In 1894, Charles Chatfield married Nellie Chamberlin, a no-nonsense Catholic girl. Nellie was stubborn and headstrong, and although exceedingly religious, she refused to consummate their marriage. In frustration, Charles took his bride to the priest who married them. Father Carr sat Nellie down and instructed her to go home and be a dutiful wife. Nine months later, my grandmother bore her first child – and over the next two decades, nine more.
Nellie started her crazy quilt in 1895, the same year she started her family. Twenty years later, with the birth of my mother, she completed both. Her fine hands stitched rivers of gold, roads of onyx, and fences of pearl, connecting her salvaged pieces of fabric. Nellie rocked in her chair, her children in bed – silently laboring over her quilt, her only time of peace and solitude. By the gas lamp she stitched zigzags of rainbows, dapples of color, and splashes of hope, creating a cover considerable enough to warm a generation of Chatfields.
As the family traveled by horse and buckboard through dust and storm, homesteading parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, the blanket, carefully folded and boxed, traveled with her. I can’t imagine living through those times – through the harsh Rocky Mountain summers and winters, praying for better weather and a good crop, having to haul water, trying to keep things clean, making one-pot meals in a black cast-iron kettle on a wood stove. Constant mouths to feed. Snow to shovel. Wood to chop. Blizzards, buckboards, rattlesnakes, tornadoes, droughts – and babies. Twenty years of birthing, nursing, rocking, changing, and bathing crying babies.
Although Nellie wouldn’t have taken a million bucks for any one of her children, she wouldn’t have paid a nickel for another. Maybe my grandmother’s crazy quilt kept her sane.
In 1913, news came from California about golden opportunities: the weather was mild, land was cheap, and rice was the big new crop. Nellie persuaded Charles to sell their holdings and join the relatives out west. Charles rode into town to prepare for the move. Four days later, Nellie sent a ranch hand to look for him; he found Charles not only drunk, but he’d gambled away everything.
Nellie sold the wagon and horses, and with tickets in hand and nine children in tow, she boarded the train at Sanders, leaving Charles behind. Charlie, the oldest at 17, carried his pocket diary. Leo, two years younger, carried his case knife. Howard, a scrappy 14-year-old, carried a chip on his shoulder. Roy, not quite 11, stayed close to Nellie; he carried the food baskets and what was needed for the little ones. Her first girl, Nella May, a wisp of a child not yet 10 – had her hands full hanging on to Verda who was four, and tow-headed Arden who was two-and-a-half. Gordon, seven, carried his mother’s hatbox. Tiny three-month-old Ina was in Nellie’s arms.
Charles arrived in California three days behind his family, head bowed, hat in hand. Nellie may have taken her wayward husband back, but she refused to forgive him. She also refused to share her bed, although she must have once – their tenth child, my mother, was born two years later. They named her Noreen, but everyone called her Babe.
Catherine Sevenau is a local writer, humorist, and storyteller. She is currently working on her history and genealogy, which, along with her third book, Through Any Given Door, a Family Memoir, is available as a web series at Sevenau.com. A longtime Realtor and Owner/Broker at CENTURY 21 Wine Country. [email protected]