In 1973 I married and moved to a tiny farming community tucked well off the two-lane Catskill Mountain highways in Delaware County, New York. There, in my late 20s, I joined a community of endearing, eclectic people, a mere few hundred of us ranging from dairy farmers to the US Ambassador to Russia. I made a stunning discovery in my cherished small town: time there had stood still in many ways and my rural neighbors had never ceased to quilt.
I met a dear and gentle life-long friend there, Marilyn Gallant, who delighted in crafts and creativity as much as I. She taught me how to make friendship quilts, a skill I dove into with relish. In our church, Marilyn and I were the two youngest members of the approximately dozen, mature Missionary Society members who had been lifelong members and always did things in a predictable manner. Marilyn and her family had arrived in town about the same time I did and we soon understood that if we lived to be very old, wrinkly, white-haired ladies, we would never become native Bovinians. Yet, after I’d been a church member for a few years, the Missionary Society surprisingly elected me president.
When Marilyn and I learned our church needed a fundraiser, we brainstormed and thought of an idea we were certain the Missionary Circle would love. Using the concept of a friendship quilt, we proposed at the next meeting, “We could make a town quilt. Everyone in town who wanted to could make a square for it…” we explained enthusiastically, then added finer details of the plan. “We could raffle it off. We’d raise a lot of money for the church.”
Several seconds of dead silence followed our words; my heart dropped lower with each passing second. Uh oh, we’ve said something wrong, I thought, wondering what it was.
Finally, one woman spoke, “Well, I think a town quilt is a good idea…”
“But…,” another began.
“We’ve never had a raffle in this church…,” a third woman cut in firmly.
“We’ve always felt a raffle is not the way a church should raise money,” another affirmed.
“And, just think, if we raffled off a Bovina Quilt, it might leave town on the arm of a complete stranger and we’d never see it again,” last year’s president said sadly.
The conversation was a death blow to the fundraiser idea, but everyone agreed we should make the quilt. Marilyn and I took on the project: we bought yards of muslin, pre-shrunk it, cut it into squares, and gave a square to any Bovinian or former Bovinian who wanted to participate.
The Bovina Quilt turned out to be the longest project either of us had ever been involved in. Cranky at times, I felt like we were pushing an elephant up a mountain. Marilyn’s sweet nature never allowed her once to become discouraged though and finally, more than a year later, we’d received all the squares. We moved the project into the tiny community center in the middle of town. There, on a large folding table, several residents planned where to place each square on the quilt; cut strips to join the squares; gave out a stacked row of squares to each woman who wanted to stitch one together. Soon the quilt top was assembled.
The final step arrived: setting up the quilting frame in the center of the Community Center’s floor. One of the ladies brought in her family’s aged frame, a huge contraption, I thought, and assembled it with others who had done this numerous times. Then I watched Missionary Circle members attach the pinned layered quilt (quilt top, batting, backing) to the frame.
In a timeless ancient custom, community members joined together at a number of quilting bees. With short needles we stitched tiny, neat rows with our white quilting thread to fasten the layers together. It seemed like an endless project when we started, but within weeks the quilt was completely hand-quilted. We bound the edges and it was done.
In later years I reflected on those afternoons when we—a small circle of unsophisticated yet skilled, rural women—sat around that quilting frame, talking with each other about all sorts of things. We shared stories of other quilting bees, we shared some of our own stories as they connected with other quilters’ stories, and sometimes we’d simply sit silently, deeply engrossed in the ancient craft of quilting. In those days and weeks I grew much closer to those women as we stitched in our place around the quilt frame, learning from and about them in a way I would never have otherwise. At the time I did not yet understand the deeper significance of our tender work. I can speak for myself only, of course, for the others may have already known what I did not yet perceive: we were creating a tactile, visceral portrait of our way of life in Bovina Center in the early 1970s.
I also came to understand that the wise elder women of our Missionary Circle were absolutely right in their firm belief that the quilt not be raffled. For the Bovina Quilt, through the decades, has silently hung in display in the tiny Bovina Museum, maintained by the town Historical Society. Still there today in the center of town, it is utterly unimaginable to think of the simple, precious story quilt leaving the town on a stranger’s arm.