Friday, November 18, 2011

Thinking about the Art Forms of Our Grandmothers as Thanksgiving Approaches

Earlier this week I wrote this post, in part about my grandmother and my earlier self, who wanted her to teach me to quilt: 

"I started my fascination with quilting in 1985 or so. I was reading Alice Walker, and I was desperate to learn to quilt and to do other arts that had been traditionally disdained as women's spheres. I asked my grandma to teach me, and she said, 'Why would you want to waste your time doing that? You can buy a perfectly good blanket at Wal-Mart for $6.'

It would be years before I understood her view. She had spent many winter nights piecing and sewing by hand, and she hated it. Modern life meant she didn't have to do that torturous chore."

That post took me back to an unpublished poem.  A disclaimer:  the voice in the poem is not my grandmother's voice; while she came from a farm family, their economic circumstances, while constrained, were not as dire as the ones the speaker experienced.  In some ways, the voice is a combination of my grandmother's voice, the mother's voice in Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use," and a variety of older Southern women I have known.

And I'm not the grandbaby in the poem.  I'd have loved to have done a Ph.D. in Women's Studies, but that wasn't an option at the time and place I went to grad school.  But to be honest, in some ways, that grandbaby is me, at least in her attitudes.


That girl ain’t got the sense God gave a cabbage.
It all started when she went to that fancy
university—they filled her head with craziness.
Now she waltzes into my house telling me I’m some kind
of artist. I can’t quite picture that. She says housework
is my art form. She wants me to teach
her to quilt. She doesn’t want to use a sewing machine.
That’s how I know she’s gone plum crazy.

She oohs and aahs over the old, raggedy quilts.
She says, “These ought to be hanging in an art museum.”
As if she don’t have two eyes in her head.
These quilts are ugly, ugly as crops in a year of no rain.
We weren’t thinking of art when we pieced
them together. We wondered how long the fabric would hold
together, whether or not we’d have enough scraps
to keep us warm through the winter.
We gave nary a thought to which colors
should go together, what patterns we wanted.

But that’s not the way my grandbaby sees it. This summer
she lives with me because no one else will take her in, and she needs
a place to finish her research for her degree. So, I’ll show
her what I can. I’ll set her up with needle and thread,
let her sort through my drawers of fabrics,
and by the end of summer, she’ll be begging
to use that machine. I’ll put her to work in the garden, weeding
and digging. We’ll can tomatoes
till the sweat soaks through our clothes.
I can’t believe they’d give her a grade, a degree,
for doing housework, or art,
if that’s what she wants to call it.


Hannah Stephenson said...

Wonderful poem, and thoughts.

Do you the poet/writer Irene Latham? She has a book about quilters, and is an excellent writer:

Have a good weekend, Kristin!

Kristin said...

I don't know that writer, but I'll be looking her up--thanks for the recommendation!