By Rita Larom
It was the embrace of two women who understood. Maizie had spread the quilt across her bed and called her daughter to join her. She had been working on this quilt for almost twenty-five years but hadn’t shown it to Sunny until today. “It’s the story of your brothers and sisters,” Maizie said. “You’re old enough now to learn about that awful time. The quilt will help.
“Hannah has the most pieces ’cause she was the oldest.” Maizie had placed ivory colored blocks diagonally. They were cut from babies’ clothing and her own wedding dress, a 1905 fashion she’d restyled until it no longer fit. “Hannah come a couple years after your Papa and I married. Oh, you’d a-laughed if you’d seen her all tangled up in the pea patch pulling stubborn flowers off the vines.” Maizie hadn’t thought it amusing at the time. Food was too scarce for garden plantings to be destroyed. “Hannah put little bouquets of weeds or whatever she could find in a tin cup all summer long. I kept them right in the middle of the dinner table. By the time she was ten, she was a big help in the garden. We was mighty tired of beans and salt pork when spring come and we could eat fresh.”
Sunny stood quietly, her arm around her mother, her eyes bright with silent tears.
“James was a year behind Hannah and was Pa’s right hand. He loved corn—growing it, chasin’ birds from it, feedin’ it to pigs, eatin’ it. That’s why I embroidered those corn stalks right up each side of the pea vines and roses I put there for Hannah.”
“And little rows of yellow French knots make realistic corn kernels,” Sunny said, her body relaxing a little as her mother continued the story.
“I nearly run us out of kerosene for the lamp when I did them. Stitchin’ peas and corn and everything right over the blocks seemed the best way. The material’s from the tails of your Papa’s shirts and the good parts of James’s clothes. Feel them. I scrubbed those things on the washboard with lye soap so many times they are as soft as satin.”
“Where did you get the pink cloth?” Sunny asked, her eyes moving to the next diagonal rows on the quilt.
“Mrs. Wright give me a dress she couldn’t wear no more so I cut squares from it for Lizzie. Pink was her favorite color. She prized chickens and them new hatched little downy balls settled right down in her hands, she was so gentle with ’em. Seven years old.” Maizie paused. “I was real happy to get the chicks on the quilt to fuzz up like that.”
Sunny placed her arm around her mother and traced violets embroidered on lavender fabric. Maizie cleared her throat and said, “I got that for Linda from Sears and Roebuck. They delivered. It was a thrill to get that package in the mail. She was our little artist. I used butter and egg money to keep Linda in Crayons and paper, and her only four.”
“The lambs are beautiful,” Sunny said, gazing at the final blocks in opposite corners of the quilt.
“I fluffed ’em with candlewick. That’s indigo blue I put in the corners for William. He was just talkin’ real good when it happened. The beads, your Aunt Grace give me. Make nice stars, don’t they?”
Maizie had centered the quilt with a large block with “HOPE” embroidered across it. Sunflowers meandered through the letters. “That section I added for you, like you’re always wrapped in the arms of your brothers and sisters. Remember that.”
Sunny choked, “Thank you. Mom, It’s just unbelievable the amount of work you put into this quilt. It tells a story that I’ve always wanted to know.”
Maizie continued, “We could’ve talked sooner but your Papa and I wanted to wait until you was eighteen. We wanted you to be a happy child. You know, we’d went to the city—just had a wagon then—to see your Aunt Grace. She was terrible sick. And Papa had to register for the draft. The war against the Kaiser was something awful. I was scared he might have to go fight.
“Grandma Powell always wanted the children to stay with her so we let ’em. On the way home, I was happy about Grace gettin’ better. Then I saw the smolderin’ ruins. An awful fear clutched me. I barely understood what people was sayin’. I heard things like, it was the smoke … they was overcome … probably didn’t suffer … awful tragedy … all five of ’em. I just fell on the ground and didn’t think I could ever get up, felt like my arms and legs had been cut off. A few days later, Grandma died, too.”
Maizie had felt numb until flaring edges of pain sliced their way into her being, then shut down just before the agony became unbearable. People came, left food, did the wash, harvested orchard and garden. Some looked at her with pity, others murmured a greeting and turned away. Words hung dead in the air. “After a while, only Mrs. Wright still come to see me. Most of the time we just sat and rocked, there was nothin’ to say. Pa was always workin’. Never talked.”
Winter came, and spring, then it was summer again. “Mrs. Wright told me her daughter was gettin’ married. That set me to thinkin’ about making a gift for the wedding,” Maizie said. “Finally my mind was on somethin’ else, if only for a few minutes. I did some cross stitches on some tea towels and gave them to the bride.”
Gradually Maizie’s needlework filled painful places in her mind. She surprised her neighbors with a little gift here, another offering there. She started the quilt. When nostalgia overcame her, she could chase the blues with a little needle and thread visit with her children. Fancy work had always been her calling. Cut work paraded around table linens, ribbon roses flowered down the fronts of dresses, artful stitch samplings hid the seams between crazy quilt blocks and delicate lace trimmed collars and handkerchiefs.
“I thought I’d have no more children,” Maizie told Sunny. “Here I was, forty years old when you arrived. I give you another name, but a sunbeam pushed right through the window curtains and spread light all over you. ‘Sunny,’ I said. You squirmed in my arms and I swear you answered.” Sunny smiled and met her mother’s eyes in the same way she had as an infant, like she carried a secret from beyond.
“Times are easier now,” said Maizie. “You go off and marry that soldier boy and we’ll look for this war to end soon.” Maizie helped load their little yellow coupe, gave Pa the gas ration stamps they’d saved and the couple drove their surviving child to board the train.
Waving as the train departed, Maizie knew the essence of her daughter, Hope, would never completely leave her.
Recently printed in an eBook, Changing Times: Women’s Stories 1902-1942, for the Women on Quilts’ Creative Writing Challenge.