I sat at my grandmother’s old Singer sewing machine, under my fourth floor window, and looked out over the white flower box filled with her pink, purple, and white impatiens. They tumbled over the sides of the box, pampered by her green-thumb treatment. That was 1993 and I was six years old.
I saw well-cropped grass and several cars in the driveway, but I knew that my grandmother saw something quite different. She leaned over my shoulder to rethread the bobbin I habitually tangled as she taught me to make a patchwork quilt. She was transported. She looked out the same window, but instead saw the hills of central Kentucky of 70 years ago.
Peonies and tomatoes were her home. When my family moved from Manhattan to a well-heeled neighborhood on the fringes of urban Cincinnati, it was my grandmother who braved the mosquito and chigger colonies of our hilly backyard and put trowel to the clay-packed soil. She drove wooden stakes into the ground for the tomato vines, and bared small circles for the peonies. The garden was complete with a compost pile, and when turned out with a shovel, spilled dark black soil and worms. It was as if a patch of her hometown of Zilpo, Kentucky had been re-rooted to my backyard.
I loved spending time with my maternal grandmother, who lived with us when I was young. I loved sewing but hated it at the same time. Why I was pricking myself with needles, tacking together scraps of fabric to make a quilt, when bed comforters were for sale at Lazarus?
We made everything ourselves. It wasn’t just Granny—my mother did too. Snack day in elementary school warranted a night of baking. My classmates brought bagged popcorn or Saltines, but my mother started the night before. She baked bread, mixed flour, yeast, milk, and eggs in her large silver bowl. My snack day became so anticipated in Mrs. Reynolds’s class that kids would talk about it days in advance. My mother never knew, nor I suspect minded, that other kids brought store-bought popcorn.
It wasn’t about the money; in my family, we made before we bought. For my grandmother, this was obvious. Her values rested in the 1920s town of Zilpo, where townsfolk didn’t know why you would buy new drapes if the ones you had blocked the sun okay, or if you could make them yourself. Didn’t see the reason for a new table if there was one in the sitting room already; besides, what would you do with another table anyway, buy more trinkets to cover it? They did, however, realize the need for a post-office, and it was Granny’s mother, my great-grandmother, Zillie Power, who established it. At least she got the town named after her; you don’t get a town named after you for buying a new table.
My grandmother would grumble whenever she found a spare penny around the house. She would scoop it up and huff.
“You rich people, you’ve always got money laying around!” she said.
“Granny, it’s just a penny!” I said.
“Well, now I’m one cent richer than you are,” she said. Then she would wink so fast, you might miss it.
She lived through the years of the Great Depression, and resourcefulness meant frugality. Benjamin Franklin’s famous words “A penny saved is a penny earned” was her personal credo. Even several years after her death, she still receives coupons for Victoria’s Secret mailed to our address (who knew?).
In her honor, of course, we are compelled to use them.
Back at the sewing machine, my grandmother guided the next fabric scrap under the silver foot just as she had with my mother 40 years before. Though it was 1993, and I was in Cincinnati, I was no exception to the Appalachian heritage of my family.
Naturally, the quilt was to be a patchwork, a blend of bits on hand. Because my grandmother had always made shirts, pants and dresses for her four daughters when they were children, her walk-in closet was a patchwork paradise. I sewed the fabric squares; Granny insisted that the right angles met in 90-degree perfection. (No wonder my mother became an architect.) The flashing needle tacked together vestiges of white dresses, red-checkered shorts, turquoise blue blouses and a dusty-rose colored skirt. Nothing matched, but that was the point.
In his introductory note for Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. wrote, “Appalachia never leaves us.” While the Appalachian region refers to the mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia, the values have no borders; they stay with the people, not necessarily with the land.
My grandmother taught me the ways of this land, a land of winding dirt roads and hills peppered with rolls of hay perched on hillsides like giant spools of thread. In my Currier dorm room, I have a patchwork quilt on my bed and pencil holders made of reused tea canisters on my desk. It is a direct result of the strength and permanence of Appalachian values and Granny’s—my family’s—diligence in their preservation.
“Where did you get that quilt?” my roommate asked me this year.
“My grandmother made it,” I said.
—Lee Ann W. Custer ’10 is a History of Art and Architecture concentrator living in Currier House. She still can’t thread a bobbin.