Archives For September 2016

I mentioned in my last post that we inherited precious patchwork quilts from our grandmothers. However, when we got married, my husband’s Grandma Fleagle made us two brand new quilts as wedding gifts. One was this rose pink and spring green bedspread pictured below, the other a classic Sunbonnet Sue pattern, predominantly turquoises and warm pinks.

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On the bed in our first apartment in Seattle

I was so honored to receive these quilts: they represented countless hours spent appliqueing and hand-piecing the tops, then quilting the layers, each tiny hand stitch a testament to her skill, creativity, and love for her family. We were by no means the sole beneficiaries of her craft – the woman could definitely church out the quilts! She lived in western Kansas and wasn’t able to travel to the wedding in Alton, Illinois, so she had my mother-in-law deliver them on her behalf.

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Grandma Fleagle  with my husband at his college graduation

Little did we know that Grandma Fleagle wouldn’t be with us only nine months later. We were in the process of moving from Seattle back to the Midwest when we got the news she had died, so we made some route adjustments so we could arrive in Friend, Kansas in time for the funeral.

Relatives gathered in the big old frame farmhouse, and the upstairs bedrooms filled up with folks staying overnight. The next day, the daughters were going through the mounds of sewing goods and quilting notions, wondering what to do with it all. My mother-in-law suggested that since they and their daughters all had sewing machines, and since I did a lot of sewing, I should receive the Singer. It was agreed, but then they took it a step further and actually boxed up everything else to ship to me, too! The only trouble was that there was no address to which it could be sent – we were still in the process of relocating!

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It was a couple of weeks after we landed in Des Moines, when several boxes were delivered to the tiny house we rented. I believe the contents of those boxes could have stocked half a small shop! There were multiple scissors and pins and needles and many thimbles. There were bobbins and tape measures and snaps and buttons. There was lace and rick-rack and seam binding and zippers. And mountains of spools of thread. Cigar boxes and fruitcake tins, filled with notions of all kinds, not to mention yard goods. There were even things I had to ask others to identify! (Tatting shuttles were new to me.) I guess a person wouldn’t want to get snowed in way out there on the high plains without adequate provisions.

Those supplies kept me stocked for a long, long time, and I appreciated being able to “shop” in my own sewing room. I was also hugely grateful to receive the sewing machine – I put that puppy to work for years and years to come. But as valuable as these things were to a cash-strapped newlywed, the absolute best find, hands down, tucked away among some hand-crocheted lace, was a tiny little volume entitled: Daily Texts with Verses of Hymns: Adapted for General Use and Suited for Every Year.

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Apparently Grandma Fleagle had a routine: a daily text at the ready, for meditating upon while stitching quietly. Written with a nib and ink on the inside back cover of the wee book is a gracefully penned inscription: “Presented to Ralph Fleagle by his great Aunt Anne Knox, March 24th, 1886”. *

It is the oldest thing in our house. And a treasure.

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  • [Ralph is my husband’s great uncle, brother to Jake Fleagle of the Fleagle Gang, who is listed directly above Pretty Boy Floyd in the Wikipedia article on Depression Era Gangsters. More on these nefarious characters to come. Warning: not for the faint of heart. Perhaps Ralph should have spent more time meditating on the tiny book.]

A Patchwork in Paradise

September 19, 2016 — 2 Comments

I was in paradise this past week. At least that’s what the website says:

“Little ol’ Hamilton, Missouri, has become a quilter’s paradise…”

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Hamilton, MO mural by muralist Kelly Poling

I’m not actually a quilter. But I was compelled to accompany three women who were planning a trek to said paradise, because…

These quilters were childhood friends! *

It’s fun hanging out with people who knew me when I was a gawky 13-year-old and liked me anyway. And even though I’ve not yet converted, I did get a sneak peek into the world of quilting and the community of its devotees. I even picked up a little jargon along the way: I learned the bakery case isn’t the only place you can find “jellyrolls” and “layer cakes”, heh heh. I had a blast popping in and out of the dozen quilt shops that lined both sides of Hamilton’s main street. Gazing at rows and rows of yard goods and admiring lovely quilts (displayed on virtually every blank wall — even elevators!) got me to thinking about…

The quilts I have inherited.

In 1970, my dad reconnected with a cousin he hadn’t seen in years at his dad’s funeral. In the course of their conversation, the cousin learned my dad didn’t have any keepsakes that had belonged to his mother (a fire had ravaged their family home not many years before my dad left home). His cousin happened to have a few sentimental items that were my grandmother’s and he offered to ship them to my dad, along with three quilt tops.she had pieced and sewn together by hand.

Shortly after I got married, Dad gave me one of them — a twin bed size quilt top. I purchased some batting and some fabric for the backing and began hand-stitching the layers together. The project occupied me for months through the fall and winter. Over the years, that quilt has been alternately placed on top of our bed, hung on the wall, and displayed across a quilt rack. Right now, it’s in the cedar chest along with a pink, blue, and white baby quilt given to my mother-in-law by her mother when my husband was born. It’s twin bed size too. Along with those two quilts, I treasure a third: another one made by my husband’s grandma, this one, double bed size.

“This fabric was from a housedress Mom wore,” Dad pointed out nostalgically as he bequeathed his mother’s quilt top to me. “And this one was from a dress she wore to church.” He lovingly identified the ginghams and calicos, the stripes and florals used in the honeycomb pattern of the quilt.

“Oh, look! Here’s the fabric she made my pajamas from!” he exclaimed. He recognized fabric scraps from garments worn by his entire family.

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Quilt top from my grandma (on top) and quilts from my husband’s grandma (middle and bottom)

I noticed that some of the quilt’s pieces had to be patched together just to make a three-inch hexagon. This quilt wasn’t the product of a hobbyist’s whim, fashioned from yard goods bought from color-coordinated bolts of fabric at the mercantile. No, this gem had been pieced together from scraps — snippets of fabric the family couldn’t afford to toss out, set aside to be repurposed as functional household items for the winter.

The second quilt my husband inherited is also fashioned from myriad small pieces of random prints. I love that the lively patterns and bright colors of all its snippets triumphantly defy the starkness of the times. When I look at it I see a hard-strapped farm wife managing meager household resources, capable of producing splashes of happiness and creating touches of beauty that could overlay the gray backdrop of a Great Depression.

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As I strolled in and out of the various quilt shops in Hamilton, ooh-ing and aah-ing at endless yards of splendid fabrics (some of them over $20 a yard!), I was struck by the contrast between what quilting was during our grandmothers’ day and what it has become. Circumstances aren’t nearly so demanding nowadays. Necessity doesn’t drive me to harvest small scraps of fabric just so I can piece together blanket tops (as if I even sewed most of my family’s garments!). Instead, at the end of my browsing in those quilt shops the other day, I bought a small stack of brand new pre-cut fabric squares — enough for a coverlet. Even though they’re not salvaged bits of cotton, I do plan to piece them together with a similar randomness to the pattern as in the cherished heirlooms.

And as I do, I will think of our grandmothers — reflecting on their hard-scrabble lives and being grateful for the legacy of these strong, resilient, and resourceful women in our lives.

And who knows, I might get hooked.

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My squares of purples and greens

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Too Late Smart

September 9, 2016 — Leave a comment

Americans are smarter than they used to be.

According to an article published by the American Psychology Association1, IQ’s have been on the rise steadily in this country for the last century. That makes the average person today smarter than 95% of the people living 100 years ago! Which is not to say that our brains have suddenly been engineered to accomplish greater things, but rather that our ability to attack a wider range of conceptual problems has improved. And get this – it’s due to the complexity of modern life.

My childhood happened in a simpler era: there was one breadwinner, one family car, one phone wired to the wall, and only three TV channels. We walked to school and came home for lunch, and we either walked or rode our bikes to after-school activities like Little League or Brownies. We would even walk to Sunday school. Way less complex.

Which would explain a lot about me, and my not being the sharpest crayon in the box, as evidenced by my repetition of behaviors that…

Always had a negative outcome. Color me a slow learner.

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Summer 1958

Exhibit A: I loved to ride my bike in the summer, and I also loved wearing flip flops. However, these two things never mixed well. But did this affect my decision to ride a bike in flip flops again and again?

No.

Moooooooom!!! I’m bleeeeeding!!!” I would wail as I charged through the front door.

From the kitchen, a calm reply: “Come here and let me see.”

“My toe – it huuurts!!!

“What happened?” she would ask, lifting me up onto the kitchen counter to get a closer look.

“I was riding my bike and scraped it on the curb.”

“Okay, we’ll wash it up and put a Band-Aid on it. It’ll be okay.” Then out would come the mercurochrome2 and a small metal box full of bandages. My folks should have bought stock in Johnson & Johnson for all the Band-Aids I blew through.

No pity is due me here, though. I owned tennis shoes. I just opted – again and again – not to wear them.

Exhibit B: There was a huge catalpa tree on our block. We called the long pods that hung from the branches “Indian cigars”. Were these pods actually cigars? No. But did that stop us from trying to light them so we could smoke? (Unfortunately tobacco products were in vogue during this “less complex” era.) Again, no.

I was recently admiring a magnificent catalpa tree in my cousin’s front yard, loaded with pods.

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Photo credit: Linda Marlow

“Indian cigars! Did you guys try to smoke these pods when you were kids?”

“No.”

“Oh. We did, but it never worked.”

“Where did you get the fire?”

Good question. Where did we get the fire? “I don’t know,” I replied. “Probably matches, but Dad always had Zippos around, too.”

Yes. I knew kids weren’t supposed to play with matches. But I don’t recall having to be involved with the fire directly, seeing that I had an older brother.

So fire was easily obtained, but the concept of freshly picked catalpa pods being utterly inflammable due to their water content, was not so easily grasped.

We repeated that little ritual at least once a season, sad to say.

Exhibit C: Summers were not only full of scraped toes and catalpa pods, they were also teeming with – lightning bugs! And we meant to capture them!

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(Creative Commons by Jessica Lucia via nextdoornature.org)

Shortly after sunset, we could be found outside, running around like chickens with our heads cut off, darting after the elusive quarry. Invariably, one of us would come up with the brainy idea to run inside and get a jar. Mom could usually be counted on to wash out an empty pickle jar for us and, upon request, poke a few holes in the lid so our captives could breathe. The perfunctory twig and some blades of grass — for natural habitat’s sake – and voila! We were all set to…

Execute hapless insects. Slowly.

Not once did I wake up in the morning to find live lightning bugs. Always dead – every single time. But did this grim reality inform future lightning-bug-catching expeditions? Not in the least. We carried on in like fashion, ad infinitum, summer after summer.

De facto serial killers. All on account of being not so sharp.

You know, I hear from a lot of my peers that they aren’t too thrilled about getting older. But I say bring it. With the increasing complexity of the technologically advancing world, I think I finally have a shot at getting smarter.

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  1. “Smarter Than Ever”, by Lea Winerman. http://www.apa.org/monitor/2013/03/smarter.aspx
  2. Once upon a time, a staple of the family medicine cabinet. In 1998, the ubiquitous mercurochrome was declared by the FDA as being “not generally recognized as safe and effective” as an antiseptic. Suppose it had something to do with the mercury?

You’re hired!

September 3, 2016 — Leave a comment

Woohoo! The 3-day weekend has arrived, bringing with it the official end of summer, family barbeques and picnics, and perhaps a parade. And it might be your last chance to go camping. It’s the last bash of the season.

But, you ask, exactly how does all of this honor the American worker? By giving all of us an extra vacation day! Since Americans work more hours than any other industrialized country, I think we’ve earned it.

This post is dedicated to the American worker – the common laborer who contributes to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country. More precisely, to this American worker and her very first foray into the world of work.

Before I was 16, I earned a little spending money by making and selling Barbie clothes. I also did babysitting occasionally, but those weren’t real jobs, where you go to a workplace and have a boss and coworkers. I’m talking about that kind of work. (My brief stint as a sewer of pockets doesn’t count.)

I had applied to college and realized should I actually got accepted, I’d need some moolah. So I got on a city bus after school one day in search of gainful employment. I headed south on Grand Avenue to this place…

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Those of you who know St. Louis, know that this establishment is iconic in the Gateway City. But I knew it as a place where a gal could pull down some serious tips as a carhop. The owner happened to be there and conducted an interview with me right on the spot. I was hired.

Mrs. Drewes knew that maintaining a stellar reputation in frozen custard world is serious business, and her tone said as much. She gruffly detailed the rules, handed me a few uniforms and aprons, and told me when to show up for my first shift. I didn’t react much until I got on the bus to head home. I was elated.

I had landed my very first job.

I was at that stand five nights a week through the rest of the summer, from about 6 p.m. to midnight. Because it was a very popular family destination, the parking lot was packed with wood paneled station wagons between suppertime and about 10:00 p.m. Cars would even circle the lot waiting for spots to open. Folks were also serious about frozen custard.

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I served too many cones to count. And sundaes and shakes and malts and floats and… banana splits! Everybody was always happy to see me headed to the driver’s window with a tray laden with frosty deliciousness. And happy dads passing out treats to happy kids meant happy tips for my apron pockets. Which was a very good thing because…

Mrs. Drewes didn’t actually pay carhops. The deal was you could work for tips. And we high schoolers were more than happy for the opportunity to beat the asphalt for six hours at a stretch to score those tips. Bona fide American workers contributing to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of South St. Louis.

When the family began clearing out, the same parking spaces were occupied by a steady stream of young people cruising around town. Young people are pretty serious about frozen custard, but not quite as serious about tipping. But the sheer volume would make up for it.

The Ted Drewes recipe consisted of four ingredients: cream, eggs, honey, and vanilla. No chocolate, no swirls. Just vanilla. But it was as delicious as it could be. And the Drewes operation produced a texture that was sheer perfection. Tips weren’t the only perk of the job.

Somewhere between 11:00 and 12:00 it would begin to slow down a bit and some of the gals might take a moment to sit on a guard rail and rest her Keds. Usually I just kept on moving, because once I stopped, I’d notice how much my feet throbbed. (Alas, no Air Jordans just yet.)

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Our uniforms were a lot like this, only white trimmed with blue.

Three memorable events occurred during the three months I worked there:

  • One of the inside workers – they were paid an hourly wage – introduced me to a new concoction. He put a squirt of strawberry topping in a drink cup, then filled it with lemonade and ice. Who knew the combination would be so yummy?
  • This dude drove off with one of my trays one night. At the end of my shift I had to pay Mrs. Drewes $1 to replace it. She had explained that particular rule at the very beginning, so it wasn’t a surprise. But I was still burned. $1 was a good-sized chunk of what I could earn in a night.
  • Service got very slow at about 10:00 p.m. on July 20th. There was a TV mounted on the wall inside the stand and we carhops lingered at the window for as long as possible. Our eyes were glued to Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. And for a moment, that was more serious than out-of-this-world frozen custard.

City buses weren’t running any longer by the time my shift ended, so my dad would always come pick me up. Then every night I would sit on my bed (with my feet up), count my loot, and roll coins. At the end of the summer I had amassed enough earnings to buy all my clothes and shoes for college, pay for a plane ticket to L. A., and had $300 to spare.

And I had become a slightly seasoned member of the American work force.

Happy Labor Day, everybody!