Genma Speaks

Entrepreneur/ Writer/ Radio-Host

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Heritage, History, Quilts, and My Grandmother

Where did my summer go? The time flew by quickly but I am basking with the memories that I made with my grandmother over the summer. My initial summer plans were drastically altered after the Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened the Creation Story: Gee’s Bend Quilts and the Art of Thornton Dial. I went to media day with the expectation of seeing another great exhibit by the museum that I love dearly.

I had not expected to experience, at the media preview, the tidal wave of emotions that overcame me when I walked into the exhibit. Seeing the proud work of the women of Gee’s Bend hung throughout the Ingram Gallery, watching Mr. Dial sit quietly with his family, and reading the stories that accompanied the work of Bill Traylor left me in awe and grateful to the organizers of the exhibit. Each piece of art work spoke to my heritage of being raised and influenced by strong willed women in Mississippi who made a way out of no way; who saw beauty when others saw thrash or garbage; and who pushed the importance of reading as if your life depended on it. Many times, it did. By the time I made it through the colorful historical quits, Thornton Dial’s huge pieces, and the drawings of Bill Traylor, my eyes fought and lost the battle with tears. My face was revealing my internal conflict.

My tears flowed freely for people who are hidden away in rural communities all over the South. My tears were for those who created masterpieces with no formal art training, even less education. My tears were for the stories that were being told through art that embraced history and culture with abandonment. All of the art made me proud of being born and raised in the rural South. But there was a special bonding with the quilts that happened instantly. The quilts whispered my name as I stood in front of them admiring the delicate but strong workmanship. At one point, I closed my eyes tightly and visualized my grandmother sitting in her favorite chair stitching fabric together chatting away as she blocked out the world that could be cruel to a group of people tucked away in the middle of nowhere.

The exhibits awaken in me a deep longing to see my grandmother immediately. I called home several times after the media preview discussing the exhibition to my grandmother. I could hear the smile in her voice as I described the quilts to her. My grandmother added to my excitement by sharing about her grandmother who quilted also. My grandmother’s grandmother, named Big Mama, was dearly loved by our family. Her long snowy white braided hair was as famous as she. Big Mama had lived with much notoriety being one of the oldest Mississippian living for several years. She lived to the ripe young age of 109! One of Big Mama's quilts is at the Smithsonian Institute. The story of my grandmother's grandmother and my grandmother's mother history of quilting is written about in the book A Communion of Spirits by Roland L. Freeman.

My grandmother, her mother, Ma Dear; and her grandmother, Big Mama; were known quilters in our small community. My grandmother shared with me how Big Mama taught her to quilt and Ma Dear taught one of my aunts to sew. My grandmother tells me that every time we are together. But each time, I listen as if I heard it for the first time. The more my grandmother talked about her grandmother, the more I prepared for a trip home to visit my grandmother. It was two weeks from the opening of the Frist Center's Creation Story until I laid eyes on my precious grandmother.

When I walked into the nursing home where my grandmother resides, she was sitting with her back to me in the dining hall. I sneaked up behind her and whispered in her ear, “surprised!” She looked up at me and said with conviction, “I knew you were coming home!” Giving her a big hug, I realized that not only are we alike in many ways, but we have a wireless connector that speak the unspoken between the two of us. “I could hear it in your voice,” she said with a smirk. My visit home was timed perfectly to celebrate her birthday.

I spent the next few days tending to my grandmother’s every whim, spoken and unspoken. Nails manicured, new clothes, pearls, and a new do were all on the list of fun things to do with my grandmother. We celebrated her birthday in style. I invited everyone in town to come, and it felt like all they showed up. My grandmother loved the attention and was glowing from the kind words shared by many at her birthday extravaganza.

Over the next few days, we discussed quilting, “po’ people luxury items”, politics, and other colorful topics that keep me writing for years to come. She shared Ma Dear and Big Mama stories as well. Town gossip was not left off the list. We laughed at the unrepeatable and shucked and jive like two hens. My days with my grandmother came to an end much too quickly.

As my attention turned to the long goodbye, my grandmother told me, “Take what is yours back to Nashville.” Yours was a Grandfather clock that my grandmother had promised me throughout my childhood. She had mentioned the clock to me on several occasions over the years but I usually declined stating that I would get it when “that” happened. Thinking about losing my grandmother and gaining a clock was not something I found easy to talk about. The clock was not a material possession for me but a reminder of the precious time spent with my grandparents over the years and the quality of time they invested in their grandchildren, not one, but all of us.

After seeing the Gee's Bend exhibit at the Frist Center, this visit home was different. The Gee Bend’s Quilts reminded me of the importance of cultural heritage and an appreciation of family keepsakes. I called my aunts to discuss the clock going back with me and to my joy all cheered that I was finally taking possession of the clock. As I kissed my grandmother good-bye and hugged her not wanting to let go, I told her I was getting the clock. She smiled brightly and said “Don’t forget to grab you a quilt from the closet.”

As I entered my grandparents’ home on the way out of town, memories of my grandfather and grandmother came flooding back. I sat in my grandfather's chair remembering him and choked back tears at the thought of facing life without my grandmother. My aunts had cleaned and neatly organized my grandmother’s treasures. I walked over and touched the clock. The power of years of patriarchal and matriarchal love permeated me. I went into my grandmother’s bedroom and in the corner were hats that she had worn over the decades in decorative hat boxes with my name on them. Some were hats that I had given her as gifts over the years. Along with my grandmother's hats were my grandfather's fedoras he had worn daily. The boxes of hats left me stunned. I cried as I loaded the items into my truck. The priceless clock was wrapped tightly and secured. The hat boxes and bins covered the entire back cab.

My grandmother words to me before I left the nursing came to mind. I ran back into the house and opened one of her closets filled with clothes and coats. At the top of the crowded space were blankets, quilts, and comforters. I smiled to myself as I thought about my grandmother being a woman of meager means but was known for having “nice things”. I slowly unfolded a quilt from the shelf. Volunteering at the Frist made me instinctively looked around for a pair of white gloves as I handled a masterpiece. What a priceless gift I was given, a much used and very faded quilt from my grandmother.

I was deep in thought as I made my way back to Nashville. I was mentally planning another visit to my grandmother sooner than usual. I wanted to spend as much time listening to her stories and laughing about the unrepeatable. My truck was loaded with treasure rich with family history. I could not wait to get them home to start telling stories and gathering family keepsakes to pass along to my children's children.

The grandfather clock represented precious commodity call time, it's priceless value, and how everyone’s life is measured. The hats showed me how my grandparents were still giving me their best even though one is no longer with me. My grandmother’s quilt gave me a sense of responsibility to document the history and culture of my family and my community.

When I returned home, I saw the Creation Story exhibit again (and again and again). Each time I left the show, I was reminded of the power of God and how he created the women in my life who are unique and wonderfully made. My great-great grandmother, great-grandmother, grandmother, mother, and aunts all made a way out of the no way and have given me spoken and unspoken directions all of my life. Like the Gee's Bend Quilts on display at the Frist Center, the women in my family are truly works of art.

The Creation Story: Gee's Bend Quitls and the Art of Thornton Dial and Bill Traylor
Drawings from the Collections of the High Museum of Art and the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts

May 24-September 3

For More Info on the Folk Art Exhibit at the Frist Center click here and here.

Photo Credits: Genma Holmes

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