Sunday, September 23, 2012


Mormon Relief Society Women and Bishopric 1941
Wyora is in the last row, second from the right

Needle down, thimble touch,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull,

I try to remember when I first learned to quilt. The quilting commandments I seem always to have known. Number one: you must use a thimble. Mother's voice, "Find one that fits." I sort through the tin box of communal thimbles. It rests on top of the quilt. Dented, rectangular, the green paint peeling from one side, but not enough to destroy "Singer Sewing Machine". The first thimble I put on the end of my finger drops off when I turn my hand down to place the tip of it on the needle. I try again. Why is it so hard to put my finger, thimble-tipped, on the the needle? I finally choose the smallest thimble I can and twist it and screw it, onto Toby-tall-man on the right hand. There is a tightness in the tip of my finger, the moon of my nail shows pinker than usual and the skin below becomes red with diminished circulation. I declare the thimble a perfect fit.

Needle down, thimble touch,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull.

How long until I can do gentle curves and then full circles? My arms and shoulders twist, my thimbled needle begins to feel the pressure of pushing away from my body, instead of towards it. I learn the rest of the commandments: a pair of thrown scissors can gouge holes in the fabric of a quilt; patterned fabric gives the appearance of applique without the work; there are no easy stitches taken on fine quality sheeting; seam allowances are all to be pressed to one side or the other.

I thought only men were allowed to have pliers, but the women pull them out of their purses and put them by their sides. Pliers are the quilter's tool to give leverage through layers of material. One pair remains by my side. Though other women occasionally ask for them, I need them to pull through every stitch. I listen to the conversations at the quilt. The women move through the details of their lives, and I stitch and pull, stitch and pull. One conversation begins "And how are you going to bind this quilt? Ruffles? Picots? Surely you aren't just going to turn the edge under. How about a fancy stitch for a finished edge?" On and on they talk and I half listen.

Beatrice is telling the rest how to make soap. She says that she does it every spring in her back yard. "The recipe is simple: fat and lye." I start to think about lye. Grandmother says that when she was young, a small boy picked up an empty lye can and used it as a cup. He burned his throat out and could only speak in guttural tones. I hope my mother doesn't buy any lye.

The women continue talking. "Home-made soap is the very best way to scrub the black marks from men's collars, to get the grass stains from the children's jeans, to take the night-time stains from sheets." I hear them planning a soap-making day. The interested are invited to Beatrice's. I have never been to the Henningers though Beatrice has a daughter one year old than I. They live on the outskirts of town, just across from the drive-in theater. I have heard that her daughters can look out their bedroom window and watch the outdoor screen. I love movies. I would learn to lip-read if I could spend a month in their bedroom.

I think about the laundry room. There is a large cardboard box of home-made soap -- made at Beatrice's. My mother takes her paring knife and cuts pieces of the soap into the hot water. I think about the fat as the soap softens and dissolves. First the batches of sheets, and the soap, then the white shirts and the soap. Finally, the diapers and more soap in the water, agitating to the left and then to the right. There is only a film of scum left on the top of the water. I wish there were enough money to purchase Lux for the wash. Lux is 99 and 44/100th pure, and no risk of Glen finding the lye can and using it as a cup. I wonder if there is fat in Lux.

Needle straight down, touch,
Soaps and sheets and cans of lye
Pivot to fabric, push and pull,

Danish Dagmar is at the quilt. She asks the other women if they have any scraps of material -- ones that they will be throwing out. They accommodate her and out of earshot some call her the pack-rat. Mother says that she has seen the hand-made quilt tops created out of the three inch scraps Dagmar collects. She has cut them to a hexagonal shape and made a number of quilts for herself.

Dagmar teaches me how to pull the end-knot in the thread through the material without leaving any sign of it. She teaches me to take my initial stitch with the needle pointing away from me. I learn to give gentle pressure on the thread with my right hand, while rubbing with the thumb of my left hand across the knot. The knot pops through the upper layer of cloth, imbeds itself in the batting and I take my first stitch toward myself now, the needle entering the small parting inside the threads created by the knot that slipped through. The knot into the material is as invisible to me as Dagmar is to the other women. I am pleased with my new-found knowledge. I do not know it yet, but on my wedding day, Dagmar will give me a pair of finely stitched petit-point love birds that she pays the Gainsborough Galleries to frame for me.

Needle down, thimble touch,
Draw blood, more blood,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull,

Bessie has spent many months in the psychiatric unit of the hospital. "Do you like my jellied shrimp salad," she says. The other women murmur their approval. "I had all of the ingredients at home except for one and I left it out." Nods from the other women. "What is missing is the shrimp." Again the women nod. No one seems bothered. Bessie comes at the beginning of the day and is the last one to be driven home. I still see her sitting at the end of the quilt, quietly drawing her threaded (or her unthreaded) needle through the quilt, making her one-inch long stitches, so unlike the other women's fine work.

Needle down (or is that across,
sideways or over), thimble touch,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull.

When Bessie leaves, Mother will spend time taking out Bessie's line of quilting that she labored over all day. "The stitches will not blend with the stitches of the other women," Mother says. I wonder why Mother invites her to every quilting when there are so many stitches to be removed when Bessie leaves.

After a time I notice how fast my mother quilts and I set up an imaginary game: me against her. I will begin a line of stitching at the same time as she begins and measure my speed against hers. She quilts five lines to my one. I wait to start the game again. Again and again, five lines to my one. She leaves to answer the phone and when I come to the end of my line she has only completed four lines. I am gaining speed! Children are playing downstairs. Others are in the field behind the house. Mother goes to check on the sounds of discontented play-time somewhere at the back of the house. I hurry. She is not back soon enough. Three lines for her! One for me. She is slowing down. I do my quickest quilting when she goes to the kitchen to prepare lunch for the ladies. I am clearly ahead of her by 16 lines. She will have to do forty-eight lines to catch up.

The lunch is not the meal we regularly have at noon. Today what we eat has a new name -- "Luncheon" and it is served on our Sunday china. On the plate there is a home-made tart shell filled with steaming turkey … la king. The top edge of the tart is irregular where the circular dough has folded its curves one over the other. Filling oozes over one of its sides. It doesn't matter really. When my fork touches it for my first bite, the shape will dissolve into shards of tart triangles in the sauce. Pimentos, contaminants to me, pepper the sauce. A square of green jellied-salad, holding in suspension peas and celery, sits uneasily on a cupped piece of lettuce. I think of tomato aspic. I determine to hate all jellied vegetable salads forever.

I had watched mother make the parker house rolls earlier in the morning. She approaches the job with a reverence that I do not see when she goes about the usual bread-making task. When I enquire she tells me that these buns take extra eggs. Is that all, I wonder? I learn that the secret of the fold is a sharp knife slice that barely breaks the surface of the bun just below the half-way mark. The bun is folded, not with the cut-side-into-itself, but with the larger half of the bun on top and the cut edge exposed. I watch her line the pan, eight rows, five buns deep, brush with butter, and cover with a towel.

Needle down, thimble touch,
Cut with tumbler, butter-brush,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull.

The first sunbonnet quilt I remember has the stylized woman's figure shaped from simple geometry and stitched to a flour-bag block. The woman looks like she had been lifted from the decal of a watering can. Hours of blanket stitch trimmed the edges of the applique. When a more modern way of making quilt blocks arrives at our house, my mother has a sewing machine that can do a fine zig-zag around the sunbonnet girl. The new applique takes on a modern look -- a fuller skirt, more shapely arms, and the fabric back is upgraded to a close cotton weave. If there is a quilt meant to slip off a bed, it is a satin quilt like the one mother made for my wedding. Mother put the pieces together so that it looked like roses appliqued on a white background with vines and leaves swirling around the edge of the quilt. The pieces were the scraps from the capes of a school band uniform project -- there might have been more quilts than mine out of that material. Why is it that I remember the quilt I didn't work on? A new neighbor, someone who didn't quilt, brought her velvet pieced quilt-top over and asked mother to put it on the frames at our house. Mother complied, made the lunch and called in her friends to quilt. The seams were thick, the quilting hours were long. The friends quit coming and mother finished the quilt alone. Weeks later, one of the quilters happened on the quilt displayed on an oak bed in one of the finer furniture stores, tagged "for sale by owner". That news passed quickly among the quilters. "Poor Wyora -- taken advantage of again."

Needle down, thimble touch,
Velvet pieces turned to cash
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull.

I listen to the women -- especially the one who has moved and now lives with the R.B.s. "The R.B.'s this" and "the R.B.s that," she says. One of the quilters finally asks, "Who are the R.B.s?" She explains. "I used to live with you, but we moved to the other side of the river, and now I live with the R.B.s," She looks around the quilt. I am invisible to her and she says in a tone only meant for hearing and not for repeating, "R.B.s are the rich bastards." The rest nod their heads. This is the first time I have heard a Mormon woman swear.

I listen more carefully than ever before to what the women share. A few days ago mother was very upset. Out of earshot of the younger children she had asked me, "Remember the young couple down on Bowness Road?" I nodded my head though I did not remember. Mother continued, "The police were there today. Last night her husband killed them and then turned the gun on himself." I can not understand why a man would do this. I want to ask more. Was there a fight? Didn't he love her? Why did he have to kill them? My mother has none of the answers and I wonder why she shared so little information with me. I try to ask another question, but I can tell she is not listening. "I wanted to stop at their basement suite on my way home a few nights ago," is all she says. What had she seen that made her foresee pending trouble. I listen more carefully at the quilt for clues as the other women stitch today. No one mentions the couple on Bowness Road.

Needle down, thimble touch,
Family fun, pointed gun,
Pivot to fabric, push, push and pull.

Darla wishes that mother wouldn't make her sit and quilt. Oh, she doesn't really mind it, except when Betty and Narda come over. "Just one line from each of you, then you can go downstairs and lay on the bed and talk together," Mother says to Darla. That would be fine if Darla could get Betty and Narda to quit quilting once they start. However, they see this as an adventure and can't get stopped. The three of them aren't very smart. They skipped school last week, but had nothing to do. So they went over to Narda's house and made cakes all afternoon. They wouldn't have been caught if they had gone to the trouble to have done their own dishes up after they put the cake in the oven. Well, junior high school mentality! What do you expect when they skipped school the week before and weren't much smarter. They didn't want to carry their books all day, so they scooted their homework and book bags under the seat of dad's truck, and ran free-spirited for eight hours through the mall, and then ran into deep-trouble when they all got home at night.

(piece still in process)


  1. i like the 'piece still in progress' line. .... like a description of my entire life! hahaha.... i love this piece. thanks for typing it in!

  2. I let myself savour every line. Your prose and poetry washed over me, evoking my own memories of being allowed to quilt with "the women". You had told me more than once, head down - ears open. Try to keep reactions off your face, and they won't know you are listening at all. When I would find myself alone with you, Arta, after the others had left, I would ask about all the things or words I hadn't understood and had been rehearsing in my head so I wouldn't forget them. They usually led to me learning more about "adult themes" than I wanted to know, but I would only know this after the explanation. This never stopped me from asking the next time. I hated not understanding every word, every nuance. I loved being "big ears" without being caught.

    Have you had occasion to read Toni Morrison's book, "Home"? I am listening to her read it on CD as I drive to work in Vernon on Mondays and Fridays. There are priceless sections, not unlike yours, that give us a glance into that inner sanctum where women are tackling hard issues to support other women in kitchens, around quilts, and in bedrooms.

    Remeber those old English writing assignments. Create a dialogue between any two historical figures. I would try to change the assignment to two living women who have not yet crossed paths. I vote for you and Toni Morrison, in a kitchen, with "big ears" just around the corner, out of site but not out of hearing-range for even those things that can only be whispered.

  3. Is that Doral, second in from the right on the front row?

    What a gorgeous photo.