Chapter 10: Crazy Quilt
1895 – 1915 • Nellie ~ My grandmother started her crazy quilt in 1895, the same year she started her family. Twenty years later, with the birth of my mother, Noreen Ellen “Babe” Chatfield, she completed them both.
During Nellie’s first period of confinement (it was improper for pregnant and nursing women to be seen in public) her quilted piece grew. Her fine hands stitched rivers of gold, roads of onyx, and fences of pearl, connecting salvaged pieces of fabric—of little girls petticoats, Sunday-go-to-meetin’ bests, Grandpa’s fine vest, a bit of a wedding dress, a narrow strip of a cambric shawl. Patches of stripes and checks were stitched and cross-stitched with a jigsaw of shapes and hues. She saved her sewing scraps in a flour sack until she had a quiet moment to stitch the patchwork of smooth velvets, shiny taffetas, and bumpy poplins into a multicolored canvas for her embroidered birds, butterflies, and sweet honeybees that winged across her quilted legacy.
Over the years her bridle paths of alabaster threads gradually defined a landscape: a random patchwork of cattle-ranches, rice fields and farmlands as if viewed through the keen eyes of a soaring red-tailed hawk. In her ankle-length skirts and her high-necked long-sleeved blouses, Nellie rocked in her chair, her children in bed, her round sewing frame on her lap—silently laboring over her quilt, her only time of peace and solitude. By the gas lamp she stitched zigzags of rainbow, 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, for water and a good crop, for relief from the grasshoppers and the mosquitoes and the incessant biting of horse flies. Praying for her children down with whooping cough, croup, and ague—supplicating, kneeling, genuflecting—praying to God for everyone but herself.
I can’t imagine having to haul water trying to keep things clean. Making one-pot meals in a black cast-iron kettle, the daily baking of buttermilk biscuits and apple cobblers and rough wheat breads, canning bushels of peaches and rows of corn to make it through another winter. Constant mouths to feed. Snow to shovel. Wood to chop. Animals dying, blizzards, buckboards, wagon trains, 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. With the passage of time, like the passage of her family, its threads—winding and wandering through the generations—have worn, frayed, and unraveled. But like her family, its colors have withstood, endured, and upheld the tapestry of life.
To be continued…
Catherine Sevenau is a writer, humorist, and storyteller living in Sonoma, California. The stories in this series are excerpts from her book, Through Any Given Door, a Family Memoir, available as a series at Sevenau.com. A longtime Realtor and Owner/Broker at CENTURY 21 Wine Country. [email protected]