At the end of our hall we had the typical linen closet. Five shelves. The lower four held sheets, towels and blankets for our family of seven; five daughters and my mother and father. The very top shelf held the quilts. These were handmade quilts handed down from my mother’s mother and her mother and so on. I don’t know who made them—a great-great aunt or grandmother; all I know is they were not meant for everyday use.
There was no history or story to accompany any of our family treasures. They were simply heirlooms that were from both sides of our family, stored in drawers, closets or chests. Neither of my parents is forthcoming with tales of their youth and those distant relatives. Our family tree resembles the Christmas tree Charlie Brown rescued. It’s lopsided and can hardly hold up the few ornaments hanging on its branches.
Those delicate, child-sized quilts were brought out for special occasions. They wrapped my sisters and me as we sat one in front of the other on our couch watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. If you were especially sick, one would be draped over you while you sipped on ginger ale (the “fancy soda”) and ate buttered toast and watched episodes of “As The World Turns” while my mother practiced her Jack LaLanne exercises. On Christmas day, curled up with my new book, a quilt covered my lap.
I loved the quilts. They were soft and carried our family’s weight. My mother gave them to my sisters when they had children of their own. It wasn’t until recently that I remembered these quilts of my childhood. They also told stories, as family tapestries have always done. Ours told one in particular, the tale of Little Black Sambo.
While the original story was about an East Indian boy, the squares on our quilt were decidedly more indicative of our roots in the American south. By the 1950’s, the depiction of the character in America had been deemed racist.
We were never told the story. I didn’t even know what the story was about. I did know his name, though. My roots wrapped themselves gently around my shoulders. And wow, does it carry weight. Weight I was unaware of, until now.
I grew up in New Mexico, miles and miles away from the southern states of my ancestors. I was raised without prejudice. It was alien to me. I remember my father being upset with things my maternal grandmother would say. Years later I would stand with my mouth hanging open as she spouted some racist southern saying. It seemed to get worse as she got older. I hear my grandmother’s voice come out of my mother’s mouth as she ages.
This is how I see the blanket that covers so many of the people, like my mother, who voted for Trump. It sits on the top shelf of their closet. It is part of their past and comforts them for unknown reasons. They don’t see the story, they only know it is part of them. It’s held together with other patterns and pieces of everyday life. It’s their history. It’s theirs to keep it and pass it down to each generation. Most have forgotten it was even there and don’t remember the original story. How do you take the quilts away? I don’t have that answer, but only try to weave new stories.
My younger sister has a couple of these quilts and will tell the story to her children. Making them aware of their responsibility to understand their history. These will be wrapped and put away. They will not comfort. They will remind us of the work we have yet to do.
©2016 J.L. Jasper All rights reserved.