In a recent post I gave away a book, American Patchwork: True Stories From Quilters. In that book is a story I wrote about my mother titled "Use It Up." Several of you have asked if I would post the story, and after getting permission from the editor of the book (Sonja Hakala) I am doing that today. I am in no way a professional writer and the story in this form is pre-editing. It's the copy I have on my computer where I first wrote it. I hope you enjoy it.
Use It Up
Growing up during the depression meant learning some hard lessons. You lived the “use it up” principle in ways that younger folks don’t understand and often think bizarre. Those lessons were so ingrained that you practiced them with no conscious thought…little things like saving the margarine wrapper to “butter” a cookie sheet, freezing bananas that had turned black and then pushing them off on an unsuspecting child as a homemade Popsicle, and saving every worn out garment, no matter the fabric, to make quilts.
My mother, Wilma Jewel Light Addison, grew up in that era and in a place that epitomized it. Along with the small frugalities of everyday life she developed courage and determination worthy of the bravest soldier. Life in the Ozark Mountains was worse than hard. Shoes were saved for winter, books for hungry minds were few and far between, rags were used during “that time of the month”. They were hand washed and hung on the line so every one who passed by knew it was your time….I guess that’s where we got the girlspeak term “on the rag.” But worse than all that were the times her father came home drunk and in order to save her from the beatings they all endured, her 5 older brothers took her into the woods where she spent the night alone.
She only finished the tenth grade in the small school in Lurton, Arkansas before marrying my father, Arthur Edward Addison, a young man she met from the nearby CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) Camp. She was 16 and he was 21. He had finished the 6th grade when it was time to go to work to help feed his family. At the CCC Camp he cleared land and helped to build roads and bridges; for this hard labor he was paid $2 a month, and $21 was sent to his parents. Mom and Dad had a baby right away and tried to farm in those beautiful but rock filled mountains. Then World War II began and Daddy had to go. Mama moved to California to live with her mother and work in the fruit packinghouses, saving enough money while Daddy was fighting to buy a small farm near Dover, Arkansas.
While she was in California many days and nights were spent making quilts both for every day use and to pass the time. One of her brothers smoked cigarettes – during that time tobacco came in small muslin drawstring sacks that fit in your pocket. Mother and Grandma saved those sacks, “unsewed” the seams, dyed the fabric and made two quilts from them. I still have one of them….a gentle reminder of that “use it up” way of life.
The years passed, three more children came, and the lessons learned were really put to the test. Feeding four children, and her in-laws much of the time, meant saving every possible way. Quilts were a necessity and though the patterns were varied the reality of having to use every scrap of fabric meant beauty had to be put aside. They were often large strips of fabric cut from old wool (and eventually double knit polyester) garments bought at thrift stores, sandwiched using old ragged blankets as the batting, then tied with leftover bits of yarn. Even through hard use and repeated washings those double knit quilts survive today!
Finally the children were grown and times were a little easier. As a young woman I remember wondering how in the world my Mother could sew for hours. I kept thinking how great it would be to have a little time to just sit and do nothing (I guess all new mothers think the same thing at one time or another!). But she simply couldn’t sit and be idle. Until the summer she turned 78 she still canned everything Daddy brought in from the garden, worked part time handing out samples in the local grocery stores, and saved every scrap of fabric to make quilts. Her patterns became more elaborate but she continued to practice old habits…a template was cut for every shape and each piece was cut individually. By then I was quilting too and tried diligently to make things easier for her. I bought her a rotary cutter and mat and showed her how to use them. She just smiled and shook her head. Most of her quilts were hand pieced and all of them were hand quilted and she continued to use every scrap, even when the colors clashed so badly they hurt your eyes.
The year she was 78 I began to notice that the quality of her quilting was deteriorating…at first gradually and then more rapidly. She was just a couple of months short of her 79th birthday when she began to have seizures. Typical of her stoicism she told no one…just gritted her teeth and chalked up her “rigors” to her age. I began to notice her memory losses and even some confusion. Then one day she told me she stopped to put gas in her car (she pumped her own to save money) and discovered she had left her credit card at WalMart. My mother never used a credit card. That night she had another seizure, one that was bad enough that Daddy noticed it and called my sister. A CT Scan showed a brain tumor.
The surgery was long but the prognosis was worse. Two months. If you’ve never heard anyone say those words then you don’t realize that time really does stand still, your heart really does skip a beat, words really don’t always make sense. My family and I took her home, and settled in to take care of her until the end. Physically she recovered rather quickly, but mentally her deterioration was, though sometimes subtle, quite rapid really. But the lessons she learned early in life never left her. She couldn’t and wouldn’t sit idle. She had to have help walking, but she still went from one room to another. In the sunroom she would sit and watch the birds she loved so much. In the kitchen she would look at the paper…even when she could no longer read. On the patio she would stand holding onto a post and watch the clouds, listen to the outdoor sounds, smell the flowers. And in the living room she would sit on the couch, watch television, and pick up her piecing, quietly sewing as she watched. She could no longer cut out pieces so I cut them for her. And she couldn’t do anything elaborate. But she could sew together squares so I cut hundreds of squares. She would make 9 patches looking each time at the sample one I made for her. Sadly, at the end even that became frustrating for her as she got so confused that for minutes at a time she would just stare at the needle wondering what to do with it.
Those doctors didn’t know her, didn’t know the courage and persistence she had learned as a child and a woman. She lived for one year after their diagnosis and she pieced quilts until two weeks before she died….until the day she went to bed and didn’t get back up. She had been married for over 61 years to that young man from the CCC Camp, who grieved so hard during her illness that he died 4 months before her. Hours before she died, when she had been in a coma for two weeks, she talked to him one more time, saying “I’ve had my stuff ready for days…where have you been?” I’ve no doubt her “stuff” included the quilt pieces she carried with her wherever they traveled.
What about the nine patches she made at the end you ask? They’re there…in my sewing room and in my sister’s waiting until we can still our weeping hearts long enough to put them together into the quilts they will become. Some of them will have to have the seams reinforced, but only the very last ones she sewed. Others are ready, waiting to become a touchable reminder that life lessons might be hard, but beauty lurks there if you savor the small pieces and stitch them together to make that life a work of art.