The New York Times/ Style Section/ Quilting

Down Home

 

Chester Higgins Jr.

Each fall after harvest, my Grandmother Faith Smith and several of her friends turned to patching quilts and gossiping in her living room in New Brockton, Alabama. Outside, relegated to the porch, the men shelled peanuts.

It was a time of furious activity. First the men pushed the furniture to the fringes of my grandmother's living room and then in the center they set up a makeshift quilting frame, made from two wooden sawhorses on either end connected by two straight boards that completed the frame. All summer long the women had collected torn and tattered clothes, sheets and bedspreads in preparation for this moment.

With the frame in place, the women set to work stretching a lining for the quilt over it. But the fall ritual didn't officially begin until my Grandfather Warren Smith arrived with a sack of cotton in the back seat of his car and several bigger sacks filled with raw peanuts in the trunk. The cotton came from the local cotton gin and the peanuts from neighboring farmers, who needed help separating the nuts from the hulls for the next season's planting. The men worked outside under the covered porch, tossing shells and nuts into separate pails set out by the women. The living room was the women’s temple.

Shelling peanuts was tedious work, so I would dash inside the house whenever I could to see how things were coming along with the patching. I was still young enough – barely eight years old – to pass unchallenged into this sacred feminine domain. I loved observing the women, bent over the quilting frame with thimbles moving frenetically, needles. Watching the stitches become pieces, and the pieces become portions, was pure magic. Just the sight of the women working drove back the imminent winter cold.

After an afternoon of work, the men would roast a few extra peanuts for all of us to enjoy and the women would break out the homemade cakes they brought with them each day and make lemonade. We all sat together on the front porch, enjoying the last rays of sunshine.

Days would pass, until one day the women would take the quilt off the wooden form, admire it, and fold it up, and then begin anew. They always made as many quilts as there were women in the group – one for each. Weeks would go by before they finally finished all the quilts.

During one of my intrusions into the all-female bastion of the living room, my "open ears" – as my annoyed older cousin Elma Brock referred to them – caught a morsel of conversation about one of my great-uncles, a brother of my grandmother. He came from a family of eleven children. The first child, a girl, arrived around 1880, but apparently her father was disappointed. Nine years and seven girls later, he was still hoping for a boy. When the ninth child miraculously turned out to be a boy, his father was so excited he gave him all the names that he had planned to use for the sons who had been born daughters. My great-uncle's birth certificate reads Gabriel Guster Preston Brown Elijah John McGowan, but everyone called him John for short.

As soon as I heard this story, I committed all the names to memory. My good-natured uncle always laughed at my youthful singsong repetition of his long name.

One by one, the women in my grandmother's quilting session passed on. My grandmother and grandfather also died. My own mother preferred crocheting to quilting. It seemed like quilting died with them in my small Alabama town.

Decades later my research into African American arts rekindled these memories and I wanted to photograph quilting before the art disappeared. My mother was still living then and so I asked her to help me find some quilters. It wasn't easy, but finally she found some in a nearby rural Alabama hamlet. I went south in the fall – the patching season.

My visit with the group took me back to the comforting years of my youth. Once the women had placed me in my family history and connected me to people they knew, they brought me up on the latest news. And for a brief moment, I found home again.

 
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