beauty is as beauty does … by One o’the Nine

Here’s a re-issue of a story from One o’the Nine, first published here in Wintersong July 3, 2008. It’s not marked so I’m not absolutely certain which uncle was the author, but it was probably written by the one who went on to become a minister. It is one of the few posts that garnered not a single comment, which didn’t surprise me much, since I’d hesitated to publish initially it because it seemed more appropriate for a Sunday School Handout than for a blog. Lately I’ve been thinking about all the women in my life in light of the controversy and brouhaha brought forth recently by the Republican candidates for President–about a woman’s right to use contraceptives and make her own decisions concerning her body. I’m from the generation when an unwanted pregnancy resulted in limited options. A shot-gun marriage at best, a wire coat-hanger abortion at worst, or a variation of leaving town for a few months in order to carry the pregnancy to term, then making the decision of relinquishing all ties and giving the baby up for adoption by a stranger.

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I was visiting a man named Cleo Bailey in the hospital in Jacksonville a few days ago. Mr. Bailey had just had open heart surgery and was able to return to his private room. When I went in to visit with him he had just put away the FREE PRESS and greeted me with, “hey, I just read ONE OF THE NINE and I want you to know that is the first thing I read when I get the paper.”If I can bring just a moment of joy or happiness to someone’s life, then that is what I have always wanted to do. I have always wanted to make people happy.

I remember once when I was a boy only about our or five years old. We were in a great depression, and as children we did not see many pretty things. There was not even any flowers growing in our yard to bring beauty. There was no grass, no flowers, only a naked yard with dirt and sand that had to raked or swept clean.

One day as a small boy I was playing by a ditch that had lots of mud in the bottom of it. There in the ditch I saw a piece of cloth that someone had thrown away. It was perhaps ten inches square, and on the piece of cloth was [printed] the most beautiful red rose that I had ever seen. I picked up the cloth that was no more than a filthy rag someone had thrown away, and although it had lots of mud and dirt on it, to me it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

I ran to Mama and in my childish way said, “Mama look! Ain’t this pretty?

Mama took the old piece of dirty cloth and said, “Can I have this pretty cloth?”

I was very excited and assured her that I had brought it just for her, and when I saw it brought her happiness it made me twice as happy. I did not know what my mother was going to do with that piece of cloth with the bed rose on it.

About a week or two after I had given it to her she called me in to show me something, and I can assure you I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life than what she showed me that day. You see, Mama had taken the old filthy rag and washed all the mud and dirt off of it and then she had sewed it to lots of other small pieces of cloth and made a quilt. I said, “Mama, this will always be my quilt. It has my piece of cloth in it.”

Then Mama took me and told me a Bible story that was more beautiful than the quilt. She said, “All of us are like that ole dirty piece of cloth you gave to me, but Jesus took us and washed us clean in his own blood, and then he kind of sewed us together. Not as a quilt, but as a beautiful church, and we will always belong to him, just as this quilt will always belong to you.

The day I gave Mama that dirty old cloth I thought I had brought happiness to her, but I found it brought happiness to myself. It still works that way. When I try to bring happiness to someone else, it always bring more to me.

Postscript: I was very fortunate to have my grandmother in my life for 23 years. She was such a gentle soul; I never heard her say anything bad about anybody; it was from her I inherited my love of reading. She remembered my birthday, gave me small presents from time to time–one of them being the plastic harmonica that led to my discovery that I could actually play the thing! But best of all I remember our chats after school as I sat swinging in the porch swing while she sat with a book in hand in a rocking chair nearby. Unfortunately I will chastise myself to my dying day that I became a typical self-centered teenager and visits were few. After I moved away from the farm with my parents when I was 15, I could probably count with the fingers on one hand the times I visited her. I like to remember her now as she looked all those years ago, sitting in that rocking chair by the swing on the front porch. She’s about half way to the end of “The Legend of the Seventh Virgin,” by Victoria Holt. From the time she died to this very day, that book has sat on my library shelf. And–because she hadn’t had time to–I finished reading it for her. Should we ever meet again this side of Heaven as Sister Margie promised, I’ll tell her how it ended. 

When a Quilt is More Than a Quilt

I have a collection of homemade quilts that I keep in a glass-front cabinet. Other than using them as decorative throws, I rarely use them because they don’t fit my queen- and king-sized beds. They fit only the double beds of their day. Every now and then I begin to think it’s time to clean out some of the debris from years ago. It’s time to move on. But not the quilts! Never the quilts.

Usually once a month when I was a child, from late fall through winter, after the farm crops harvested and disposed, the house scrubbed clean and we kids were all off to school, Mama went to quilting bees. My olders siblings usually went home after school to attend to chores and enjoy the rare hometime without adults. I could either go home with them, or I could join her at her quilting bee by riding whichever school bus passed the home of the hostess that month. Most of the time I chose to go to the quilting bees, and indeed looked forward to those outings.

In Mrs. Polhill’s house there was a piano in the front parlour. As long as I “played” quietly, she allowed me to use it. Once her granddaughter from the city was there, and after my initial shyness wore off, she taught me little tunes to play. Before anything, however, I always went to the kitchen to chose a snack of whatever I wanted to eat from the leftovers on a big, covered table there. Always there was an array of  cakes and pies, as well as other foods from the traditional potluck the women brought, and always there was home brewed sweet tea in giant-sized pickle jars.
One of my favorite things to do, however, was to sneak underneath the quilt that was stretched onto a fabric-edged wooden frame hanging from the ceiling by strategically placed hooks. Quilting began at the squares around the edges, then two of the side frames were rolled towards each other until the middle was reached, and all the squares were finished one by one. As a new quilt was begun, there was quite a space left beneath for a child to play.
Sometimes, because of my “younger” eyes, I was called on to thread their quilting needles, while they quilted and shared gossip and jokes that I didn’t understand. I’d busy myself picking up wooden thread spools and other things they dropped. Sometimes I’d find a stray fly swatter and I’d swat a few flies, and as they progressed, they soon forgot I was there, and I was privy to raunchy jokes everybody  would laugh at. Even Mama, so serious and solemn most of the time, was a little carefree surrounded by all her quilting friends.  

The ladies would leave one by one near the end of the day, in time to go home to prepare supper for their families, but not before deciding who had enough quilt tops done and would be ready to host the next quilting bee. The hostess would be the proud owner of 3 or 4 new quilts that seemed to get fancier and more color-coordinated each year. 
The ladies are as clear in my mind today as ever, and it’s hard to believe that all are gone now — Miz Clarinda Pope, who died in 2000 after reaching the ripe old age of 100, Miz Lizzie Rump, Miss Myrtice Flanagan. They were good Christian women, pillars of their community, but they showed a little different side of themselves when they were there in those rooms full of friends and quilts, sides I often wonder if their husbands and families ever saw. It’s just not in me to move on from the memories–more numerous than the pies and cakes, the jars of sweet tea on that covered table, and even the naughty jokes I eavesdropped on during those bygone days–of women just being themselves and not worrying about what others were thinking.