April 4, 2008

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Quilting our way to immortality

Cynthia DewesSomeone said recently that handmade quilts can be a way of gaining immortality for their makers.

The textiles, patterns and colors of a quilt illustrate the fashions of the historical time in which they were made or maybe just what materials were available then. That, too, tells a story.

Because that’s what quilts do, they tell stories. They show us the skills of their makers, or lack thereof, the haste or the loving care with which they were sewn. Somehow, the spirit and personalities of the quilters come through in their work, and we are moved by these intimate revelations.

Generations down the line, we remember Great Grandma This or That fondly by the quilts they left us. Ladies we’ll never know in real life become real to us in imagination. We even understand better the events and culture of earlier times because of their work, not to mention appreciating its aesthetic beauty.

Our daughter has passed down to her grandchild a youth bed quilt that I had given her. It was created by one of my great-aunts, who was an original illustrator of the Sunbonnet Babies pictures, and the quilt is made in this motif. We can’t see it without thinking of someone several generations ago who must have been a creative and loving person.

My great-grandpa, her father, also made sure that he would never be forgotten. He carved animals, people, funny scenes, plants or flowers on furniture he made from whatever pieces of wood he could find. He made church pulpits still in use today, picture frames, cabinets and benches, which served double duty as linen chests.

We have a large double wooden shelf he made with squirrels carved on each end separating the two levels. On the very top, he has put shoes with little mice peeping out the top. My cousin has a bench he made, decorated with a forest scene depicting two woodcutters on a seesaw thumbing their noses at each other.

Great-grandpa made pretty wooden jewelry boxes for each of his nine daughters. The one we inherited has a carved stag reclining on top; he used to sport a fine set of antlers, but they’ve been lost over the years. Other lovely pieces are scattered throughout our large extended family, and one thing is sure: Grandpa will never be forgotten.

For some reason, I think most of us have a latent wish to become immortal. Secretly, we would like to be remembered fondly by generations down the line because we’re human and needy in that way. We make quilts or write poetry or build a piece of furniture to keep the memories of our existence alive.

Unfortunately, some of us are long remembered through evil means.

Hitler and Stalin come to mind, never to be forgotten because of their insane cruelty. Sometimes being known throughout time is thrust on us unwittingly, as it was on Thomas Crapper, who invented the flush toilet. His is a name we have remembered for more than a century already.

Of course, true immortality can come only after we complete our earthly journey. It comes not because of anything we can do, but because of God’s good grace and our dedication to God’s will.

We might think of quilting as a metaphor of hope for eternal life with God. If we sew love and beauty into the fabric of our lives, maybe God will be pleased to display the finished product forever in heaven.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.) †

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