It was Thanksgiving 1966 and there were nine of us stuffed into a Wisconsin bungalow that was barely big enough for one blue-haired Nana, her cranky German cuckoo clock and a tall toilet with a mysterious chain.
I was six and praying I didn’t have to go anytime soon.
The day was fading behind the granite studded hills that wave across the land west of Madison all the way to the Mississippi. This was the land of my parents and their parents. Farm land dotted with tiny towns that have one stop light, one block of stores and a cemetery. Towns that can only count on tradition to survive for the next generation.
It was another holiday dinner, long and boring. We scavenged for extra chairs to pull around the dining table. The turkey sat at my Dad’s plate. The big knife with deer antler handles was next to it.
I spent the dinner rearranging acorn squash on my plate and studying the farm scenes on Nana’s blue Currier & Ives plates, the ones she got for free by shopping each week at the A&P.
When the last of the gravy congealed and the turkey looked like it was attacked by hyenas, there were pumpkin and mincemeat pies waiting. I knew pumpkin pie was just more squash, so I chose mincemeat, or mince as some like to say to fool you into thinking it’s tasty. This was not mince pie. This was real mincemeat pie as in real meat cooked in lard and sweetened with candied fruit. That’s fruit that sounds good but isn’t. With my fork I raked through the piece on my plate, looking for evidence of a carcass, some shred of tendon or muscle, not believing the possibility of pie crust and meat could exist together as dessert.
And there it was. A lone strand of beef that belonged in a stew. Clearly Nana had lost her mind. She’s old. It must be a horrible mistake. I looked around at my family eating and wondered what freak show I was part of. Who eats this stuff? No amount of whipped cream could save any of it.
That weekend I learned that when it came to food, Nana made things the old fashioned way. She was not bound to tradition as much as hog-tied to it. You want mincemeat pie? First, slaughter Bessie.
The old farm ways that Nana and her sisters grew up with were passed on to my mother who, in her carefree way, found the traditions amusing and liked to tell us stories of her childhood visits to their farms. You want cookies? Here’s a recipe from great Aunt Florence. First, get some fat. Any kind. Then add a good portion of flour and a handful of sugar. Mix it up, add some chopped prunes and you’ve got cookies. No measuring. You just have to know how much.
After the horror of dessert it was time for bed. My two brothers headed to the front porch that had no heat, but they didn’t seem to mind. While I was in the bathroom trying to figure out the toilet, my three older sisters hopped into the cherrywood four poster in the spare room, Nana’s sewing room, and were settled in like twice-baked potatoes under a mound of blankets by the time I wandered in.
I looked around the dark and drafty room for someplace to sleep. Wedged between Nana’s mahogany sewing table and a looming black dress form was a narrow metal cot draped with one thin blanket. It looked like an army cot from the Civil War. I felt sorry for all those guys and now, I felt sorry for myself as I climbed in.
The cuckoo clock chimed from the hall, the clock that made my Dad swear. Then the ticking oil heater groaned and slowed for the night and the tiny bungalow was at last quiet. My sisters’ breathing soon came in soft waves that told me they were already asleep and I hated them for it, for being warm enough to sleep.
In the dark I explored Nana’s sewing corner. There was a wall of thread to my left, each wooden spool had its own peg and was organized by color. Other pegs held scissors and pinking shears and tiny gold-handled embroidery snips. A round basket on the sewing table was filled with so many fur coat scraps it was as if a black cat had curled up inside to take a nap.
Above my head an old loose window rattled and the beginning of winter seeped through the cracks, grazed my checks and ignited a cloud of dressmaker’s chalk that swirled like a snow globe in the moonlight.
Nana’s sensible gray oxfords were clicking slowly through the house as she checked the doors and closed the cabinets. Her rounded pear shape appeared in the hallway and I called out to her in a desperate whisper for another blanket. Without a word she appeared at the foot of my cot holding a stack of hand-stitched quilts, bumpy and dimpled from many washings.
With a deft snap a pink and white quilt with little houses on it parachuted into the air and settled on me with a comforting weight.
“Good?” she asked.
“Can I have another?”
A yellow one with red triangle shapes landed and then came another with flowered circles. They floated down like heavy wet snow, weighing me deeper into the cot’s metal springs.
“Enough?” Actually, no.
She smiled and went back to the hall closet for another stack. Now it was a little game, a few moments with a grandmother I never really knew but would always wonder about. We continued in the dark and seven quilts later I was deliciously immobile, bound like Gulliver by thousands of threads and tiny hand stitches.
As I lay in my cocoon I recognized small squares and triangles of fabric from dresses Nana made me over the years. There was the red gingham from the birthday dress when I was five, the one with ribbon woven into its white lace trim. I also found the flowers from a pink shift dress edged in green rick-rack that was like standing in the middle of a little garden surrounded by a green picket fence. Nana, ever prolific, made sure our dolls were well dressed too. I found a swatch of red babycord corduroy that she used to make my Chatty Cathy’s red hat (trimmed in real mink with a matching fur trimmed cape). She even made Cathy a navy blue wool trench coat with real pockets for colder days in the basement play-corner, but I didn’t find any of that.
Even at that young age the mastery of Nana’s sewing was not lost on me. I recognized fine needlework by sight and touch before I learned to sew the summer I turned ten. The hand-smocked fronts of our high-waisted dresses were a feat of style, planning and expertise. There was no machine sewing involved. Years later I tried to hand smock a baby dress for a friend and was stunned at how complicated it was. That project is still in my basement.
Eventually, Nana gave each of us our own quilt. Mine is white with large yellow flowers like summer suns in a hot sky. It suits me and my June birthday and covered my bed all the way through college and until I got married. Now it is worn and frayed, but the design is still good and I stitch it up every now and then.
On a recent trip to my mother’s house I found one of Nana’s quilts in the garage, waiting to be sold in a rummage sale with cast-off gifts and old dishes. My mother is not sentimental about anything and is at the age when everything in the house is either tossed into the garbage, saved for the rummage sale or given away to strangers. Now it’s my habit to check the garage for valuable items. I grabbed the quilt and brought it home. It is not an example of Nana’s best work, most likely made late in life, when her stitches were bigger and farther apart. But it’s something that took weeks, if not months to make. It took planning the colors, doing the math for the design, measuring and cutting with precision. All clues to a grandmother I did not know and a visual reminder of how some women can take almost anything and turn it into something else. A scrap of fabric becomes a quilt. A piece of meat becomes a pie.