Sharing Life Experience

by Patricia D. Nanoff

I have sprinkled my grandmother’s handiwork throughout my house. Quilts that Grandma pieced together decorate my bed. Rugs that she hooked protect my bare feet during the coldest months of the year.

When I examine the pieces of fabric that make up these simple household items, I touch my grandmother’s values — her conviction that everything is useful. This is an uncommon belief in our current culture of disposable goods.

My grandmother entertained me for hours by describing what the various squares of cloth represented. This piece was a dress for the first day of school; another piece was a suit for going to work. I can still picture her, seated at her treadle sewing machine like a small mountain, Mt. Grandma.

Her wonderful stories also held a bleaker reality. My mother was the youngest of four daughters; every garment she wore was remade from her older sisters’ garments. A garment’s usefulness did not end when Mom outgrew it. Grandma resurrected it as part of a quilt or rug.

My grandfather lost his job at the beginning of the great depression. My mother told stories about winters when the family had nothing to eat but the tomatoes Grandma had canned.

My grandmother always insisted that no matter how little we had, someone else had less. If I had two of anything, I should give one away to someone who had none. This was a tough sell to a young girl who yearned for what she could not have.

My grandmother’s stories and lessons anchored my own bleak days as my mother’s alcoholism became more pronounced and our family fell on hard times. She offered her lessons with liberal doses of good rich stories, as tart as the watermelon-rind pickles she put up for a taste of summer in February. She encoded her lessons in her ever-present piecework.

As an adult I found myself working furiously to erase all evidence of these experiences. I wanted to construct a secure world, and I did this through the acquisition of the symbols of success. But I found these possessions never satisfied; they were simply good-luck charms purchased as a means to dim the past. Later on when my mother died, miraculously sober and healed, I inherited the quilts and the rugs and with these hand-me-downs came the memories.

The quilts and rugs trace the highs and lows, joys and heartaches of my world. I came to realize that these bits of handiwork were symbols of a powerful inheritance, one that I had been avoiding as though it were bad news. I discovered that my real inheritance was the rich and true understanding that every thing, every person, and every experience is useful. Nothing is wasted.

  • What gifts of spirit or values have you received as part of your family inheritance? From whom did you receive them?
  • What gifts of spirit have you passed on to the next generation?
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