in hindsight, we are still awed by certain memories, like the young, very pregnant mother of four, there to get her decayed-to-the-gumline teeth removed. She’d traveled here, then made an unexpected visit to the hospital when she thought her water had broken. Fortunately it hadn’t for, if she’d been admitted to the hospital, she would have needed to wait until next year for her much-needed care.

I remember so many faces and stories. Nor will I soon forget hearing RAMs founder, Stan Brock, tell us us the night before the event opened that he hoped one day the people in our country would not need these services so he could take RAM to more third-world countries.

It will take time for me to emotionally process what happened last weekend. Yet what was so unexpected and welcomed, was the deepest sense of us all being one large group of humanity—those who gave and those who received—and how we each gave overt as well as silent, unspoken gifts to each other.

There was also the humbling reminder that how, in the flash of a moment in time or fate, we could all so easily change places.

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Home

               It is April 2, 1972. I have gone to work as a caseworker for Otsego County Department of Social Services in Cooperstown, NY where I oversee a caseload of 55 children, aged infant (and his 14-year-old mother) through 17, placed in foster homes throughout the large, rural county. I am engaged in a home visit in Edmeston, talking with a foster mother about the progress of her young-teen foster daughter, when the phone rings.

                “Excuse me,” she says politely and walks to the next room. I am making a few notes on my pad when she returns and says, “It’s for you.”

                I’m surprised for a brief second, then suddenly feel terror. I know what this call means. My hand shakes as I lift the black receiver to my ear. “Hello, Mary Jo,” says Lucile Gilchrist, my supervisor, her words low, halting. “I wonder if you’d come back to the office right away.”

                “Keith?” I ask.

                “Yes,” she says solemnly.

                I quickly and somehow politely conclude this home visit, hurry out to my car, and drive the dozen miles to the new, three-story brick office where I’ve worked since graduation. My mind is frozen into five repetitive words, “He’s going to die today, He’s going to die today. Oh, God, he’s going to die today.” I cannot absorb their reality but I know this is going to be the truth of this day.

                I hurry up the three flights of stairs and pull open the door with the sign “Child Welfare.” I pass swiftly thought the large office where eight desks are neatly arranged, a few occupied by one of the caseworkers for foster care, foster home workers, or adoption. I drop my note pad on my desk, not  seeing  the faces of my co-workers at their desks and no one speaks to me. Do they already know what Lucile is about to tell me, I wonder. No, of course not, she would never….

                Her door is closed. I knock twice and pull it open without waiting for her to say, “Come in.” She is seated behind her desk, this soft-spoken, gray-haired lady who was my first role model for kindness and compassion, the woman who decided to hire me despite my shaky background. Our eyes meet: mine large and brown, hers hazel and sorrowful.

                I sink into the chair positioned in front of her desk, facing her.

                “Mary Jo,” she says, then stops.

                I supply the words I think she’ll say. “The hospital called to have me come right over. Keith’s dying?”

                She’s silent a second then whispers, “He’s gone. I’m so sorry.”

                No. NO. How could they not have called me so I could say my last good-bye? My head drops and I stare at the tiled floor. Damn them. DAMN THEM. Hospitals always call the family when someone is close to death. My son, Chip, and I are Keith’s only immediate family.

                Each day I had visited on my lunch hour and briefly after work before picking up Chip from the babysitter’s home. Perhaps I had said my good-bye last night though.

                She walks heavily around her desk, pulls a chair next to me, and places her hand on my shoulder. We talk for several minutes as she hears my frustration, my anger, and my sorrow. Finally I am spent and I think of my other small son, 8, at school in the third grade. I look at Lucile with tears in my eyes, thinking about what I will say to him.

                She is a wonderful, wise woman and I ask what I should do about Chip attending his brother’s funeral. She answers without hesitation, “Ask Chip what he wants to do, and that will be the right thing.” Of course. I leave, not knowing when I will return.

                As I drive robot-like, I hear once again the horrific crash of metal last December 8 on that snowy Catskill night. The young girl who’d hit us head-on. Keith drawing in his last breath. The Good Samaritan who’d revived him. The jaws of life. The ambulance. The flashing lights.  The emergency room. My rigid denial during the past 115 days, until just very recently, that he would have to “live” on complete life support for the rest of his life. No, Keith would heal. He would come back home. Life would pick up where it had left off last December 8th.

                I arrive at the school, walk into the office, tell the office staff briefly in a low quiet voice what has happened, and then Chip appears in the doorway. I hold out my hand. “I want to take you home early today, Chip.”

                He is puzzled but doesn’t question my words. It’s a short silent drive home and, once inside our home, I say, “I have some very bad news,” and then tell him, watching him closely. He is quiet, stoic, but tears leak slowly onto his cheeks. I reach out to hug him and he lets me embrace him. I lean my head on top of his and say something to try to comfort us both.

                It’s hard to remember the quiet blur of the rest of that day. We must have eaten. We must have made plans to go shopping in the morning for I absurdly decided I needed new shoes. Chip might have taken a bath. I probably read him a bedtime story although it’s hard to imagine which one I’d have chosen. Somehow we both slept, at least some, and finally the day was forever over.

                I sit today by the stream in my yard and I remember you, dear child. You are forever seven years old, a slim, brown-eyed, sturdy little boy with a husky voice and endearing manner. The sun is so warm. Grass is greening on the bank. Water trickles so softly, so gently, it evokes my tears. I can see you bent over in this stream, your dark hair falling forward, your hand intently reaching for something in the water. I look to see if there are tadpoles. No. I listen for frogs. None. But there were many that you and Chip used to catch and then release in another stream at another time in our life.

                In this journey called life you left the pathway so early. Yet I can believe only—especially on achingly radiant spring days like this one, so filled with rebirth everywhere I look—that your beautiful spirit is part of it all and that, wherever you are, your dancing brown eyes are smiling.

                 I am home. You are home. I seek the peace you possess.

April 3, 2011

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Ficus Benjamina

               When I bought my retirement home last July (though I’m still not retired), the previous owners asked if they could leave their plants, for their household goods would be in storage two weeks and the plants would die. I was thrilled that the beautiful, blooming, braided-trunk Ficus Benjamina would remain on the front deck, where it gave the hummingbirds and me so much pleasure throughout the summer and early fall. Then after one unexpectedly chilly October evening, my heart nose-dived when I discovered its leaves beginning to curl. Over the next several days they all turned brown and I was devastated that I hadn’t known how delicate the tree was. I brought it inside, hoping, as we all do after a death, that this was not true, that I had not really lost my beautiful tree. The tree starkly stood against a living room wall, looking very out of place. My kitten thought he had a new toy and delighted in playing with the falling leaves that littered the carpet while others piled up onto the dirt in the huge pot. Sometimes I pulled off a few leaves, too, and periodically broke off a small branch, hoping to find some sign of life there. I found none.

                In denial, I continued to water it and discovered a place in the kitchen by my bay window where the tree looked more natural, despite its bareness, and we both looked daily out into the long, chilling winter days.  In January I had surgery and the days of recuperation were incredibly slow. Cards and notes from my family and friends began to encircle the bay window that framed the view of the secluded, young woods outside with its carpet of dried leaves on the frozen ground.

                Family and friends also brought me good food, company, and wishes. As I continued to water my brittle-branched ficus, no one asked why I had a dead tree in the kitchen. Seemingly endless days and weeks slowly passed and I wondered if I’d ever feel my old self. Yet, in time, I returned to work half-time, then full-time. Then I got very sick with bronchitis and despaired, in the profound fatigue of yet another recovery, that I’d never regain my former good health.

                Yesterday arrived and I opened my windows for the first time this year onto the brilliant warm day. Yet I felt so overwhelmed by all I need to do this spring and my heart was heavy. Later I cleared the kitchen table by the window and, as I walked by the tree I caught a glimpse of green from the corner of my eye. I must be seeing things, I thought vaguely, as I returned for a second look. I was not seeing things though, for there I found the miracle I’d dared not believe could happen: three leaves clustered against the trunk in full, green glorious health facing the bright light of the bay window. I cried out, “Oh, look at that!” in joy as tears filled my eyes.

                I returned again and again to the tree yesterday and each time felt a small bit of my own despair leave as I looked deeply into those tender, lovely leaves. I pondered what a long winter we’d both had yet those tiny green marvels consistently and silently spoke their profound truth to me: winter has passed and I can find much grace in the fact that we are both rejuvenating, however slowly that may be.

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