Wednesday, November 06, 2013

"A Story of a Life in Three Quilts": guest post by Adriana Kassner Cunningham

Today I'm thrilled to feature a guest post from my blogger friend Adriana Kassner Cunningham.  (We first met as fellow commenters on Tim Fall's blog, which happens to be quite a great place to meet kindred spirits!)

Adriana's own blog "Classical Quest" features thoughtful reflections about her reading of classic literature, as well as about faith, family, friendship, and the beauty of God's world -- something her many lovely photographs certainly capture.

I hope you'll take the time to check out "Classical Quest."  But in the meantime, I know you'll enjoy the story (and pictures) that she's presenting here today. 


"A Story of a Life in Three Quilts"

Before my great-grandmother died, she left me three quilts.

Quilt no. 1: "Rising Star" 

No. 1:"Rising Star" 

Mamaw was my grandmother’s mother. She lived in a small house tucked inside a fortress of tobacco fields at the end of a long dirt road in Kentucky. The house had a tin roof and a cool dark root cellar. In the summer the windows were kept open; box fans hummed in every room.

When I was young my grandmother would take me to visit her. It was a three hour drive from Grandma’s home in the city to Mamaw’s world.

One night as I sat on the edge of her front porch, Mamaw brought me a treat.

“What is this?” I asked. 

"Ain't ya ever eat a pickle?" she grinned. Her dark, deep-set eyes sparkled beneath a fringe of white curls.

I think this was when I first realized that pickles were made from cucumbers.

As she reentered the house, the wood screen door slapped behind her. I bit into the enormous salty pickle and savored the moment: hundreds of flickering fireflies waltzed in the thick night air which smelled of earth and tobacco.

Her electric sewing machine began to purr as she fed it stacks of polyester pieces. 

Mamaw is poor, but she's happy. I thought. She makes life good. I hope I live to be old, because I want to be like her.

Mamaw's coffee stains.

 "Rising Star" was made in the 1980s out of scraps of polyester castoffs from the 1960s and 1970s. She stitched it by machine. It's sturdy and heavy, puckered in places and splattered with her coffee stains. I love its bright colors -- especially the red.

My little one inspects the patterns on "The Patchwork."

No. 2: "The Patchwork"

In the 1950s, when Mamaw was in her forties, she stitched her quilts by hand. On "The Patchwork," her expert running stitches mark each square with an "X." Here she pieced together the colors of a family: a husband, three daughters, and a son. You can see the dark solemn squares of a man's shirt as well as the soft cheerful gingham of young girls' dresses.

Quilt no. 2: "The Patchwork"

During this period she suffered from poverty, abuse, and isolation. There were nights when she sent her children into the dark fields for refuge as her husband staggered up the lane toward home in a drunken rage. She developed a bit of a stutter then, which surfaced for the rest of her life whenever she was excited or nervous. 

From a canvas on which women . . . displaced their anger, dividing themselves from themselves, the textile artifact had become woman's own self-habitation, dark with both suffering and her hidden potentials, the skein her very skin. ~ Elaine Hedges

I once slept under this quilt when I was very young. As rain pounded the tin roof, I snuggled deep beneath it and felt safe.

Twelve years ago I received "The Patchwork" as a wedding gift. I am now nearing the age that Mamaw was when she made this quilt. As I study the stitches and run my hands across the fabric, I feel connected to her. Here she converted her stresses and sorrows into something useful and good.

The colors of a family.
The mother-quilter goes far beyond physically arranging and selecting the pieces of her quilt. She strategically constructs a defense against the elements that threaten her family. As adamantly, she fortresses against the loss of individual culture, as she captures her family's history, designs and shapes an artform, and ultimately, orders lives. As militant protector, maternal nurturer, inspired artist, and family historian, the mother-quilter transforms chaos and preserves culture for her family. ~ Angeline Godwin Dvorak, "Piecing It: The Mother-Quilter as Artist and Historian" 
Mamaw must have favored blue and white polka dots. 
They show up on two of her quilts spaced 20 years apart.  

No. 3:  "Grandma's Flower Garden"

This is the quilt Mamaw made during the Great Depression when she was sixteen and pregnant with my grandmother.  The pattern is called Grandma's Flower Garden.  Before she passed away several years ago, I asked her about the quilt's history.

"A woman in town was a dressmaker," she told me.  "I walked to her house every day.  I had no money, but she was real kind.  She gave me whatever scraps she had that were too small for anything else."

"Grandma's Flower Garden" was intricate and labor intensive.  Finishing it was considered a feat among avid quilters.

When I look at this quilt I see a hopeful young woman with a long life ahead of her. I see a heart full of love that she is eager to give. She is poor and dependent upon others, but she desperately wants life to be good. She is determined to do all she can to make it good.

Marriage made life much more difficult for Mamaw.  "Grandma's Flower Garden" was placed in a cedar chest.  No one slept under it for many years.  When Grandma married, Mamaw gave her the quilt.  Grandma stored it in her attic, taking it out only once when Mamaw came to visit.  As her mother slept, Grandma spread the quilt over her.

After that visit, the quilt went back into the cedar chest in Grandma's attic.  There it remained until I was sixteen.  The first time I ever saw it was when Grandma opened the cedar chest and handed it to me.

I can see Mamaw's best qualities in each of her quilts. She was comforting, optimistic, and forgiving. From the worn out remnants of ordinary days, she created resplendence. With scraps of fabric, some thread, a steel needle, and a thimble, she stitched me a legacy of love and hope.


  1. This is a lovely tribute, Adriana: "I hope I live to be old, because I want to be like her." The love you found in your Mamaw and grandmother clearly lives on in you as well.

    I am so glad you wrote this. It's beautiful and I thank Jeannie for sharing it with us all here at her place.


    P.S. Thanks too for the shout-out, Jeannie!

    1. Thank you so much, Tim. You and Jeannie have been relentlessly encouraging and patient -- I'm tearing up as I think about it. :-)

  2. Thanks for being my guest today, Adriana: I love this post. "The worn-out remnants of ordinary days" -- that's so beautiful. We can all make something meaningful out of those remnants if we only realize it.

    1. Jeannie, Being your guest is a meaningful experience for me. You have become such a dear blog friend! Thank you for being patient through all my last minute revisions. This is a piece I've wanted to write for a long time. Your invitation to write a guest post gave me a reason to prioritize it! I just printed out a copy for my kids. ♥

  3. Adriana, I love how you open our eyes to the beauty of things that we often don't stop to consider. Dad took things to Ohio from the farm in Walnut Grove, MN, and he loved looking at them because of the memories they brought. Now I love to at those same things, and just remember how his eyes would shine as he talked about them. Jeni

    1. Awww... I remember some of those things! Weren't they on display in your parents' living room? Such treasures! ♥

  4. This was lovely and inspiring! : ) Thanks, Adriana, and Jeannie for hosting her!

    1. Thank you, Sandy, for coming by! What a treat to see your comment here! :-)

  5. What a beautiful piece you've written, Adriana! You are so fortunate to have those quilts and to appreciate them as you do.

    I also have a quilt from my great-grandmother. She never quilted until she wasvery old and could no longer get around (she lived to be 101) so well. She made a grandmother's flower garden quilt for each of her grandchildren,but mostnever got quilted. My grandmother gave me one of the unfinished tops when I was a newlywed and made me promise tofinish it. I gave it a plain muslin backing and quilted it up--which it needed, since the original stitching was rather large and loose--and now it hangs on arack in our entry. I feel very lucky to have it. :)

  6. That is wonderful that you were able to finish your grandmother's quilt! I'd love to see a pic of it on Facebook sometime! We are both blessed! Thank you so much for coming by, Jean. :-)


Please leave a comment. I love to hear from readers, and I always reply!