I have a quilt. A piece of an old dress, a worn-out pair of pants, an apron that has outlived its usefulness, and maybe even a head rag, once drenched in the sweat of our ancestors, all pieced together to make what is called the Cathedral Window.
This quilt personifies its creator, Ms. Ruth. Born in 1926, Ms. Ruth was a former sharecropper who raised nine children, endured two failed marriages, recouped, and graduated from college at age 55. She was my mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a great-great, grandmother.
Grandma’s hands nurtured the babies, disciplined with love, encouraged with compassion, led by example, shared her treasures, and perfected her craft.
As I look at this quilt with its intricate details and workmanship, I see the framework that mirrors her life, a collection of scraps turned into a final entity of beauty. No shortcuts, just determination, and a double dose of hard work. For Ms. Ruth, failure was never an option, even though the road to success may have been the road less traveled, especially for a woman. She encountered many bumps, detours, and even some obstacles that required going back and starting over. Yet, she stayed focused and goal-oriented.
In this artwork, I see her creativity. Because she was not fortunate enough to have money or social status, she invented ways to obtain wealth. Struggle was her greatest inheritance, passed on by her blind grandmother and abused mother. However, she took her inheritance and propagated it. Struggle begat endurance, endurance patience, and “patience, experience; and experience, hope.”
As each piece of the patchwork touches the other, so did Ms. Ruth reach out to connect with the community. Although we were all poor, we were the richest of the poor. Chopping cotton was the only employment unskilled Black people were guaranteed back in the early 1960s so she purchased a bus to take people to the “field”. The “field” is code for the cotton field. Yes, chopping cotton for 10 hours a day in the hot summer sun. On the surface, nothing seems humane about chopping cotton, but Ms. Ruth made it tolerable and sometimes even fun. People liked going to the field with her because she was kind. The teenagers would bring their transistor radios to listen to music as they chopped their rows, and the young ladies would look cute so that the boys would help them chop theirs. She had a kerosene heater that she cooked on and sold hot lunches. The food was delicious and priced fair. It was something to look forward to at lunchtime.
She elevated from cotton chopping to becoming a migrant worker. She used her bus to take people to Michigan to pick cherries. She had a partnership with some of the cherry farmers to pay each person a designated price for each lug picked; additionally, she got a percentage from the total. At the end of the summer, she always got a bonus. It was a lot more profitable for everyone than cotton chopping, so she always had a full bus. Besides, everyone knew Ms. Ruth was kind but stern, so parents had no problem bringing their entire family or sending their teenagers who “knew how to act.” Picking cherries was much less stressful than chopping cotton and everyone had a good time going to the Michigan beaches on the weekends. It was a new experience for many and far from the nothingness of West Memphis. “One step at a time”, she used to say. “You can get through today, no matter how awful, knowing that tomorrow will be better. It takes patience. and most importantly, a plan.
I’m sure it was the plan that motivated her to endure year after year of poverty without shame as she worked her way to success. Perhaps it was the plan that motivated her to sew hour after hour perfecting each piece of patchwork before integrating each one into the quilt. That’s how she lived her life, completing one facet, building on each experience, and moving on to the next phase.
As she elevated her status, one step at a time, from the cotton and cherry fields into the medical field, her plan finally metastasized. From starting as a Nurse’s Aide to Medical Secretary and then, as an LPN, the scraps of her life finally began to come together.
At the age of 55, with all but one of her children out of the house, she graduated from college and became an RN. She sent her youngest daughter to the prestigious Spelman College in Atlanta Ga. They both graduated at the same time. Success at last. The artwork complete, and so very beautiful.
The fabric of our lives shapes us into who we are. Our DNA, environment, and experiences are all woven together to complete us. This quilt reminds me of the stuff that’s made me, me.
I wrap up in it and feel a surge of emotions. Sometimes I feel at peace, as I remember the security of home and family: good food, peaceful gatherings, and reading the Sunday school lesson on Saturday night.
Sometimes I feel pride, knowing that I am a descendant of survivors. I have an appreciation for their journey that paved our way. They would be so very proud to know that we did overcome . . . some things
Being human, I sometimes feel sadness. I feel the longing for my mother and the emptiness of knowing that I will never see her in the flesh again. However, I feel the comfort that even now her spirit lives through each of her daughters; benevolence in Marie, hard work in Barbara, survival in Ruthie, creativity in Mary, success in Glenda; and me, I have the quilt. •