What Makes A Treasure?

Fan Quilt made by my grandmother.My grandmother died in January 2004, but last week, she was so alive in my mom’s house, I could hear her laugh.  She and my matriarchal ancestors flooded the space as my mom and I opened boxes of their memories and treasures.

Scrapbooks filled with Rodeo newspaper clippings and homemade greeting cards, journal entries expressing the loneliness of being the only woman on a ranch, letters full of love and longing from far-flung family members, and photos of stern looking people whose eyes reveal how hard Texas farm life was in the early 1900’s.

Also packed up from my grandmother’s home was the women’s handwork.  Lacy, dainty tatting meant for a dress collar, finely crocheted edges for table linens and dresser scarves.  Everyday items like kitchen towels and pillowcases embroidered with flowers, butterflies and other whimsy. 

And quilts.  Oh, those amazing works of creativity called quilts.  The pastel colors in the “fan” quilt myCrazy Quilt made in the 1800's grandmother made fit her optimistic personality.  I wonder if the earth-toned “crazy” quilt that her great grandmother made connoted her state of mind, or if dark fabrics were all she had. 

Some tiny slivers of fabric look like dress skirt material while other fabrics are disintegrating wherever they appear, revealing the once fluffy bating.

When the boxes were brought to my mom’s home, the quilts did not stay packed. Immediately, she lovingly re-folded the quilts inside acid-free tissue paper and placed them on top of a chest under a window in my brother’s old room. 

Hurricane Ike ripped through my Texas gulf coast hometown in September of 2008, dumping torrents of rain, some of it invading my mom’s house through a wind-damaged window.  Yes, Ike’s rain soaked those quilts that my mom had so carefully tried to preserve.

Returning home after hurricanes is a bit like triage – you deal with the most obvious things first like roof issues, downed trees, and cleaning out stinky refrigerators.  The first walk-thru my mom’s house after Ike did not reveal that the quilts had gotten wet; their condition was not discovered for quite some time. 

So, last Wednesday, we laid a king size flat sheet on the den floor and one by one, spread the quilts out to see what could be saved and what was too damaged to keep.

Crying, my mom chastised herself for placing the quilts under a window.  Even though she knows she could not have thought about every little thing to protect in the 8 hours she had to prepare her home for Ike’s invasion before evacuating, she chastises.

“Mom, some of these quilts are over 100 years old and were already threadbare.  Water damage isn’t the only reason they are coming apart.  They were used, not hung up as art.”

We started with the quilt in the worst shape – that earth-toned “crazy” quilt stitched in the 1800’s.  It felt gritty on my fingers and smelled like my grandmother’s attic – a mix of dust and gulf coast humidity.  

Star quilt pattern inside Crazy QuiltSpread out, we could see two out-of-place squares in a star motif, probably from another quilt.  They were the least damaged and worth saving.  I sat on the floor scissors in hand and said a prayer of gratitude to the woman who labored over this quilt before cutting into it. 

As I cut out salvageable squares from the third quilt, I realized it was taking only a few hours to destroy what my female ancestors had taken weeks, months, possibly years to create.  That’s when I cried.

The artist in me agonized with each scissor stroke.  Did these women who were born in the 1800’s and early 1900’s know they were making something that two women in 2012 would be so appreciative of?  And pained by destroying?

My mom really sobbed when we cut into the fan quilt her mother made.  It had been one of the quilts that kept her toasty warm as a child. 

Despite our melancholy at loosing large portions of these works of love and art, my mom and I experienced a creativity of our own.  Before I cut, we looked for squares that could tell a story about the quilt and the woman who made it.  We mused about pillows but decided the fabrics were too fragile.  So, we chose and cut out squares that would look pretty in frames. 

I can’t wait to put the love and art of my ancestors on the walls in my home!  What better way, really, toRing Quilt share among all family members, the warmth and soul of these quilts?     

I began this post by calling things like scrapbooks and quilts family treasures.  What makes something a treasure to you?  Sentiment?  Beauty?  History?  Direct memory?  What is it that really matters?   

A conversation began on FB around this when I posted a picture of my grandmother’s fan quilt.  Let’s continue the conversation about treasure here!

Love and light,

Cat

Comments

  1. Faith Caton-Barber says:

    Cat, you have brought a tear to my eye. You and your mum did a very brave thing to rescue the pieces in the way you did, and the silver lining to the dark cloud of the damage is now the framed fragments can be seen and enjoyed rather than tucked away (out of sight, out of mind?). I hope that their work (that made the lives of the people around them more beautiful and more comfortable by their thrifty and creative labours) can be enjoyed for many many more years. I only hope that something of my own work is so loved and cared for in a hundred years time!

    • Oh, Faith! Your work is so beautiful – I imagine a young woman holding up her mum’s wedding dress – a Faith Caton-Barber original,, thinking, can I squeeze myself into this gorgeous garment? (Why is it each generation seems to be at least an inch or two taller, wider, etc.?!?) Thank you for sharing your response and thoughts about what my mom and I did. xo Cat

  2. That sounds so familiar to me. 😀 Saving things that remind me on happy moments or special moments and moving emotions is my speciality. For example I was cutting out pictures on t-shirts I was wearing on my holidays in the mountains and put them together with pictures in my photo album (when the t-shirts were to small for me). Maybe this is one way to deal with our past and to be able to live in the present? And you found such a good solution to honor the work of your ancestors even more. Very creative and inventive in the present with the resources from the past – sounds like a great foundation.

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