Quilting Together a Family

AS I smooth the cover on my four-year-old daughter's bed, the squares of color draw me in.

We call it "the Aunt Docia quilt." Made of real clothing scraps and stitches more practical than beautiful, it would never win a quilt-fair prize or sell for $200 in an antique shop.

But the gift from my husband's great-aunt does what a quilt is supposed to do. It toasts our little girl's toes, tucks her safely in, and keeps her warm through Florida's gentle winters. It's durable enough and washable enough to lay a picnic on in the yard.

The quilt was one of 56 that Docia stitched by hand over two long Canadian winters, as her husband, Clarence, hooked rugs on the other side of the hearth. The quilts were for her eight nieces and nephews and 48 grandnieces and grandnephews.

Docia and Clarence never had children of their own. She was a churchworker who'd been compelled to move from her native Kentucky to Canada by mission work; he had been an orchard farmer on his parents' homestead. They married in the autumn of their lives, once they had time for things like that, and for quilts and rugs.

It was Docia's plan that each of the 56 descendants - one at a time - would bring his or her family to Ontario for the giving away of the quilts.

What a visit that would have been! With cornbread baking and coffee brewing, apple-blossom scented breezes blowing in through the open windows of the old farmhouse, Docia would have told us of her childhood - of growing up with four sisters (one of them my husband's grandmother) in horse-and-buggy days in rural Kentucky.

But it wasn't practical for all of Docia's grandnieces and grandnephews - flung as far away as Florida and California and most of us with the responsibilities of young families - to make that pilgrimage.

Docia relented without a fuss, allowing those who could come to carry off armloads of quilts for distribution to those who couldn't.

Our quilt is all I will ever know of Docia firsthand. I run my fingers over the stitching, smoothing the rumpled bed. I study the patchwork as one who dreams of making a quilt but doesn't know how to begin.

Docia was well into her 80s when she stitched these patches of blue cotton alternating with wild squares of polyester.

Sewn in uneven diagonal strips, the polyester - in colorful florals, checks, and textured solids - was an advancement in textile manufacturing that meant Docia didn't have to slave over pieces with an iron or coax them not to shrink.

These are pieces that no one following the old-time art of quiltmaking would use. But for Docia, it was practical.

Like most quilts, my daughter's sets me to wondering, as I kneel beside the low bed to pull the cover smooth, "Am I teaching my girls what they need to know?"

Will they, like me, grow up with a certain emptiness inside where it feels as if knowledge of quiltmaking, canning, gardening, and crocheting should be?

The homes of my husband's grandparents were like museums, each bed covered with one or more carefully stitched patchwork quilts.

I remember his mother's mother, Grandma Sally Vincent, married at 14, mother of 13, as she took us through the two-bedroom trailer in town that became her home after her husband passed away.

She peeled back quilt after quilt on the four-poster guest bed, pride shining in her eyes as we marveled over each layer that was revealed.

My father-in-law remembers Kentucky winters with the sitting room practically filled up by a quilt frame. His mother would sit for hours, her needle rhythmically stitching together scraps of the family's clothing that could no longer be mended.

Girls learned the art at their mothers' sides.

No one sewed more beautifully on a machine than my own mother or grandmother. Mom often boasted that I didn't have a store-bought dress until I was seven. I can teach my daughters that kind of stitching at the sewing machine Mom left us.

BUT my folks were city folks. There is something different about these Kentucky women around their quilt frames by the wood stoves, the cold of winter poking its fingers into the cracks of their wooden farmhouses.

They defied winter's threatening chill by whipping together thick covers that kept their brood warm and safe. No lack of money or electricity or time could daunt them. A practical and thrifty housewife made the most beautiful bedcovers by hand, out of scraps - next-to-nothing made beautiful by her determined ingenuity.

Some years ago, the story goes, on her way home to Canada from Kentucky, Docia was crossing through customs when a brash young officer began digging through one of her more curious-looking bags.

"You just leave that alone. Those are my quilt scraps," she told him, adding, "You don't know anything about quilt scraps, do you?"

Abashed, he left alone the bag of multicolored pieces, gifts to Docia from the daughters of Kentucky quilters. These young women have cars and jobs, electric heaters, and charge accounts they can use to buy blankets. But they still save quilt pieces, mostly in polyester, for Docia.

When Clarence passed away recently, some of Docia's relatives took her to Cincinnati. They reasoned that she would be better off there, living with one of her nieces, than all by herself in her rural home. Maxine has a big modern house, an empty nest where Docia could have her own room safely south of Canada's chill.

Docia had ideas of her own, of course. After about a month of being polite, she announced it was time for her to go home. After all, she told them, it was nearly time to put in a garden.

Slightly exasperated, her relatives loaded up the car and took her home.

I look up at the calendar and hope - no, believe - that Docia has laid aside her walking stick, the one her father carved from a hickory limb, to kneel on the spring-thawed black earth behind her home. I see her, tenderly covering up seeds with the same skilled hands that stitched our quilt.

It was a hard winter for Docia. What with Clarence's death and all the family coming for the funeral, then the driving back and forth between Cincinnati and Canada, she didn't stitch a single quilt this year.

Then again, neither did I.

I open the junk drawer and rummage around until I find a rusty little spade with a weathered wooden handle. I'm going outside.

Docia and I are going to plant some seeds together. "We mustn't idle away the spring," she whispers to me across 2,000 miles.

I'll tell the girls.

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