Thursday, March 2, 2005

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Old quilts trigger trip down memory lane

Among the items that have come down to me through my family were three old quilts — they have sat on the shelf in the linen closet wherever we lived all these years, and as you can tell by the way I have expressed my thoughts, I am not a “quilt person.”

My South Reporter colleague Linda Jones is, however a “quilt person,” and so, upon learning of her interest — no, passion — for quilts, I decided that my old quilts would find a good home with her. To Linda, my “old quilts” are heirlooms. (I must say that I find plenty to be sentimental about so please do not think I have no regard for things that have come down to me in my family!)

Anyway, Linda said that the “quilt police” would come and get me if I did not provide her with complete information about their history. I told her this would be almost impossible, that all I knew was that they were very old and had been in the closet wherever we had lived through the years. I had a vague impression they came from one of my mother’s grandmothers . . . that is all.

Linda was not satisfied with this, and ordered me to find out more. So, as a shot in the dark, I telephoned my 100-year-old uncle in Illinois. I told Uncle Bill that I wanted to ask about household items he probably had not thought of since his childhood (he went off to college in 1922), but on a long shot, I asked anyway. And, of course, he knew all about the quilts!

They come from his mother’s mother, Sophia Wehling Neef, who lived at Boonville, Mo. Great-grandmother Neef was a second generation American. Uncle Bill said my great-grandmother was very skilled in sewing and in all kinds of embroidery and handwork. She loved to make quilts, and had sewed for all her children and grandchildren through the years.

Her parents had come from Germany in the middle of the 19th century and had settled in a little homestead along the Missouri River, where the family lived until the 1920s when they moved into town. My grandparents grew up on adjacent farms and went to the same one-room school. The old houses are still there, as is the little German Evangelical Church where they worshiped, and from which I still have my grandmother’s beautiful confirmation certificate. On visits to see the Missouri relatives, we would ride out to see the old farmhouse, though other people owned it by then. As a Delta child, I was fascinated by the windmill in the back yard. To me then, it seemed just like Dorothy’s farm in “The Wizard of Oz.”

I have a wonderful photo of my great-grandmother’s family on the porch in front of their farmhouse. It looks like Grant Wood’s painting, “American Gothic,” that comes from the same era. The picture is taken from way back, so you can hardly see what the family members look like, but Linda has enlarged just that part it for me, and so I now have the first clear look at my great-grandmother I have ever had. She died in the 1940s, perhaps ten years before I came along.

My grandparents married — I believe it was in 1900, and Granddaddy was the dean at Kirksville State Teacher’s College in Missouri. He came to Mississippi in 1925 to be the first dean at Delta State. The quilts came in handy in those early years — I’ve heard Mama talk about how cold it was in Missouri before they had thermostat controlled furnaces. My Mississippi history book has a wonderful picture of sharecropper women making quilts to protect their families against the cold in those awful winters out in those tiny, shotgun houses scattered among the barren fields of the Mississippi Delta. It was cold in town, too, because the early houses of Cleveland where the Delta State professors lived in the early days were not insulated either! 

I can remember that when I was a tiny tot Grandmother used one of those old quilts on her bed in the winter — but it was packed away when my aunt and uncle (the ones mentioned above) gave her an electric blanket, back when electric blankets were a new thing — remember the ads for them in magazines like National Geographic, along with hi-fis, Schaeffer pens, and trips out West on glass-domed streamliner trains?

My grandmother (Mother’s mother) inherited her mother’s love for creative sewing and handwork. I have afghans, rag rugs, embroidered sofa cushions, cross-stitched towels, and best of all, a wonderful crocheted lace tablecloth that could also be used as a bedspread. Of course, a bachelor priest who lives in a house with scrappy rat terriers has not the least use for any of these items, so they are all laid away carefully, wrapped in tissue paper for the admiration of some unknown future generation!

The tale I tell now is a clue to my upbringing and a window into a time gone by. My grandmother simply thought that no item of domestic linen could come into the house undecorated. She had no use for television — she would hardly talk on the telephone — she would listen to “church” on the radio on Sundays she was not well enough to attend.

So Grandmother’s only entertainment other than her weekly canasta game with her lady-friends and poor old Mr. Turnipseed, the only man who was allowed in the group, the monthly church circle meetings at the ladies’ parlor in the church, Sunday afternoon visiting, writing letters at night by the light of her lamp, reading her Bible in the big rocker by her bed, and reading the U. S. News & World Report in the afternoons, was her multitudinous sewing and crocheting.

Did I mention her roses and the voluminous amount of cooking from scratch that went on throughout my childhood — pies every weekday and cakes on Sunday!

Well, Grandmother embroidered every sheet and pillowcase in the house! I believe she would have felt that to omit this would have been a concession to barbarianism. (This was a woman who vacuumed and dusted the entire house every day!) So, no thought was given to the fact that when I went off to college, the sheets that were packed in my trunk were as nicely embroidered and crisply ironed as those she and Clara, our housekeeper, used to make up the beds at home each Monday!

I did not give it a thought either — that is, until I got to college and the fellows in the dorm had their say! Boy did I ever get those sheets off the bed and take some of my precious spending money to run down to “Fred’s” and get some garish green striped bed linens that were devoid of the pretty (though prissy in a boy’s “dorm” setting) embossing that my grandmother applied to all our linens at home.

There is still a set of Grandmother’s embroidered sheets and pillowcases in my linen closet. I would never use them now — because they are not permanent press — and because I want to save them as a way of remembering her. I can still see her stitching away in the big chair in the living room as she whiled away the afternoons. Like that famous picture of Eleanor Roosevelt, my grandmother’s hands were always busy. She and her mother were not famous or rich, but my, they left a legacy.

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