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Letter from Katie: Plain and Fancy

My grandmother was plump, like a proper grandmother. She had a disorderly bun at the back of her head with wisps of silver hair escaping in tendrils around her square face. Her older sister, my great-aunt Lilly, was just the opposite: thin and witch-like with a sharp nose and chin and shrewd black eyes. It was in the early 1960s, on one of my family’s annual spring trips back to visit  family in Puryear, Tennessee, that I got to see their differences close up. The first night we got there we obviously interrupted a quarrel. “Nanny,” Aunt Lilly said—for that was the name she had called my grandmother since they were children—“it wouldn’t hurt a bit if you’d put a little more color in your quilts. The church quilt show is comin’ up next month and with your stitches and my design we could take the prize.”

My grandmother walked into the kitchen to get away from Lilly’s scolding. True, all her quilts were pieced from plain squares cut from old dresses and shirts. But she was a practical woman with little time for frills.

The first morning of our visit, my grandmother—my mother’s mother—woke up at 6 a.m. to get the cooking done while the kitchen was cool and sweet with morning air. She went out to the hen house and gathered the eggs, picked out a plump hen, wrung its neck, and put it in the pot to loosen the feathers. Then she baked biscuits and cornbread in black cast-iron pans in a wood stove, fried smoke-cured country ham, made red-eye gravy, and fried the morning’s eggs and potatoes. Only after all this did she set her food down on the round kitchen table and call the family for breakfast.

Great Aunt Lilly, of course, was cooking, too, in the trailer where she lived just 10 feet from my grandmother’s house. As we sat down for breakfast, she strolled in with a platter in each hand and offered her own biscuits and homemade jelly. “Thought you might want to try this with your breakfast,” she chuckled. “Course I like them better with bacon, but you be the judge of that. I just made the preserves yesterday—they’re strawberry. I think they’re about as good as any at the county fair. Just take a taste and tell me whether you like mine or Nanny’s better.”

At the stove, working on the sweetmilk white gravy, Granny gave us a hard look, as if to say, “Well...”

“I’ll try one of each,” my father said.

“You decided whether you’re gonna bake a cake for the fair, Nanny?” my great-aunt asked casually. My grandmother’s cakes were known far and wide for their light texture and the ambrosial frosting she spread between the layers.

“I thought I might do a German chocolate,” my grandmother said with just a hint of hostility.

“Well,” Aunt Lilly said, “don’t nobody in town do a better German chocolate than you do.”
My grandmother’s face relaxed for a minute.

“Course, I thought I’d do a jam cake myself,” Aunt Lilly continued, her competitive spirit roused again. “And don’t forget we’ve got to come up with a pattern for the quilt show, you know.”

Every winter Aunt Lilly and Granny Ward got together with other women in the small village where they lived and made quilts. I remember the large wooden frame they used to stretch the quilts like drum heads when they stitched the borders to the edges. And I remember my aunt’s relentless criticism. “They drove each other crazy,” my cousin Sandra recently reminded me, chuckling over the old harsh words between the sisters.

My grandmother was a practical woman with a great deal of work to be done, and the last thing she had time for was making fancy quilts. If Aunt Lilly would peck at her about this thing or that, she’d simply wave her sister away like a mosquito and go on with her cleaning up. When the lines between her eyebrows tightened, though, Aunt Lilly knew she had got through.

Supper that night was a casual affair—mostly leftovers from dinner at midday with the addition of green beans she had brought in from the garden to “freshen things up.” After dinner my grandmother had taken a white cotton cloth out of a drawer and spread it over the table of food like a shroud, to keep the flies away; when suppertime came the cloth was removed, and we ate the leftovers from the noon meal and anticipated what might be for dessert: One of my grandmother’s German chocolate cakes, perhaps, or banana pudding at the very least. Everyone worked hard, and nobody quibbled over calories.

Aunt Lilly came in at suppertime with homemade yeast rolls, which she passed around in a basket. We were loyal to our grandmother, but homemade yeast rolls were a rare treat, and we didn’t refuse them.

“Have you given any more thought to that quilt pattern, Nanny?” Aunt Lilly began.

“No, Sister, I haven’t,” Granny said, slowly and deliberately. “Have you?”

“Well,” Aunt Lilly said, “I’m just sayin’ if you’re going to the trouble of making the quilt, why won’t you put in some bright, pretty shapes? Cut a triangle instead of a square.” Aunt Lilly would probably have been happy working for Ralph Lauren.

“I haven’t had time to go through my scraps,” my grandmother said, beginning to get a little heated, “and we don’t have to start for another month.”

“Planning is everything,” Aunt Lilly nagged on. “The ones that wins the prize is the ones that plans.”

My grandfather sensed a fight in the offing, so he got up and went outside. He had been blind since he was 39 years old, the result of a virulent glaucoma for which there was then no cure. But he could tell when things heated up between the sisters, and he knew when it was best to clear out.

That usually meant going outside to play the fiddle, working on a tune like “Buffalo Gals,” or “Washington and Lee Swing.” He played for square dances on Saturday nights. They’d take two fiddlers and a guitar player, and when one fiddler tired out, he’d go out on the porch and have a little drink of brandy (for “medicinal” purposes) until the muscles loosened up again and the arm was flowing smoothly.

My grandfather’s vision hardly kept him homebound. Mornings, he walked into town to pick up the mail, his hearing acute enough to warn him of oncoming traffic. Of course, there wasn’t much traffic to begin with. He carried a blind man’s cane with a white stripe near the middle and another red stripe below it. The crook was curved to fit his hand—he had probably sanded and worked the wood himself. As he walked, he tapped it lightly ahead of him—one-two, one-two—and with this navigational system he got where he was going with ease and grace. To accommodate his blindness, nothing in the house was ever moved or changed lest he trip over an unexpected rug or knock his shins against a new footstool or stumble on a stack of books thoughtlessly left beside a chair.

Evenings, while my grandmother and her sister fussed, my grandfather and his best friend, Tommy, sat on cane-bottom chairs under the black walnut tree outside the house and listened to the St. Louis Cardinals on a small battery-powered Sears radio that cut in and out. They tuned in to every game, only missing the action when the radio briefly sputtered, leaving them with nothing but static.

My brother-in-law sat with them one summer evening and was puzzled by my grandfather’s references to “Orlando Potatoes.”
 Which player was Orlando Potatoes? John thought to himself, but he soon came up with the answer.

“Are you talking about Orlando Cep-eda?” he asked my grandfather. My grandfather, blind, had never seen the name written in the newspaper, and he was parsing out the sound the best he could. It sounded like potatoes to him.

On rainy afternoons during our visits, my sister and cousin and I played in the huge trunks my grandmother kept in the smoke house. They were full of letters, so dusty and old they nearly crumbled to the touch, the handwriting fine and spidery. “Dear Aunt Nanny,” a postcard read. “Here we are at the beach in California.” On the front of the card was a picture of one of my distant cousins with his head posed atop a muscled body—a painted prop made of heavy cardboard. In the bottom of the trunk we found a primer from 1832—a school book with the cover torn off. My grandmother’s grandfather had worked as a tailor before moving to Tennessee territory, and we laughed over his meticulously drawn-up bills—$.25 for a yard of serge, $2 to sew a coat. We found Confederate money in the trunk and pretended it was real, and that we were rich and going to Hollywood.

Around us the smell of curing hams was everywhere, and smoked bacon, too. The fragrance permeated the wood, and the soft rustle of the rain on the asphalt roof felt cozy, as if we were behind a curtain in a faraway jungle in the rainy season.

The best pictures in the trunk were the ones of our parents and aunts and uncles—the men in Army uniforms with peaked caps and stripes sewn on the sleeves. Uncle Fred posed in an old-fashioned Naval uniform, the top of it shaped like a blue middy blouse with a white hat propped on the side of his head. Next to him, Aunt Dot was as slender as a model in a dress and high-heeled shoes, one of her little feet propped behind her on the side of an old Model T Ford. But there were older pictures, too, pictures which looked like wedding portraits, of women in long dresses which had been fashionable before we were born. There were pictures of my father’s family, six of them posed in old-timey clothes beside a huge maple tree somewhere out in the country. It was such a small community that my mother’s family and my father’s family were close neighbors. Their lives and their mementos were intertwined.

Most of my grandmother’s quilts were stored in trunks in the smoke house, but I don’t remember looking at them much. We spread them out to sit on while we went through the trunks looking at what we thought were more interesting items. The quilt I have on my bed now was probably in those trunks; I probably sat on it thoughtlessly a hundred times when I was a girl. Now I find myself studying it each evening, tracing the shapes of the patchwork, puzzling over the scraps of fabric, trying to unlock its mysteries.

It is thick and warm, practical you might say—but there are triangles inside of triangles stitched by hand, squares of bright red floral prints stitched beside coarse flour sack cotton. Striped squares are stitched next to circles, paisley next to polka dots, and there are pieces that look like they were cut from a red checked tablecloth. Was that the cloth my grandmother spread on the breakfast table? Were those careful, even stitches made by her hand? Were the bold fabrics and the intricate patterns my Aunt Lilly’s doing? Is the quilt the result of their graceful collaboration, or a product of their colorful quarrels?

Either way, it seems to me that it represents the best of both of them. I had admired this quilt on Mother’s bed the last time I was visiting, and she insisted on giving it to me. How could I have even thought of passing it up?

Decoration Day, or Memorial Day as people call it now, was the real reason we went to Tennessee at the end of May—a chance to remember, to decorate the graves of the dead, to cry for them yet again. We took flowers to the cemetery and the men raked the dead grass away from where our ancestors lay, replacing stones that had blown over or been knocked over by high school kids. My mother and my grandmother cried for a little while over my Uncle Dempsey’s grave. He had died in the Army and was buried in the Patterson Cemetery, way out in the country under old trees: sugar maple and pine and oak.

At the Buchanan Cemetery in Henry County, we tended the graves of my father’s family. Someone brought a lunch and we ate the sandwiches and told stories of those who had died, laughing and crying all at once, the sad times overlaid by the funny times, patched together like my grandmother’s quilts.

When Monday came, it was time to head back to Detroit—time for the sad leave-taking that always accompanied the end of our visits. My grandmother packed us a lunch of fried chicken, pimento cheese sandwiches, homemade pickles, cold biscuits, a jar of damson plum preserves, and a variety of cakes and pies just in case we needed to snack. Aunt Lilly followed with homemade cookies.

“God a’mighty,” Daddy said when he put it in the trunk. “That’s enough to feed an army.”

Grandaddy made sure we hadn’t left anything behind to trip him or interfere with his Spartan lifestyle. Sometimes he even saw our departure as an opportunity to eliminate household items. If Mother admired one of my grandmother’s baskets, he encouraged her to ask her mother for it. “She won’t even know it’s gone,” he’d say.

Our car was already too full when my grandmother approached my mother with a homemade quilt.

“Why don’t you just mail me that, Mama,” my mother said. “We don’t have any room for it.”

“But don’t you get cold up there in Michigan?” my grandmother asked, though it was almost June.

“Of course I want the quilt, Mama, but it’s summer in Detroit, too. There’s plenty of time before winter.” My mother’s eyes were beginning to fill with tears. “Please mail it,” she said. “It’s one of my favorites.”

My grandmother’s face softened and she too began to cry. Wrinkles formed in her forehead, and bright spots of color flushed her face. She stood there weeping, her only son dead, her husband blind, her daughter living in a northern climate, so far away she couldn’t even understand where it was. “Let’s get going,” Daddy said, looking at the clock, mentally calculating the time of the drive in holiday traffic. And suddenly we were all in the car, ready for last-minute kisses and hugs and waves.

“Be careful up there, honey,” my grandmother said to my mother, and Daddy turned slightly in the front seat to back the car up. A rear door was not tightly shut; my grandfather felt it, and opened it.

“Everybody got their fingers out of the way?” he asked, and we did. He slammed the door, and we were off.

We pulled onto the highway and headed north. My mother put her head in my father’s lap and cried as if she would never stop.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue.