My mom has been organizing my childhood home in Norway. This means that every time I see her I get a new box of the old stuff I left behind. Perfectly preserved relics of the last 20 years. A crate of junk from my university radio job yielded near-useless DAT tapes and a binder full of old promotional posters. If nostalgia is a drug, then I was as high as a kite. When I was home for Christmas this past year she decided that it was time for me to take The Quilt. I think that it was a win-win for her because she needed the space, and priceless family heirlooms make for great holiday gifts. It’s just that a bridal quilt was kind of a loaded thing to receive mere weeks after my live in boyfriend broke up with me. Over the phone. Life is funny like that sometimes. I decided to leave The Quilt in Norway for “safe keeping” until I had “the space”.
If you aren’t familiar with the tradition of bridal quilts, then congratulations, you are a modern person who probably didn’t grow up around many immigrants and/or farm folk. Also, you’re probably a man. Bridal quilts were traditionally stitched, pieced and quilted together by a group of women (think “sewing circle”) and presented to one of its members on the occasion of her marriage. Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser had a bit to say about this (and so, so much more) in their “The Feminist Voice: Strategies of Coding in Folklore and Literature” back in 1987. It’s a great read, and a fun way to learn new big words to impress your friends with next time you’re at The Local Watering Hole. Also, I hear that feminism is really on trend, so, bonus.
I always knew about my bridal quilt. My babcia (Polish for “grandmother”) was an avid quilter. She sewed everything by hand. Some of my first memories were of her sitting in her chair by a window that overlooked Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, stitching endlessly while half-watching old episodes of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The lore was that, someday when I was all grown up, I would receive my bridal quilt on my wedding day. I of course filed this information away and didn’t reference it again until adulthood. I never dreamed about my wedding the way I’m told that other girls did (or are supposed to, culturally, I guess). I was more interested in going off by myself and reading in the woods, and fantasizing about a future where I might finally get the mutant powers I so rightfully deserved. I was hoping for clairvoyance, but invisibility seemed a lot more reasonable. Marriage just seemed… far away. For old people. Probably not something I was ever going to do.
My babcia met my dzadek (Polish for “grandfather” – see? You’re like 85% of the way to knowing how to speak the language of my people) at a USO dance during WWII. She was a factory worker (yeah, that’s right, babcia was a Rosie) and he was a soldier. The young women were only supposed to dance with each soldier once, but the story goes that it was love at first sight for Betty and Walter, so rules were bent, and there’s an “ever after” that resulted in my mom, uncles, and an eventual move to some land purchased from the Shakers a long time before I was born.
When I was little, my babcia used to tell me that the two most important things I could do were to get an education (because she did), and to marry a rich man (because she didn’t). I doubt that she had notions of me going to Wellesley and then moving to the Barbizon Hotel (which is good, because my SATs were PATHETIC), but I also know that she wasn’t kidding. There is a time honored tradition of grandmothers imparting knowledge onto their granddaughters, and this is what I got. So, I was a feminist by fifth grade. Well done, Betty.
My father came to visit me in Portland this past weekend. The night before he came to town, I called home and told my mother to send the Quilt (my quilt) with him. Lately I’ve had more space in my life for priceless family heirlooms, and the expectations of dead relatives aren’t feeling quite so heavy now that I’m not grieving anymore.
My quilt is on my bed now. I can’t help but wonder about the life my babcia thought that I might have. I’m sure that she figured I’d be married by now, and that marriage and kids would be priorities for me. They aren’t – to be honest, I can’t realistically see a future where I could afford children. I make $10.50 hourly, and I barely work full time. I can pay rent and bills, and thank goodness I don’t have a car because I’d probably have to choose between gas and food. But I got to make that decision for myself. I want to be clear about this: I did not CHOOSE to be in the financial position I’m in. I DID choose to pursue a degree in English. I DID leave a stable job in my field to move back to Maine to be closer to my family. I didn’t think that it would be this bad for this long – none of us did. I think that back in babcia’s day many young women married for stability, or out of necessity. THAT was the option. I GET to be a starving artist, for better or worse.
I wonder if she would be proud of me. I wonder if she’d be envious of the freedoms and agency that I have as a woman in the 21st Century. I wonder if she’d be baffled by how many things haven’t changed. I wonder if she’d be upset that my mom eschewed tradition in favor of more space, and because she wanted to give me something beautiful for my home.
What I want my babcia to know, wherever she is, is that my Quilt does bring me joy. That everyone who sees it up close marvels at the intricate details, and is baffled by her near superhuman talent. It is a rare thing now, a perfectly preserved relic from a not so long ago time when women gave each other hopes and dreams stitched into fabric and prayed that this would be enough to protect them from the trials of an unknown and potentially unkind future.