My first awareness of a quilt, crazy or not, was as it covered a cot right outside my grandparent’s bathroom in the hall off the kitchen at their old 12th avenue home. The quilt was mostly dark with many rough gray squares of material occasionally punctuated by reds and softer fabrics. The materials probably originated as part of my grandfather’s, uncle’s, and father’s pants and suit coats with a few contributions from my grandmother’s and aunts’ dresses.
I loved to be tucked beneath it for a nap or an overnight, because it was warm and seemed to smell of nearly everyone or everything I most adored. After holiday dinners, and unsuccessful ice-pack-provoking attempts at playing with my dysfunctional cousins, a caring adult eventually intervened, hoisting me into the air before folding me into a neat ball underneath its checkered glory. Once there, I could stretch out a small hand to rub the odd combination of textures and stitches at the outside ends before surrendering to blissful “crazy quilt” oblivion.
Fast forward: At age 19, I headed for my favourite University of Illinois campus steakhouse with my two best friends. The dorms didn’t feed us on Saturday nights, so we were left to our own devices and this had become a beloved haunt. In terms of context, it was 1969, the President of the United States was Richard Nixon, whom, I feel compelled to note, I opposed every time he ran. The Vietnam War raged on, Vice President Spiro Agnew, had just denounced critics, (mostly Democrats and students like us) as, ‘an effete corps of impudent snobs’ and ‘nattering nabobs of negativism’. As a budding word nerd, I admired his writers, knowing he could never have come up with that on his own, but I knew as well that he was desperately wrong…in this and many other things. We were idealists, passionate about right and wrong, willing to do our homework, get the facts, and act peacefully according to our consciences. Post-$5.00 steaks, we walked around the corner and down a short flight of stairs to a hippie shop. Incense wafted through the cracks of the door into the cold November night even before we open it. Once inside I was inexorably drawn to a display of patchwork scarves running my fingers over all of them until I found the perfect one.
This was IT! It had deep violet, red, brown and pink velvets married to maroon, sepia and gold floral prints occasionally embroidered with pattern. Every part of it was something I would wear separately, yet there they were, miraculously sewn together on a night meant for scarves. It was a visual feast and not expensive, so I bought it gladly to wrap around me for the walk home.
It proved to be a very long walk indeed. After 40 years, I still love this scarf and it has been a second skin on countless journeys and adventures. My mother frequently renews its stitching and I still savor the look, feel, and memories of it wrapped securely around my neck. Now I cherish her part in its history too.
The history of American quilts reveals stories of strong, determined, hardworking women triumphing over hardscrabble times through persistence, imagination, and ingenuity.
Quilts were created by frugal women who saved what was serviceable, cutting it away from what could no longer be useful as originally intended. They were rooted in loyalty to God, their families and one another. From bits and pieces of what remained they fashioned warmth and incomparable beauty.
Crazy quilts (and my crazy scarf) grew out of that tradition. They are one-of-a-kind assemblages of odds and ends – randomly pieced fabrics with embroidered embellishments on seams and patches. Plaid woolens might easily wind up next to slivers of taffeta ball gowns, denim overalls or red woolen underwear. In the spirit of recycling and economy, strongest pieces survived to live again, reborn of necessity and accident placed asymmetrically by hands that were equally worn yet ever-useful.
In the summer of 2008, I visited my daughter in Washington DC. At the time she was writing biographies for the database of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Since she had to work, I was free to wander the museum, and in doing so I came upon the work of Rosie Lee Tompkins. (Born Effie Mae Martin, later-Effie Mae Howard) in an exhibit of her quilts entitled,
“Something Pertaining to God.”
To Rosie, quilt-making embodied her own prayers and meditations and symbolized her deep faith. The NMWA catalog noted, “She saw herself as an instrument of God, and her quilts were a reflection of God’s guidance…”For many women, piecing quilts was a spiritual process and an act of communion with God. Rosie believed God directed her hand and her art, as every quilt was the result of a prayer prayed on behalf of a loved one. The title of the exhibit, “Something Pertaining to God, “reflects the deep sense of religiosity that permeated and dominated her work.”
What seems an obvious thread in all of this is that our families, friendships, and very lives are quilt-like. We are separate odd patches of velvet, poplin, wool or chintz. In relationships, we are mismatched fragments and cut-outs unexpectedly sewn together to become stronger and achieve new purposes. Life constantly challenges us to save what we can of what is good while letting the rest fall away. We grow by carrying on and moving forward to form something glorious and lasting of the remnants that remain…”Something Beautiful for God” and one another.
In our most in-spired (in – Spirit) moments, when we summon up our best selves, a la Rosie Lee Tompkins, we hand the fragments over to a Source who lovingly stitches together the remnants of all our remembrances: past loveliness, dark sorrows, cherished memories, shimmering joys, gray guilt, and lavender laughter embroidering the pieces upon our souls…creating and revealing infinite and transcendent beauty. Sewing and transforming it all, S/He fashions Crazy Beautiful lives and Crazy Beautiful Families of relatives and friends.
“America,” said Jesse Jackson, “is not like a blanket – it is not one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is like a quilt made of many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. “
Together, we are truly American, truly free to be fully ourselves, frayed yet lovely, stitched surely together with common threads…love, tenderness, honesty, a passionate belief in goodness, and one another. We are a crazy quilt collection of dreams, and dreamers defined by our differences, varying patterns, kaleidoscopic moods and talents…yet firmly knotted together, stronger and ravel-resistant. Our relationships hold our past, cradle our present, and promise that the future however uncertain will be warmer whenever it is one we share.
At Thanksgiving time I recall all those who are part of my crazy quilt…near or far, here or there … all of whom are sweet comforters comprising a grand and magnificent “Crazy Quilt.” Minds and bodies, hearts and souls…I wrap you all around me and BREATHE deeply, knowing that in the gifts of your being I am truly blessed and surely HOME.