Create an ‘Aprons4Alzheimers’ Movement in Your Community
1. Gather friends and sew aprons.
2. Sell the aprons at a farmer’s market, bazaar, or through a local merchant.
3. Donate proceeds to a local organization that provides Alzheimer’s respite care.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kansas Quilters

     I am not sorry that sewing aprons has become a full time job. Acting as my own book agent, coupled with many hours of sewing, keeps my cup overflowing on a charitable endeavor. My husband, Lon, the official recreation officer in our marriage, pulls on my reins and forces me to walk away from my endless projects so we can play tourist and have fun. He reminds me it’s the reason we saved so we could retire early, the reason we sold our house and chose a life of travel.

     Therefore, it came to be on a sunny day in July; we descended 235 steps to the Gunnison River and boarded a boat managed by the National Park Service. Forty-two fellow passengers were with us for a two-hour ride through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison where walls of ancient rock, waterfalls, birds, vistas, and smashing stories told by the Park Ranger kept us entertained.

     I can’t tell you why we chose the date and time for the boat ride. We could have chosen the noon boat instead of the 10 a.m. ride. We could have chosen the day before or the day after. I didn’t sit next to Lon; instead, I sat across the aisle from him and next to a group of women from Kansas. They were a high spirited lot and since I can’t carry my friends with me, I’m always on the look out for friendly females to chat with. This clutch of Kansas ladies was a welcome site and when one of them mentioned they were quilters, well… Katy bar the door! Mention fabric, quilts, or thread and I’m off and running.
     “Do you quilt?” they asked.
     “Well I used too, and I love to quilt, but now I’m busy sewing aprons.” I didn’t even have to look at Lon to know his eyes were rolling and he was feeling sorry for the women who were now going to hear about my book and apron project. It’s a story he’s heard so many times he can tell it better than I can. However, he doesn’t. He lets me babble on and waits to see the reaction.

     Bless their hearts for listening to my tale. This I know. It’s hard to find someone not touched by Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful to those who listen but I’m filled with sorrow in the same breath because I know it’s because they understand and have seen the destruction it brings to a family.

     During the last hour of our boat trip, Janie, Vicki, and I shared stories and experiences about quilting, Alzheimer’s, and care giving. We slowly made our way up those unmerciful 235 steps and every step brought us closer together as we visited and exchanged life stories.

     When we made it to the parking lot, they generously purchased six of my books and promised they would keep in touch with me through email. I really, truly, wanted to hear back from them, but sometimes people say they will write and I never hear from them again. I liked these ladies but I didn’t want to act too needy.
     I need not have feared. Let me share with you a wonderful email I received from Janie just a few days later.
Good morning Gwen,
I am Janie one of the gals you met on the boat ride Monday am. (I am the Home Health/Hospice RN who had to stop every few feet going back up to the parking lot!)

We traveled home yesterday - left Montrose at 7:30 am and I got home to Iola, KS this am at about 1:30. My friend, Vicki, read from your book aloud and then I read and Vicki read again until her throat got sore…we thoroughly enjoyed your story. Bless your heart, it isn't easy being a caregiver. In our vehicle there were 4 gals and 1 guy, he drove and told us the story was depressing him. His wife, Jo, told him to be quiet and just drive. He complied.

3 of us gals in the vehicle are quilters, Vicki isn't but loves us anyway and she is going to have an apron making weekend at her home and we will get some other quilters and she will cook and press and we will sew and all visit and just enjoy each others company.

It was such a pleasure to meet you and get to visit with you and I will be watching for the Threads magazine and The Country Register articles and one of these days will contact you and ask where to send the aprons.

God Bless You,

     You have a cold, cold heart if you are not struck by the generosity and kindness of these Kansas ladies. I have made over 140 aprons so I wept at this news. Lon smiled and breathed a sign of relief. He knows how much the aprons are a part of my book but he also knows I can write even better than I can sew and he’s been urging me to write about the wonderful people we meet. If others volunteer to sew, I get more time to write.

     So here I am, telling the tale of the Kansas quilters. The story would be sweet enough if I ended it now with Janie’s email. But…there is more to tell.

     I promised Janie I would have my sister, Katie, send her a few apron patterns. Barbara Brunson of Vanilla House Design generously donated several patterns to our cause (Read: Apron Wings). When Janie received the patterns, she wrote to tell me they had arrived and invited me to come to Iola, Kansas to give a reading and conduct an apron class. I was visiting my husband’s family at the time I received the email. They have traveled extensively so I walked into the living room and asked, “Do you happen to know where Iola is located in Kansas.”

     Lon’s mom, Dorothy, immediately replied, “Well, we sure do. Lon’s uncle Bill Hinde lives there, he’s lived there for years. He used to be a baker but his daughter, Regina, runs the bakery now.”

     I quickly shot a email back to Janie asking if there was a chance she might know Lon’s family. The next morning while having coffee and breakfast, Lon arrived at the kitchen table with his iPad and said, “Listen to this!” and proceeded to read an email from Janie:

Dear Gwen,
It sure is a small world! Regina was in my sister's class in school and she is also a quilter. I took care of her father in law and would look at a pretty quilt hanging on the wall every time I listened to his heart and lungs…Regina made it. She and her husband do run the bakery and they have the best cookies and cakes in the world I think. I also took care of Mr. Hinde last year after he had some illness. Yes I think you need to make a visit to Iola KS sometime and meet and greet. Our library is usually open to Book signings and we do have a quilt shop 10 miles south of here and 30 miles north and many others within 50-100 miles-we could keep you very busy and of course we would love your visit to include a 4th Monday of the month and you could go to quilt guild! My but I ramble on.
Talk to you later and have a great weekend.

     I have been accused of embellishing stories. I’ve been known to say, “Oh my gosh, that is the greatest story and it is going to be so much better when I re-tell it!” I promise I did not make this up. Janie is a real person, Iola exists, and someday I’m going to make my way to her quilt guild, read from my book, and maybe even have a cookie or two from the bakery.

     Janie, keep your needles sharp and your thread waxed, you never know when I’ll come a knock ’n!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Primitive Quilts and Comforts Magazine, supported my cause by publishing the following article in the 2011 Fall Issue. The article appears in the Charitable Causes section of this delightful publication.

     While vacationing in Alaska I spent an afternoon wandering through fabric shops. On a whim, I purchased an apron pattern designed by Barbara Brunson of Vanilla House Design; after my vacation ended in Alaska I was heading to Florida to act as a full time caregiver for my parents. “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe I’ll have time to do a bit of sewing.” I had taken a sewing sabbatical and the thought of needles, thread, and fabric sounded like a creative adventure.

     After arriving in Florida I excitedly set up a sewing room. To my surprise, Mom, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, wanted to be part of the activities. Once an accomplished seamstress, I did not think she had the ability to undertake any sewing tasks. Mom surprised of us both with what she could accomplish. She could press under ¼-inch edges on apron ties, turn pockets to right side out then poke out neat little corners, and with great precision, she cut out baby bibs.

     My little sewing room became our daily retreat. I felt fortunate to stumble upon an activity we both enjoyed. Mom was at home with fabric, so as a treat for both of us I would take her to shop for a fresh batch of prints, swirls, dots, and stripes. Alzheimer’s had not yet damaged her talent for finding the right hue or pattern; she gave great advice on selecting coordinating fabric. Here’s the crazy part, the next day she would dress herself in stripes, prints, and colors that made her look as if she was headed to a Halloween party as a homeless bag lady.

     Sewing was therapeutic for both of us. We would sit side by side, not saying much, enjoying the feel of fabric and seeing the fruits of our labor in simple little items we stitched together. We both found a calm, peaceful place as we self medicated with fabric.

     Mom helped me with sewing tasks up until the last month of her life. I wrote a story about our sewing experience and shared it with my sister, Katie. She read my story during a mother-daughter banquet at her church and called to tell me how well it was received. “The audience loved it, Gwen; you’ve got to write more stories.” A few stories grew into a lovely little book that Katie and my brother Gordon helped me publish. Five months after standing at the grave of our parents, who had died with-in two weeks of each other, we stood together as we sold our book to help raise funds for Alzheimer’s respite care.

     Calico Gals fabric shop, in Syracuse, New York, was the first shop to let me set the books on their counter. When I offered an apron to display with the book, I was advised that I should make sure I was not violating a copyright law. I was nervous when I contacted Barbara Brunson but she immediately put me at ease, embraced the project, and gave me permission to continue to pair the book and apron. I donate all net proceeds from book and apron sales to organizations that provide Alzheimer’s respite care.

     Quilters Quarters, in Zephyrhills, Florida, allowed me to conduct an apron making class along with a book reading and book signing. Women who understand the magic of fabric weave a generous cloth of kindness. My sister and I have had such great support but we would love to include you in this worthwhile project.

     How can you help? As an individual, you can buy the book or if you are a shop owner, you could sell the book in your shop. I need volunteers to sew aprons and readers who will choose my book for their book club. My husband and I live full time on the road in a small travel trailer, we just may be coming you way. Please feel free to contact me by email. I would love to swing through your neighborhood, give an apron making class, do a reading and donate funds to benefit your community.

Please let me hear from you.
Gwen O’Leary

Jody's Story

      My sister, Katie, deserves so much credit for helping me get my book published. While we were in the throngs of getting the book ready for printing, she asked why I had never published any of my writing. My answer was, “Katie I’m too lazy, too afraid of rejection notices, and wary of reader criticism.” When it came to writing about my mother’s journey through the destructive path of Alzheimer’s I forgot my fears and have never regretted sharing the intimate details of our family’s story.

     Several months after publishing my book, Katie convinced me to apply for a guest columnist position in the My Opinion section of the Sanilac County Newspaper. After learning I was accepted into the position, I shared the news of the assignment to a fellow writer who remarked, “You have a journalist’s dream job!”
     A bit surprised, I responded, “I do?”
     She chuckled at me, “Are you kidding? Someone has agreed to print your work, you can write about anything you want, and express your opinion! It’s a great opportunity.”

     Writer’s block is any author’s nightmare and as the dead line for my first article approached, I feared my brain would say, “Gwen, you had one good book in you, but now the party’s over.” However, I remembered a story about mom and a quilt lady she adored. I was sorry I didn’t remember to include it my book but now I had the perfect opportunity to share it in my column. Here is the story from the July 27, 2011, edition of the Sanilac Country Newspaper. (For those of you, who have already read the article, please notice I have added to the story at the end of the article.)

A Sanilac Quilted Life

     When my mother, Donna O’Leary was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my sister and I became team caregivers; Katie took the summer duty in Applegate, Michigan, I had the winter months in Zephyrhills, Florida. During the second winter as caregiver, I began the task of purging Mom’s closets and drawers. I found an unfinished baby quilt and a snarl of yarn waiting for her crochet hook to weave it into life. They were mixed with other relic supplies that had fueled her hobbies; all of it was a cruel reminder that her once creative brain could no longer churn out quilts, crochet, or paint ceramics.
      I wept when I found a stash of fabric tucked in a drawer; yards of pastel gingham, colorful calicos, and a rainbow of remnant fabric lay waiting in vain for her artistic mind and productive hands to work their magic. I yearned to cut and stitch my way into the stash and create one last memento with Mom’s choices of prints and solids; but when my six months of winter care giving ended, I would return to my home on the road in a 16 foot travel trailer. Space was a precious commodity. I had no sewing machine and no spare storage for all of Mom’s fabric.
     Mom’s last stockpile of fabric haunted me. Should I try to sell it or donate it to a thrift store? With all that I had to care and worry about, Mom’s fabric pricked at my brain until I happened to remember a woman, Jody McGuffie, whom my mother adored for the folk-art, scrappy quilts she made. Jody called herself “The Zephyrhills Quilt Lady” and churned out hand-pieced quilts at the speed that some people churn out homemade cookies.
     Jody agreed to create a quilt with my mother’s fabrics. Using descriptions I gave her of Mom’s life as a farmer’s wife in Sanilac County, Jody appliqu├ęd nine folk-art blocks that wove the tale of a wife and mother who: grew and preserved fruits and vegetables, plowed the fields, rolled pie crusts at the local IGA, hoed beans with her four children by her side, welded with her husband and sons, painted ceramics, camped along the shores of Lake Huron and during her retirement years traveled the United States in a fifth-wheel camper. When she quit traveling, she worked as head housekeeper at a ski condominium in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The scenes Jody constructed from Mom’s fabric were lively and colorful, just a vivid as mom’s life. When we presented Mom with her Sanilac Quilted Life, she smiled and stroked the scenes and told us details that stitches and fabric couldn’t depict.
     I moved away from Sanilac County soon after graduating high school and lived a life far different from my mother’s. While writing descriptions to Jody, I thought back to my life on the farm and realized what a great role model my mother was and how fortunate I was to come from such great roots.
     Sanilac County continued to play a part in my mother’s legacy when my book about caring for my mother was first distributed at the “Walk to Remember” in Sandusky, September 2010. The community embraced my book “When Life Hands You Alzheimer’s, Make Aprons!” and has continued to support me and my sister as we work to distribute the book and donate all net profits to Alzheimer’s respite care.
      Eight years before we buried my mother, I returned home to help bury my brother. I callously remarked to my sister that I saw my childhood community as a place I had escaped from. Shame on me. You can never escape your roots. And if you are lucky enough to have an epiphany like I have had, you are thankful that what you left behind is waiting and willing to let you escape back.
     My mother’s Sanilac Quilted Life quilt will be on display at the Sandusky District Library from July 24 - August 12 and at the Sanilac District Library and in Port Sanilac from August 17 - 27. My sister and I will be conducting a book reading and signing at the Sanilac District Library on Aug 17 at 7:00 P.M.

     Hopefully I will get to meet the wonderful woman who read my column and posted it to My husband and I just happened to stumble onto the website. We both sat shocked and in tears as we read the poignant comments readers posted about their experience with Alzheimer’s. It is such a paradox that a disease that unraveled my mother’s brain is also a disease that stitches strangers together in a shared experience.
     While writing the article for the paper, I often thought about Jody and had such good intentions about contacting her. Living on the road and always exploring new places keeps me busy but I’ve added the responsibility of acting as my own book agent and sew aprons almost everyday. All of these are paltry excuses for not getting in touch with Jody. Jody was always so patient and kind with my mother and the incredible work of ‘quilt art’ she created from my mother’s fabric was truly a gift of love.

     Seeing the Sanilac County News article, on the quiltingboard, spurred me into action. I still carried Jody’s business card with me and finally, long last, made a phone call to the woman who deserved to know her work of art, and name, were now on the internet for the world to see.

     I was still shaking and emotional from reading all the lovely comments and my voice cracked as I explained to Jody about the article. A few minutes into my conversation, Jody’s voice trembled as she shared my emotion. I thanked her again for the lovely quilt, and apologized for my delay in contacting her.

     Jody shared with me her sad account of caring for both of her dying parents. Her voice wavered when she said, “I haven’t been able to quilt since my mother’s death.” Quilting was a hobby she and her mother joyfully shared together; now quilting brought Jody sadness as memories of stitching with her mother came back to her. When caring for her mother, Jody discovered her mother had started to horde a myriad of objects. As she began purging her mother’s home, she discovered a closet that was stuffed with fabric.

     As Jody and I shared our common grief, I explained how writing the book and sewing aprons brought me peace and comfort. Jody suddenly remarked, “That’s what I can do with my mother’s fabric, I can help by sewing aprons. It will be a wonderful tribute to my mother.” Jody hopes sewing aprons will steer her through the path of immense grief and guide her back to the world of quilting. Whatever it brings her, I wish her happiness as she holds her mother’s fabrics and once again begins to create works of fabric art. Just maybe sewing will bring her to the same peaceful place my mom and I found as we sewed together.

     There is so much human kindness in this world; it surly overshadows the evil we all hear about. Wouldn’t we all be happier if we focused on what is good and kind in the world? My charitable project has proven to me that human kind is ripe with passionate, generous individuals. Jody McGuffie is a shinning spark in a star-studded sky.

     Thanks Jody…and happy stitching!