Pieces of Her Life
by Melissa Clark
“Minnie, you’ll be a beautiful bride! Can we see your wedding dress before we start?”
It’s a sunny day, warm enough for the two quilting frames to be set up out on the lawn although there is a certain steeliness to the northern horizon. Birds are gathering in flocks, ready to fly south for the winter, their voices mixing with the trilling of the canary on the porch and the laughter of a dozen girls.
Everyone goes inside and puts her contribution for the evening box social in the kitchen, each boxed meal wrapped and decorated in such a way that it could be identified (hopefully) by the right young man. Jars of pickled beets, green beans, and carrots are glowing in the sun, ready to be opened for lunch. In the center of the dining room table, which covered with the lace tablecloth normally reserved for Sundays and holidays, stands a seven-layer cake. The smell of a chicken and onion casserole and freshly baked rolls fills the house, and jewel-like bottles of rhubarb juice stand by the punch bowl, ready to be added when the sugared water is mixed with the ice already chipped off the big block in the icebox.
Minnie runs up the steps to her rose papered room, and comes down with a very plain, dove-gray serge dress, unornamented except for small pearl buttons. “John said if I was spending money on a new dress, it should be serviceable, something I can wear for a long time. I expect he’s right,” she says, but with a tiny doubt in her voice.
“You’ll look beautiful in it,” says her friend Martha and, glancing down at her own generous figure, laughingly adds, “and unlike me – you won’t even need to wear a corset.”
“Let’s get to work, girls – we have ten quilts to knot and two to quilt before evening and the men arrive.” Minnie, whose engagement bee this is, has been piecing the tops since she was ten. Eleven of the quilts are records of her life, pieced out of her dresses and those of her mother, as well as flour sacks and material she had traded with her friends. Most are simple patterns, either nine-patch or log cabin, to be stockpiled for the babies that would probably start arriving every year or two. One quilt, in a pattern called Bird In A Cage, had been pieced and signed by her friends, and would go on the guest bed. The wedding quilt is a Baltimore Album appliqué quilt that she has worked on for two years. It is the only one made of new store-bought material, the unfaded colors glowing vividly. For her entire marriage it would be displayed on her bed whenever company came.
“Addie, why don’t you and Ellen work on knotting the everyday quilts – your stitches still aren’t fifteen to the inch, although you are getting better.”
“All right, we’ll spread them out on the grass.”
Spreading out a nine-patch top, Addie suddenly says, “Look, Minnie, here’s a piece of your confirmation dress. And this is from the dress you wore the first time you sang solo in church.” All the girls gather around the tops and start to point out material that has pieced their lives together.
Settling down to work, Martha asks, “Minnie, what are you singing tomorrow?” “The Old Rugged Cross,” she answers. “It’s my favorite, and this is my last Sunday of singing in the choir.”
“Why,” asks Muriel as she ends her thread and rethreads her needle.
“John says coming to town for practice and for church on Sunday isn’t good for the horses, he says they’re needed on the farm. And he says a farm wife has too much to do to go gallivanting. I’ll just have to read the Bible at home,” Minnie replies, glancing north to where the farm is located under the foreboding gray horizon moving towards the village.
Martha says, “It’s hard to believe you’ll be a farm wife in a week. You’ll be a good one, though. You’re great at cooking and canning.”
“I’ve been canning produce when John brings it; we should have plenty for the winter.”
The girls settle down to work, needles flashing in the sun. They are finishing the last one, the wedding quilt, as the young men they are dating arrive in buggies to take them to the box supper the young unmarried group is having at the church. Taking it out of the frame, they hold it up to admire it and then add it to the top of the stack.
Handing John the stack of quilts, Minnie says, “Put these in the buggy and take them out to the farm. The one on top goes on our bed. Isn’t it pretty?”
He replies approvingly, “Lots of quilts here. They’ll reduce the amount of firewood we’ll need this winter.” He puts the quilts in the back of the buggy and says, “Clouds are rolling in. We’d better be on our way.”
Minnie says, “This evening should be fun. Even though after next week we’ll not be part of the young unmarried group, we can still see them. It’s almost time for apple buttering; let’s have a party in our orchard.”
John replies, “That’s a lot of foolishness. I joined the group to get a wife and I have. From now on we won’t have time for parties. We can do the work ourselves and keep all the apple butter.” The rest of the ride is in silence.
During the supper a massive storm moves through the area. Everyone has fun, although an angry look crosses John’s face as the other young men bid up Minnie’s box. He pays up though. After the dancing John takes Minnie home and heads out towards the farm, hoping to beat the aftermath of the storm.
The week passes and the next Saturday John and Minnie are wed. Leaving in a hail of rice they start on the journey to the farm and their life together. When they arrive John says, “Go on in. I’ll be in as soon as I put the team away.” When he comes in the farmhouse Minnie says, “John, you put the wrong quilt on our bed. The Bird In A Cage quilt is for the guest bed. Where’s the other quilt, our marriage quilt.”
John replies, “The buggy got stuck that night after the storm. Grabbed the top quilt to use for traction. We’ve got plenty of other quilts though. That one’s in the barn. We can use it when the cow throws her calf.” Seeing her expression he then adds, “Minnie, the buggy was stuck, I grabbed the one on top. I’m not one to worry over trifles. I’ll bank the fire. You go ahead and get in bed.”
An hour later John is asleep. Minnie, however, sits propped up ’til dawn, her aching body preventing sleep, her hand tracing the seams of the quilt over and over. In the early dawn she sees a flock of geese flying south and the thought comes into her mind, “I want to go where the wild birds go.” Glancing over at her sleeping husband, she shudders, and then gets up to get dressed and start the fire for his breakfast.