My great-grandmother, known to us as Grandma Mim, was a maker. I remember her hands – hands that canned garden vegetables, made elderberry jelly, scrubbed clothes in a washtub before hanging them on the line. She sewed clothes and spent tireless hours seaming quilt squares. In earlier years she had sat across the room-sized quilt frame from her centenarian mother, both of their hands busy persuading a needle and thread to take small even steps across the top of a quilt. Now she quilted alone.
I remember going to visit her one spring when I was a teenager. It was a two hour drive through small Illinois farm towns separated by a patchwork of crops: corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa; each mile taking us farther from the city. We passed the town with the large yellow gingerbread Victorian house, the town with the Dairy King, the water tower bearing the name of a town that sounded like a flower but wasn’t, and finally we came to the crossroads with a single flashing red light over the four-way stop. Her address was a single number on a rural route, a small white farmhouse built by her late husband when they were ready to downsize from the large Victorian next door. We were almost there when we could see the old Wal-Mart and the new McDonald’s by the nursing home.
When we arrived, she welcomed us warmly into her kitchen, hugging each in turn and offering to make us lunch. Utilitarian and functional, the kitchen was equipped with everything necessary, but little that was purely decorative. Crisp white curtains hung at the windows, a hand knitted dishcloth hung over the faucet, well-scrubbed wood cabinets held butterfly gold Corelle dishware and rarely used china. In some places the black and white pebble pattern on the linoleum floor had been nearly scoured away by years of footsteps. Always smiling, Grandma Mim offered us sandwiches, fresh vegetables, and sun tea, or she would offer to “milk her cow” – which meant reconstituting a fresh gallon of “milk” from the white powder in a box.
She had survived the Great Depression and two world wars, raised two stepsons and a daughter, and believed in being self sufficient: growing her own food, sewing all of her own dresses, and piecing her quilts by hand. Her quilts outlived her and are a tribute to her industrious nature. Carefully packed away in mothballs when not in use, the perfectly stitched geometric patterns bear witness to her artistic acuity. She never did anything halfway.
After lunch, she sat on the divan in the living room and her never-idle hands took up her current tatting project, a large pile of lacework filling her lap and obscuring the pattern on her green and white dress. I sat next to her on the textured sofa that was older than my mother, but well taken care of. The room was dominated by the large upright piano on one end near the spare bedroom doorway. An old pedal-driven Singer sat atop a sewing table, and the spinning green damask rocking chair that had been reupholstered a decade earlier sat near the telephone table.
I watched my grandmother’s hands, fascinated, as she worked, the lace spilling from her fingers. She was nearly ninety and her wrinkled hands reflected a lifetime of industry. Her gold wedding band, sized for a younger and slimmer hand, formed a deep indentation in her ring finger. She still wore it, though her husband had passed away almost fifteen years before. Whenever my mother would urge her to remove it, she’d reply that she wasn’t looking for another husband. Eventually, it would be cut off her finger when she was prepped for emergency surgery. As she worked, the shiny silver shuttle in her hands reflected light as she deftly passed it back and forth, tying half a knot with each pass of the shuttle, the bobbin loaded with cotton thread the color of oleo.
“What are you making, grandma?” I queried.
A smile lighted her face and her fading blue eyes glowed, contrasting with red hair that was only lightly streaked with silver, as she answered, “A tablecloth.”
She held it up for me to see. The lacework was composed of tiny intricate circular floral motifs that formed an interconnected latticework of lace. Each flower was the size of a silver dollar, formed from more than two hundred tiny lark’s head knots. More than half finished, the tablecloth was intended to someday cover a large formal dining table.
“Wow, grandma, that’s beautiful!” She beamed with pride. I watched her hands closely, trying to understand their complicated movements. “How long have you been working on it?”
“Oh, five years.” She said it casually, but to me five years was an eternity, a third of my life.
And then I saw it.
There, not too far from the end she was working on, was a large teardrop-shaped hole large enough to accommodate a dinner plate. Some time, recently, she had apparently joined two nonadjacent motifs together, but she couldn’t see well enough anymore to realize what she had done. I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
I miss my grandmother.
She has long since passed away, but her memory and influence remain. Inspired by her tireless work, during the intervening years I have learned to sew, quilt, tat, and knit. Remembering the tablecloth, I had a desire to attempt to correct my grandmother’s unwitting mistake – to proudly display this intricate tribute to her skill as a craftswoman. I vainly questioned family members who had access to the house or lived there following her death. Nobody was aware of what had happened to the tablecloth. No one could remember seeing it. The house has since been stripped of its contents and sold to someone desiring to develop the land. The house was bulldozed to the ground. The tablecloth may no longer exist, but Grandma Mim’s legacy lives on.