Bella and the Quilt of Many Colors
After lunch, Mama bundled Bella into her new pink coat and patent leather boots. Bella’s thick curly hair stuck out of two ponytails. “If we’re going to visit Grandma today, we need to hurry,” Mama announced, looking down at her. Bella’s bright hazel eyes stared roundly at the dark patches on Mama’s knees.
“Why don’t you grab your favorite doll, so you won’t get bored? We’ve an important family meeting today.”
Arriving at grandma’s squat white house, Mama opened the front door. Noise from the television greeted them. Mama’s youngest brother, Peanut, liked to watch cartoons on a Saturday morning, and Bella joined him. Eventually, Grandma made her way from her bedroom. Mama stood up and hugged her mother. Afterwards, Peanut turned the television program off, much to Bella’s dismay. Abruptly, Aunt Prudy shooed Bella from the room, “Grown folks need to talk business now. Find someplace to be.”
Mama smiling, gave her a wink, “Yes, Bella, why don’t you play with the doll you brought?”
Smirking, her teenaged uncle chimed in, “Yeah, this ain’t meant for little ears.”
Bella muttered under her breath, “You’re not grown either. You don’t have business, just affairs. That’s why they call you, ‘Peanut’!”
Grown folks’ business kept the adults occupied, and her feet led her into uncharted territory: Grandma’s room. The smell of the room was slightly musty, filled with oldness that kept the newness shut out. It was almost dark inside with the windows closed tight.
Bella had been warned about going into her grandma’s room, but today, she could not resist the bees which kept swarming into her thoughts. She barely opened the door wide enough to slip through without a creak.
Grandma’s neatly-made bed was covered with a quilt of many colors and shapes. A rocking chair sat by itself in the corner. Bella went and sat in it, causing its bottom to groan up and down like a sad tune- its mesmerizing motion lulling her soul. She thought she heard footsteps. At once, she quickly hopped out of the rocker in case someone was coming.
Someone did come, Uncle Shep.
“Girl, what you doing in your grandma’s bedroom? You best come out of there this instant!”
Suddenly, Mama laid a hand on her brother’s shoulder. “I’ll speak with Bella just now.”
“Come here Baby-Dear.”
Bella came slowly to her mother who cupped her face and placed her hands gently along her cheek.
“What caught your attention, Baby-Dear?”
“The quilt on grandma’s bed. It’s so colorful.”
The quilt had dark deep reds, tans, greys, gold, and even black, blue, and purple. Some squares were soft; some rough.
“Well, quilts tell stories. A block could be from an old shirt, scraps of cloth from here or there. Matters not. It’s the story that counts, makes up the whole. This quilt tells our family’s story from a long time ago, over many years, or generations.”
Mama sat solidly down in the corner rocker. “In fact, Bella, bring me that quilt.”
Bella pulled the large blanket from its four-cornered hold. Pleased, she settled herself in Mama’s warm ample lap.
“See, this piece of the quilt was made from a cotton sack. Many a day, when I was just your age, I would drag a bag down rows and rows of cotton. Up early in the morning while the sun was peeping through the clouds. Drink some clabbered milk and eat some cornbread,” she explained, smoothing Bella’s pigtails down.
“Afterwards, I would rouse my brothers and sisters- seven in all. The sky was lavender in the early dawn. The air was fresh and ripe as a peach. You could taste it on your tongue. And the fields were like crops of snowflakes, just not soft like it.”
Wide-eyed, Bella exclaimed, “I’ve never even seen snow.” Mama smiled a split-toothed grin.
“We’d start down one row- each of us with a bag tied around our necks. Only the baby, Uncle Kenneth, didn’t work. Our fingers got hard and callused as the thorns of the cotton pricked us.”
“Roses have thorns that hurt too?”
“We would hire out as a family to pick cotton at forty cents a pound. We got on our knees, searching for any cotton that may have fallen to the ground. We sang a made-up song: ‘Pile it heavy; go down deep. Search real good; then, we can eat.’ Within a week, we could pick a bale of cotton that weighed almost a thousand pounds.”
“Is that why your knees are so dark?”
Mama just nodded.
“Now, this small grey piece came from the sling that held the last baby who saw a cotton field, and this patch is from Great Uncle Roosevelt’s army uniform. He died before you were born.”
“Was he a soldier?”
With a gleam in her eye, Mama explained, “You know what? Let’s take this quilt to the front room, so the rest of the family can help me to tell this story.”
Once there, Mama called out, “Family, I was telling Bella about Great Uncle Roosevelt’s fighting during World War II, but I believe she’ll understand the quilt’s story better with your help.”
Uncle Shep, dark and solid like a tank, took up center stage, for he was an army man: “Black men signed up in droves, ready to defend the country. Those like your great uncle found the Europeans were more accepting of African-Americans. We called Frenchmen and Englishmen brothers.
Color disappears in war. Great Uncle Roosevelt returned to Texas expecting opportunities, but few came. Luckily, the GI Bill, a program to help men who fought in the war, allowed him to study. He was the first of our family to go to college and escape the dead-end many found in small towns in the south.”
Standing up, Aunt Rose shared, “Now, this gold piece is from your mother’s valedictorian’s gown.”
Wide-eyed, Bella asked, “What’s a valediction?”
“No, Baby-Dear. Valedictorian. It is the person who does the best in high school,” Mama explained.
“I want to be a valedictorian one day,” Bella proclaimed.
“You can be anything you set your mind to be,” Mama exclaimed, hugging her close.
Not to be outdone, Uncle Peanut threw out, “This piece is from Cousin Connie Rae’s competition dress. Did you know she wanted to be an opera singer? Had a clear voice like a fishing line that could swim high and true.”
“It sure is shiny and blue,” Bella added, touching the strip of fabric.
“She could’ve been the next Leontyne Price,” Aunt Rosie confided.
“Now, this purple piece is from my prom dress. Boy, I danced the night away, and I married that man,” Aunt Prudy proclaimed. Without warning, she began to boogie across the floor. In an instant, she grabbed her back and sat down crookedly. This caused Peanut and Bella to chuckle, but Bella had the good sense to hide her laughter behind her hands.
Grandma’s knees complained as she rose. Hard to believe that this small stooped body had borne seven children and carried her family this far. Her bony fingers grasped the edge of the quilt.
“Now, this piece came from a white lady I used to clean for. She would give me the cast-offs she didn’t want anymore.”
Grandma spoke in a surprisingly strong voice: “I learned not to be too proud. To take anything I was given. If I took the bad, finally I would get something good. This piece is from the first dress she gave me. Wasn’t fit for nothing but the rag pile. Yet and still, I took and washed it clean like I did with that woman’s own clothes. I washed the smell out, pressed and ironed it well. Next, I took my needle and repaired the hemline. It made your aunties a pretty dress for a short spell.”
Smoothing Mama’s shiny hair, Bella asked, “Why don’t you make a quilt for us?”
All the grown folks laughed, even Peanut.
Before Mama could answer, Bella supplied a list of things they could use.
“Slow down, Baby-Dear. A quilt is hard work and takes time,” she explained chuckling.
“But you can do anything,” Bella offered.
Mama just smiled.
Bella’s eyes alighted once more on the quilt.
“This quilt is a record of our family. It tells our family story, but just not with words!”
Mama beamed, “When did you get so smart?”
“I am a good listener. What is the black piece from?”
“We cut a piece from the pocket of grandfather’s suit. He got married and buried in that suit. Every night, a small piece of him stays close by your grandma’s side.”
The stars began winking when all the telling of that quilt was done. Bella’s eyelids grew heavy. Still, she tightly gripped the quilt as sleep took her. Images of family gone by flitted in her dreams. Quilts teach the best kind of history lesson- the family kind. They remember. With frayed thread, in lines, crooked and straight, they recollect the patchwork of our lives.