I grew up living on the same street as my grandparents- one house away, in fact. I spent countless hours with them– at their house, at their farm. Most of my childhood memories are of times I was with them.
My grandpa was the center of my universe as I grew up, and he remains my guiding light even though he has been gone almost 18 years. In many of my stories and blog posts, he gets a lot of air time. He wasn’t just my grandpa- he was my friend. I miss him still.
My grandma is so much harder to describe. Maybe it turns out she is more complex than he was. Every attempt I make paints a picture of a flat, two-dimensional character rather than the memorable woman she was. Grandma, who was one of the only people of her era in her county to graduate high school, tended to play the role of a supporting character rather than stand in the limelight. Maybe that’s what makes it challenging to fully portray her, although it’s hard for anyone to dispute how rich she made the lives of those around her.
Grandma sometimes had a tendency to be waspish and critical, and those stings are the glue that makes some memories stick with staying-power. But those are not the only things there are to tell! I don’t want to park there for long, because they don’t begin to say enough about who she was. Everyone has bad days, and there is so much more to talk about than that.
In this time of staying home, stress, and shortages, I am noticing things I didn’t realize I had learned from her that are now floating to the surface. I am understanding a little more of what made her her and am wondering what other ways she is woven into the DNA of who I am.
Grandma was a quilter. She did every bit of it by hand, and she always, always had a quilt in progress– even when glaucoma made threading needles a significant challenge.
It takes time to cut out a queen-sized quilt, piece by piece, painstakingly using a pair of metal scissors and a template made from a paper grocery store bag. I still remember those black-handled scissors were regularly sharpened by my grandpa, and they were absolutely not to be used for anything else. When I think of grandma, my first thought is of her quilts, which were beautiful and complex and made with staying power- like her.
Quilts might be the thing I most strongly associate with her, but they actually lived in her background. Grandma stayed busy. She gardened, having a massive strawberry patch as well as sizeable spots for green beans, peas, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, rhubarb, and sweet corn. Looking back, I wonder how she managed to be in two places at once, since she and grandpa spent significant chunks of time working their farm 120 miles away. Gardens require attention, and hers was always fruitful. She must have been good at anticipating needs, at diligently working wherever she was. It’s something I never realized until recently.
As a child, I thought she seemed to love picking up sticks from the yard. How anyone could love that I don’t know! I now understand what she actually loved was being outside. She didn’t abide the nonsense of going for a walk just to stroll up and down the street. She was purposeful. Since they had four trees that shed a pile of sticks every time a neighbor sneezed, and since she and grandpa were both very particular about keeping the lawn well-maintained and trimmed, she picked up sticks all the time, breaking them and putting them on the trailer they hauled to the farm, anticipating a bonfire. She loved the nights we had the fires, roasting hot dogs and marshmallows to burnt perfection. Those are some of the times I most clearly remember seeing her smile.
Grandma was an amazing cook. She made candy, cookies, cakes, rolls from scratch, noodles from scratch, fresh things from the garden that tasted like they were straight from heaven, and had a well-used recipe box bursting with food that would bring a family together. Her giant white stove was always in use- from apple butter to zucchini bread, she played it like a maestro! My absolute favorite was a red velvet cake I have never been able to successfully replicate. She made one every month from September to December, faithfully honoring birthday requests from her grandchildren. It may be one reason fall is one of my preferred seasons.
I must have spent more time in the house with grandma than I thought. Grandpa was the fun one, letting me ride the tractor and joking around with me. Grandma, it turns out, was the teacher from whom I learned many important lessons.
Grandma let me help cook- sometimes. Really, I got to help as a soux chef– preparing to cook, but when the pressure cooker was in use, I was banished to the yard. I was always afraid of that thing, perhaps leading to my reluctance to join the instapot bandwagon. I didn’t love snapping beans, stemming strawberries, and cleaning pecans, if the truth be told, but I learned to enjoy a sense of accomplishment when an entire bucket or giant bowl got completed. I learned to just take the next step when a task seemed overwhelming- and trust me– there were times the volume of what we faced seemed very daunting!
When the cooking is done, the yard is clear, it’s too dark to garden, and the farm is 120 miles away, a busy girl needs something to do. Thus, grandma quilted, and because I was underfoot, I quilted too.
Grandma let me sew together pieces she had already cut, although I cannot be sure my work ever actually made it into the final drafts of her quilts. She taught me how to thread a needle and was usually patient about the fact that I tended to let the thread slip back through the eye as I made the stitches. When it got to be too much, doubling up and tying a knot to avoid this problem helped her keep her patience. She showed me the importance of even seams, how one quilt block could in turn influence everything else around it if they were too wide or too narrow. She let me practice with the seam ripper when I had mistakes that needed to be fixed and helped me understand the importance of recognizing and being willing to fix them– even when doing so was not easy. Addressing your mistakes is worth it in the long run.
Quilting with grandma also taught me the process of working through an ongoing task. When sewing by hand, one doesn’t get it all done in a day. Sometimes you have to leave the needle threaded, poke it through what’s in progress, and come back to it later. It’s a good idea to know where you’re headed, because it can help you understand why you’re doing the seemingly insignificant thing in the moment. Quilting is all about understanding the big picture and realizing how different elements work together, which is often easier said than done.
Grandma always sent her quilt tops to be finished and bound by someone else. All that hard work, passed off into the hands of another! Sometimes you have to recognize your own strengths, weaknesses, and interests, and sometimes you have to trust others to be the expert. Trust others, even when it’s hard. Trust them, especially when it matters.
As I sit at home, waiting for the world to right itself, trying to keep my family safe, I’m sewing a quilt and thinking about the things my grandma taught me.
There’s value in slowing down and being deliberate.
There is value in looking at the little parts as you work to see the big picture.
There is value in what I am doing today, and someday I will be able to step back and see it.
I learned that from my grandma.