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 appliquéd 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 http://quiltingboard.com. 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!