1/ The Name of the Quilt
Lafayette Orange Peel started it. It was Ramona’s first visit to our quilt group, and she wanted to know how the patchwork pattern called Lafayette Orange Peel got its name.
Ramona is something unusual—one of the first women lawyers in our state—and she asks her fair share of questions. But nicely. I met her at a coffee for the new Methodist minister. Now we were seated around Karen’s quilting frame.
Without skipping a stitch of their feathered circles, Arden and Karen each took a stab at it. I pride myself on being the definitive font of all quilt knowledge, so after they’d stumbled around a bit I pronounced that Lafayette Orange Peel commemorates a fête given here in America for French general Lafayette during the Revolution, and a young lady taking away a souvenir orange, which she peeled.
Eye-rolling and skeptical mutterings from the other two, naturally. “That’s interesting,” Ramona said, tapping the work under our hands. “And this?” We had Karen’s gorgeous Lone Star (in pinks and blues) on the frame, and had shown Ramona how to quilt. She was slow but meticulous—little tiny stitches.
Karen had been a bit nervous about letting a novice work on her quilt but, as I reminded her, you can always pick out bad work later. Besides, anyone’s quilting would be better than Sheila’s quilting; thank heaven she hardly ever shows up any more. Sheila has an unceasing cold, and hacks and sputters and blows her nose damply over your masterpiece, so that a final rinse through a double dose of Lysol definitely seems indicated before you can decently consider placing your latest creation on the bed of anyone whose health and safety you value.
But Ramona was very good for a beginner. I watched as her neatly manicured fingers carefully, carefully rocked her needle through a section of the border.
“Me, too,” I said. It was nice to be talking about something besides politics for a change. I was tired of re-hashing the Presidential Campaign of 1956 and the gloomy prognostications that Dwight Eisenhower was going to trounce Adlai Stevenson—for the second time.
“Well,” I said, “every quilt patch has a name. Sometimes the names are geographic or historical references. Like Missouri Puzzle or 54-40 or Fight. Sometimes they refer to a person, like Little Giant, the nickname for Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln’s senatorial opponent in 1858. Sometimes the design itself suggests the name, like Rail Fence or Storm at Sea. Or biblical references, like Walls of Jericho or Rose of Sharon or Jacob’s Ladder. People’s names: Tail of Benjamin’s Kite, Sunbonnet Sue.”
She seemed to be following this.
“It’s more complicated than it should be, because one patchwork design can have several names. It’s almost as if people used a pattern in Ohio, carried it out west with them, and renamed it in honor of settling in Idaho, for example. Though I can’t think of a block
named for Idaho. . . .”
I was dropping chocolate chips all over Karen’s carpet, which is, fortunately, deep blue. Ramona wasn’t eating cookies, which may account for how she stays so outrageously slim.
“Now the Log Cabin name,” I continued, “is a bit different. You’ve probably guessed it’s a very historic pattern, and there are actually dozens of different blocks all with that same name. I’ve got a whole book that’s only Log Cabin patterns. I’ll bring it sometime.”
“I’d like to see it,” she said.
Karen tiptoed down the hallway to make sure her two young children were sleeping soundly, then returned and called us back to the quilting frame. She had hopes of finishing the quilt in her lifetime.
Once we’d gotten ourselves settled, Ramona asked me more. She’s soft-spoken and seems a bit shy—kind of peers at you from under a shingle of smooth dark hair. Certainly it didn’t feel like I was being crossexamined.
Arden and Karen, meanwhile, were discussing the presidential elections. Arden was one of those who was sure Eisenhower was going to beat Stevenson. As a
good Democrat I hated to admit it, but I had a queasy feeling she was right. Among other things, Stevenson had been photographed recently with a hole in the sole of his shoe, and that hole had been the subject of considerable fun-making in the newspapers. Hard to imagine a day when our nation will be seized by a holey clothing fad.
“One of my favorite things,” I said, after trimming off a thread, “is to tell a story using the names of quilt blocks. For my in-laws’ thirtieth wedding anniversary, I made a wall hanging five blocks across by three down. As you read it from left to right, it tells the story of their life
together. The abridged story, anyway.”
Even though I’m now divorced, I’m still on good terms with my former in-laws, and I love talking about their Anniversary Quilt. Arden and Karen moved on to recent reproductive dramas in Arden’s fish tank. Karen and Arden knew the story of the Anniversary Quilt. Had quilted on it, in fact. I’d used turquoise calicos to match my mother-in-law’s refrigerator and stove, and I, at least,
had liked it.
“The first block of the anniversary quilt,” I said, “is Kentucky Chain, because my father-in-law was born in
Kentucky. Then Dutch Rose: her ancestors were Dutch. They met in Michigan, so next comes a block called Michigan Star.”
Here I paused for dramatic effect. “Here’s where a little imagination was required. When my in-laws first met, she was studying nursing, so I included a block called Red Cross—as a nurse myself I know several blocks by that name. But my father-in-law was studying physics. In fact, his field of specialization was ceramic physics: glass, porcelain, and the ceramic insulators on spark plugs.”
Ramona’s brow furrowed; she could see I’d been faced with a terrific quilt-making obstacle in trying to find a quilt block with a name related to physics.
“So what did you do? Take out the Red Cross?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I don’t give up that easily! First, I researched physics vocabulary. I can say unequivocally there are no patchwork patterns named Spectrum, E=mc2, Newton’s First Law—or anything even close.
“Then I read about ceramics and pottery-making for a while, thinking I’d cobble together my own design— name it something like Fine Bone China or Hot Day at the Kiln. And then I discovered,” I said with a triumphant flourish of my arm that knocked down the gooseneck lamp leaning over my shoulder, “a traditional, real block called Broken Dishes!”
She looked blank.
“You know. Ceramics? Porcelain? Broken Dishes?”
She got it. “Clever,” she said.
* * * * *
The following week we met again at Karen’s. When I peered at last week’s work I noticed Karen had left in Ramona’s stitches and picked out mine. Every once in a while Karen has an unfortunate flare-up of perfectionism.Ramona arrived carrying a large bundle. “Do you have time to look at something?” she said. We did, of course.
She laid it on the floor. We got down on our hands and knees and cautiously helped her open it up. It was an old, old quilt.
Musty—thank goodness Sheila of the Perpetual Kleenex wasn’t there. Fragile. Threadbare in some places and rotten right through to the batt in others. Predominantly deep blue and ivory, with an errant pink here and there. Hard to tell if that pink started life as pink or had faded from something else.
We love old quilts. For several minutes we knelt silently and just admired. Arden patted the corner. Karen smoothed the edge. I peered at the closest stitches. Finally, we got up.
“Tell us about this,” Karen said.
“It was made by my Great Aunt Lucy, my grandmother’s older sister. Aunt Lucy gave this to Grandma on her—Lucy’s—deathbed. Literally. As Grandma tells it, the day Aunt Lucy died she couldn’t talk, but moaned and babbled fitfully. Finally Grandma understood that Lucy wanted Grandma to take the quilt right off the bed, which didn’t seem right, but Grandma did it anyway. And Lucy died a few minutes later.”
“Interesting,” I said, not really meaning it.
“Afterward there was a quarrel over the quilt. Lucy’s other sister demanded it be given to her. But Grandma, who’s usually a marshmallow and gives in to everyone, was resolute: the quilt was hers now. And when I told Grandma I’m doing a little quilting, she was delighted and said, ʻI’d be so happy to give you your Great Aunt Lucy’s Last Quilt.'”
Karen said reverently, “Your grandmother wanted to find someone who would appreciate what a treasure this is.”
“Beautiful,” said Arden.
“So what should I do with this?” Ramona asked. “Wash it, I suppose? It’s terribly dirty.”
The three of us gasped in simultaneous horror, and I charged in with my authoritative opinion. “A quilt this old, with so many damaged spots, would certainly disintegrate if you washed it!”
Ramona looked like we’d slapped her, and I felt guilty for having jumped all over her. Perhaps I could redeem the situation with my own tale of personal quilt tragedy.
“Don’t feel bad about your suggestion,” I said. “It’s the logical-sounding thing to do. When I was married, my mother gave us a gorgeous Double Wedding Ring that had been wedding present to her twenty-five years before. At the time, I didn’t know anything about old quilts, so I gleefully tossed it in my brand new washer— no old tub and wringer for me! I was picking Q-Tip-sized pieces of that poor quilt—may it rest in peace—out of my Maytag for days. I guess,” I said, sighing from the burden of all the quilting sins I’ve committed in my lifetime, “if you learn from your mistakes, I’ve probably learned the most.”
“Oh, no more than the rest of us,” Arden said kindly. “Remember the forest green border I forgot to pre-shrink?”
I did remember. It wasn’t that it shrank later, actually. It was that it bled a horrid bile color into the rest of the quilt, turning her appliquéd tangerine dahlias into, well, lumps of manure is the kindest way to describe them.
“So what should I do?” Ramona asked. This was the cue for a friendly argument between Karen, of the Bring-It-Out-Only-on-Special-Occasions School, and Arden, whose motto is “If you haven’t used it for five years, toss it.” (Arden is very practical and turned her wedding dress into curtains for her bathroom.)
So we gave Ramona a variety of conflicting suggestions she might pursue, depending on whether or not she was willing to take up a life dedicated to museum preservation standards. We, the advice-givers, could agree on one thing: “Wrap it in a clean sheet and let it breathe.”
We got back down on our knees and began folding up the quilt, picking new places for the creases to give the old lines a rest. “Oh,” said Ramona. “I forgot to ask. What’s the name of my quilt?”
That took me aback. Me, the self-appointed Quilt Nomenclature Queen. I hadn’t the foggiest. Neither did Arden or Karen. While we finished the folding, we hemmed and hawed a bit. Someone’s knees cracked as we stood up.
“One of the Ohio Stars?” Karen ventured.
“Not one I recognize,” said Arden.
Karen has a few quilting books. I rummaged though her bookshelf, located her copy of 100 Quilt Patterns, and leafed through the “Stars” section. 100 Quilt Patterns is not the definitive resource, but it pictures one hundred common patterns, and Ramona’s quilt certainly wasn’t a common Ohio Star, Texas Star or Missouri Star.
Mildly frustrated, we took our places at the quilting frame, and resumed where we’d left off the week before. This quilt was for Karen’s niece, graduating from Rice University in Texas—hence the Lone Star pattern.
Still, as I told Ramona when I dropped by her bungalow later that week, it bothered me I couldn’t put a name to her quilt. I’d been poring over my own references, including my favorite, 1001 Quilt Blocks, when I suddenly realized I couldn’t remember exactly what her quilt looked like. Could I take another peek?
We spread it out on her dining room table. I searched the corners and borders for embroidered initials, a signature, an inscription or a date. Nothing. Then I turned my attention to the quilting. Under the bright dining room light it was easy to see that Great Aunt Lucy was failing when she finished this quilt. The stitches were close and uniform at the center, where she’d begun, but were straggly and irregular and even missed spots as she’d moved toward the edges. The quilted feathered circle near one corner looked more like a feathered pear.
“Oh my,” I sighed. There’s something touching about an old quilt. Lucy was long gone, but she’d left a lovely memorial—and a glimpse of an unhappy ending. Thinking of the last, uneven stitches, I asked, “Was she sick for a spell?”
“Yes. The illness I told you about.”
“Didn’t I tell you? Great Aunt Lucy developed some sort of slow, wasting illness and died. She was quite young.”
This was news. I’d pictured Aunt Lucy as ancient and decrepit, sitting in her rocking chair, quilting away her final hours.
Ramona ran her hand over the edge of the quilt. “Great Aunt Lucy and her husband lived in a sod house somewhere on the Kansas plains. With their two children and her sister, my other great aunt. My Grandma went out to visit and found Lucy terribly ill. Lucy died soon afterward, giving Grandma the quilt just moments before she died.”
Sod houses. I knew about them. Some of those early settlers traveled west and, while trying to establish their farms, built themselves horrid, dank hovels of the only building material available in abundance: pieces of sod, stacked to make walls.
I’d read the journal of one of those women who lived in a sod house. She’d led the dreariest, most miserable life, smack dab in the middle of nowhere, her babies dying one after another, with no end in sight to the dreariness or the misery or the dying. In her journal, that woman wrote, “Here on the prairie, this wintery desert, the quilt I make is the only color in my life. It keeps me from going mad.”
I wondered. “Did Great Aunt Lucy keep a journal or diary? It would be fascinating.”
She shrugged. “I’m not even sure she could read or write. Everything I know about her I learned from Grandma.”
There was a story here; I could feel it. I had to meet Ramona’s grandma.
“It was dreadful,” Grandma said. She looked like a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover: tiny, pink, ninety-ish and as sharp as one of my needles. We were sitting at her kitchen table covered with yellow checked oilcloth. She’d set out a plate of stale graham crackers; only I was eating them. “In those days people left the East to homestead, and most times never came back. I was young and adventuresome—they called me wild—and I took off on my own to see Lucy.
“I was so upset by what I saw! A dreadful way to live! A worse way to die! There weren’t any of these wonder medicines we have now, like penicillin. A doctor from miles away looked in, but he was no use. And by the time I arrived it was far, far too late. Lucy just grew grayer and thinner and more wasted after I got there, and soon after that, she passed on.”
I tried to think of something to make the picture less bleak. “Your other sister was there, though. I bet she cheered Lucy up.”
Grandma’s lips drew into a tight knot.
Ramona, filling in the blank, said, “Grandma and Aunt Ann were never on good terms. And after Lucy died, Ann married Lucy’s husband.” “Ann?” I hadn’t heard about anybody named Ann before.
“There were three of us,” Grandma explained. “Lucy, Ann and me. I was the baby of the family. Ann nursed Lucy through her illness, fixed her meals, cleaned up as best she could. You know—the unpleasantness. But I didn’t approve of Ann’s unkindness to the children, and I did NOT approve of them marrying so soon after our sister’s passing.” Her dentures clacked emphatically. “Ann wasn’t, well, a happy person. Had dreadful notions.” Her hands shook as she passed them over the folds of her skirt.
I was wondering how you defined unpleasantness when you lived in a sod house. Buffalo in the kitchen? Freezing temperatures and heat waves? Starvation? TB? Diarrhea? Typhoid and other gastrointestinal infections—”the nasties,” one of my nursing professors used to call them—were everywhere. Though with typhoid, cholera, salmonella and primitive sanitation, the chances were excellent the others would have been sick to some degree, too. I asked.
“No,” she said, “only Lucy was sick. Vomiting, diarrhea. She could hardly even swallow. Her throat was so tight she could barely eat the broth Ann made her. Poor, poor thing.” She shook her head sadly.
Ramona was pursuing a different tack. “You mentioned ‘Ann’s notions,’ Grandma. Such as?”
Grandma looked pretty severe for someone her granddaughter had described as “a marshmallow.” “She wouldn’t stop wearing that red dress!”
“Red dress?” Ramona and I said together.
“It was a saloonkeeper’s dress,” she said. “A barmaid’s dress. Scarlet with black fringe and jet beads, cut low in front.” Here she patted her chest, indicating where the fringe and beads would have been. “A dress no decent woman would wear! And Ann washed in it and cooked in it and slept in it until Lucy died. And the day Lucy died, Ann burned it.” She rose painfully from the table.
“Do I have this right?” I said, my mouth full of crackers. “Your sister Ann wore this inappropriate dress while she kept house? And the day Lucy dies, Ann burns the dress?
Ann. Ann. Something about Ann.
“Grandma,” I said, experiencing an unusual lapse in my ordinarily impeccable manners, and swallowing hard to get rid of the crackers, “was Ann out there with Lucy and her husband for a long time?”
“Went with them to Kansas, actually. Not a wise choice—there’d always been strife between my sisters. It was a year later that Lucy died.”
I bet there was strife: there’s actually a quilt pattern named Kansas Trouble. If there hadn’t been discord before the westward trek, there surely would be after. Two women, one man, children, chickens, maybe pigs or goats, cooped up in their no-room hovel. Greased paper windows. No indoor plumbing. No privacy. And Lucy had fallen ill, fatally ill as it turned out. I had one further thought. . . .
In those days it was a popular custom to collect locks of the dead person’s hair and weave them into a “mourning wreath” to display in the front parlor, or into braids for “mourning jewelry.” I have a gold-filled mourning brooch I never wear; it contains some of my great grandmother’s beautiful white hair. The brooch itself is little oval box with a clasp on the back, and you can see a minute braid through a tiny glass window in the front. Mourning jewelry was one of those bizarre things the Victorians did.
I asked: did anyone make jewelry from Lucy’s hair after she died?
“Why, yes,” Grandma said, and went upstairs. After a bit she returned with a tattered necklace box. She took off the top, lifted a sheet of tissue paper, and held it out for us to see. Inside were a heavy gold mourning ring and an intricately woven thing of chestnut brown hair.
“I don’t know why I keep these,” Grandma said.
“What is this?” I said, pointing to the woven hair. It was about six inches long and an inch wide and as thin as a sheet of paper. Several clumps of hair had broken off the object, whatever it was, and were hiding in the folds of the tissue paper.
“It’s a bookmark,” said Grandma, looking unhappy. “Ann made a bookmark of Lucy’s hair. We sometimes did that in those days.” Ramona and I must have looked shocked. “Please take these, Ramona, and do something respectful with them. I don’t want them any more.”
The idea of making bookmarks of dead relatives’ hair was a bit unsettling, but it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for a theory I’d been hatching.
“That’s great,” I told Ramona as we walked down Grandma’s front steps. “Now we have some evidence.”
“Evidence?” Ramona gaped at me. For a lawyer, she was surprisingly unfamiliar with the word.
“Hmmm,” I said, as we climbed into my rickety gray Studebaker. “I’ve remembered the name of your quilt. My idea may be farfetched,” I said, sure I was actually on the brink of deductive genius, “but listen to this.” I explained it to her as we roared the short distance to State College.
“Your great aunts go out west. One man and two women, and one of them is mentally unstable, if the business with the tarty red dress is any indication. Now listen to this. Ann poisons Lucy! Several poisons have symptoms resembling the diseases that were so common then. Diarrhea, vomiting and throat constriction, for example, are all symptoms of arsenic poisoning.”
Ramona looked stunned.
“Anyway,” I said, veering a bit close to a fire hydrant, “Lucy correctly guesses the cause of her illness—that she’s being poisoned—but what can she do? Maybe she believes her husband’s in love with Ann. No matter what she knows, how can she escape? Who can she tell?”
“Ah,” said Ramona. “That’s why you asked about the lock of hair. Can’t some poisons can be detected in the hair?”
“Right, in the hair and nails for starters, especially when they’re administered over a long enough period of time. So Lucy is dying, and has been dying for a while when your grandma arrives. And though there’s no way to keep secrets in that house, Lucy nevertheless manages to finger her killer.”
Ramona’s jaw dropped. Score one for me: I’d caught her completely off guard. “Really? Who? How?”
We’d reached the State College Chem Lab and found a lucky parking place half a block away. “I’ll tell you in a second,” I said, fervently hoping my buddy Jay Allen was in. We hurried to the lab in question, and up two flights of stairs.
Besides being a chemistry professor, Jay does forensic work and has testified in some newsworthy national criminal trials. Indeed, he was in, supervising a couple of bored-looking freshmen who appeared to be watching beakers of liquid come to a boil.
Jay is tall and very handsome, with stunning red hair and a red beard. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t waste time flirting with him now. I was a woman with a mission. “Could you check this hair for arsenic poisoning?” I asked him, pointing to the hair crumbs tucked in the tissue paper. “It’s important.”
Jay had the audacity to glare at me suspiciously. “Now?” he said. “What is this? We’re not tampering with evidence of a crime here, are we?”
“How could you even THINK such a thing?” I said, giving him my most withering look. “Can you can test for arsenic using this hair or not?”
He sighed, nodded yes, and led us to his tiny work space in the back of the lab. It was crammed with complicated arrangements of bent glass tubing and Erlenmeyer flasks. “Atomic absorption spectroscopy’s what’s needed,” he said. “I’ll be destroying this bit,” he said, pulling one of the little hair clumps out of the box with a pair of tweezers. “Is that okay?”
Ramona nodded yes.
The test took longer than I expected. He had to dissolve the hair in acid, burn it in a flame, and look at the light given off through a spectroscope. I quickly grew bored with this and wandered back out into the lab. Ramona followed. There we passed the rest of the time helping the two college students clean up the mess they made when their beakers shattered all over the countertop.
Eventually Jay emerged from his cubbyhole. “Six hundred parts per million,” he said.
“Meaning?” I said.
“Chronic arsenic poisoning.” Ramona was genuinely impressed. “How on earth did you figure that out?” she said as we left Jay’s lab, the box containing the mourning ring and hair bookmark safely tucked into her purse. “I never had a clue.”
I was pleased with myself, so pleased I didn’t waste time with a splashy Ed Sullivan buildup. “The clue was the name of the quilt,” I said. “The name of the pattern of Lucy’s last quilt is Crazy Ann.”