The fan quilt: three generations; one promise to keep

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My grandmother married a handsome man who dreamed of making his fortune in the oil fields.

She left the comfortable Ohio farmhouse where she was born, left her family to go with her husband and their infant son as he followed his dream.  They moved to an Oklahoma boom town that literally grew from the oil derricks. Like many of the people who arrived to work in the fields, my grandparents lived in a tent with their baby boy until they could build a house.

There were fortunes to be made there, but not for my grandfather. He managed to get a simple house built in town.  Four more babies arrived but so did the Depression and the Dust Bowl.

He struggled to find work. For a while, he tried to sell cans of car polish. A sale meant he could bring home a bag of groceries. My uncles,  just boys, would hunt or fish for something to eat: catfish, rabbit, squirrel. They planted a garden.

If any of them brought something home, my grandmother would turn it into dinner. Not enough food for the seven of them, but a hot meal. Everyone agreed she was a wonderful cook. Imagine what she could do if she ever had a full pantry.

When a coat began to wear out, she would take it apart and re-make the coat so that fabric was reversed: the worn side now hidden.

She lived simply. If there were regrets at her choice to leave that Ohio farmhouse, her children never heard them.

As her children grew into adults, they left home to start their own lives. The sons eventually joined the Army during World War II. The two daughters moved to Ohio to be closer to my grandmother’s family. They, too, found work and eventually married.

That is how I came to be born in Ohio and not Oklahoma.

I heard all the stories about growing up in the Depression. I heard about not having enough to eat and sometimes not being able to go to school in the winter because she didn’t have any shoes. But there was no bitterness to these stories. They were told with fondness and humor but even as a young girl, I knew she endured hardships that I could not fathom.

There is irony to this story, of course. My grandmother’s two brothers stayed in Ohio and worked in the oil business. it was not as exciting as the possibilities in Oklahoma, but they both became millionaires.

When I was in kindergarten, my mother received a telephone call from my grandmother. This was in the days before cell phones, of course. A long-distance telephone call was not only a major event, it usually meant bad news.

It was. My grandmother said that my grandfather was dying of cancer. She told my mother if she wanted to see her father again, she should come home as soon as she could.

My parents scrambled to make arrangements. My father took a vacation from work and got the Ford (the car he won in a raffle!) ready for the 3-day road trip.

We arrived too late. He had died at home shortly before we arrived. My only glimpse of him was two days later at the funeral home.

I did, however, get to meet the Oklahoma family. Although it was a sad event, there was much laughter. My uncles teased and spoiled me. I saw the small town and the amphitheater built in the park by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Depression. I met the neighbors, my grandmother’s best friend Hallie. I went to a Native American school and learned about the Indian culture. The town was no longer a story, but an actual place: my mother’s roots, and now my own.

A year later, my grandmother was diagnosed with cancer. There was not much treatment in those days. You had surgery and you went home to pray it didn’t recur.

My mother talked her into spending the summer with us. As she was feeling well, she agreed, and it was during that summer that I finally came to know and truly love my grandmother. She read books to me and told me stories. She drew a bath for me!

She even answered the most troubling question in my child’s mind: how could Santa Claus possibly get gifts delivered around the world in a single night? (It was only summer, but to a child, Christmas is always coming.)

She took the question in stride. She told me about time zones and the International Date Line. Santa had more than a mere 24 hours, I learned. Of course!, I thought. A logical answer for a logical child.

She did not stay the entire summer. By late July or early August, she knew that the cancer had returned. She needed to go home to tend to things.

Our lives went back to normal for a while. I started in the second grade, missing my grandmother, but happy to be back in school. We went along for a month or two before another long-distance telephone call brought the bad news: my grandmother was in the hospital, gravely ill.

My mother packed a bag and bought a train ticket to Oklahoma. It was the first time she had ever been away from me. We were all miserable.

My mother came home for Christmas. My grandmother died on Christmas Eve, although her sister didn’t tell her until December 26, so we could have some sort of Christmas together.

The next day, the car pulled into the driveway and my aunt got out. We knew what had happened before she got to our door. My mother started to sob.

Two days later, my father took us to the train station in our town and my mother and I were on our way to Oklahoma. As it was school vacation, I got to come along with her, although I suspect I would have insisted on it nonetheless.

We spent the week there with the family, but without my grandmother’s presence. After the funeral, my mother and her siblings went through what little there was and each took a few items.

Since we were traveling on the train, my mother’s selections were few:

  • My grandfather’s garnet ring
  • A crucifix and a pair of white beeswax candles (used by Catholics for when the priest comes to administer the Last Rites to the dying).
  • Some spurs used in cockfighting (Apparently, my grandfather raised cocks and trained them for fighting. It’s not one of our proudest stories.)
  • My grandmother’s gold pocket watch and wedding ring (The only items of value, now in the possession of my cousin’s children.)
  • Some kitchen items: a roaster, a candy thermometer, and a meat tenderizer
  • My grandmother’s small white-covered Missal from her First Holy Communion
  • My grandmother’s unfinished quilt.

Oh yes, the quilt.

It was a fan quilt. My grandmother used scraps of fabric from her dresses to make the quilt squares. My mother brought it home and continued working on it. There are scraps from her dresses, from our “mother and daughter” sundresses, and from my first day of school dress.

Scraps of fabric, tying the three of us together. It is still not a quilt, only a quilt top at this point.

Each year in Ohio, on the first weekend in August, they hold the Mennonite Relief Sale Quilt Auction in Kidron, Ohio.

My mother and I would go to the auction, arriving early in the morning to see the quilts up close. We would sit through the auction, never bidding. Mom would always say, “Some year, when I get good enough, I’m going to donate a quilt to the auction.”

She left behind fifteen quilts. Some done, some nearly so. Others just quilt squares, like the fan quilt that my grandmother started.

I tell this story today because it is the 25th anniversary of my mother’s death.

In the days before she died, when we had already said everything that needed to be said, I was sitting with her for what turned out to be our last coherent conversation. Before I left her for the night, I mentioned her quilts.

I said I was going to donate some of them to the auction. She smiled and said “That’s nice,” but she was beyond the point of caring about quilts. She was dying and priorities change when you are dying.

When she was well, she was like a woman possessed with her quilts, buying more fabric for the next two quilts before she finished the quilt in progress.

This spring, I am finally dealing with the quilts. I’ll have the Amish ladies finish the ones I want to keep and donate the rest to the auction.

I know it does not matter to my mother or grandmother. What matters is that I don’t keep their work unfinished. Otherwise, they are only scraps of fabric, unappreciated, and destined for the landfill.

Promises to keep.

5 thoughts on “The fan quilt: three generations; one promise to keep

  1. All I can think is, “what if I had not taken the moment to read this memoir?” I’ve been thankful for unexcpected gifts of this day. The day is now even richer.


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