(Anne Carson “Uncle Harry” Inspired Writing)
First of all, life in Wilson County, North Carolina when I was born was defined by segregation, social injustice, economic starvation and institutional discrimination enforced by “Jim Crow” laws. The brutality and harsh reality of life was white washed and veiled behind lace curtains of poison ivy drenched in decades of Southern comfort.
Our first meeting in 1950 was when she gently pushed and coaxed me out of my mother’s swollen belly and exhausted labor early one Sunday morning in September. I knew her before I knew myself from gazing into her moon shaped peanut butter brown eyes perched in my nest of protection in her lap. Her rhythmic melodious speech was a mixture of French, Edisto, West African and Anglo dialects melted together into a creamy buttery smoothness of creole delight. Reminiscent of your favorite summer memories, the rose water and oil she distilled made her fragrance in my life unforgettable.
Standing five feet five inches tall, Yat was stacked like a short glass Coca-Cola bottle, big bust, big hips and a small waist. Men would describe her as a “big leg Geechee gal ” as they flashed a devilish grin, licked their lips and stared with glazed over eyes. Her magnificent looks and divinely creative hands never faded even as she aged. Yat’s smile radiated compassion, as she slightly tilted her head when talking with you.
She had a way of inspiring little hands to see imaginary lines on a framed quilt and guiding undisciplined fingers to hold and stab a needle through three layers of fabric while concentrating on making even stitches. As I slow stitch-running lines today, I cherish thoughts of sitting atop my throne of Sears Roebuck’s catalogs quilting with her. Many days other women would wander in and out taking turns quilting, drinking coffee and eating warm sweet bread.
More than anything, it was the creative silence broken intermittently with spontaneous monophonic singing, “Ev’ry time I feel de spirit, movin’ in my heart, I will pray; Jordan river chilly cold, chilla de body but not de soul.” It felt like lines of stitching ran from my heart to hers pulsating creative energy connected by heaven-spun twine.
The miracle of our God inspired connection is that Yat wasn’t my grandmother she was my grandmother’s best friend since the two of them met in 1929. Yat became my primary caretaker because she worked as a nurse at the Tuberculosis Center on the three to eleven weekday shift. My momma was a home economics teacher and my grandmother was the cafeteria manager at a local school, so Yat whose real name was Mat Randolph became my mentor into the world of slow stitching quilted memories.
Witnessing the ebbing transition of soft wisps of golden color wash across a dark blue shroud signaled the beginning of a new day’s adventure for Yat and me. Smells of strong Luzianne coffee brewing merged with tender cured country ham swimming in red eye gravy and sticky lumps of white rice brought us all to the breakfast table with freshly washed hands.
After breakfast Yat worked tirelessly snipping and pruning her expertly cultivated roses wearing a handmade brightly colored smock. “We’ve go to wear color so we can see God’s beauty from the inside out, “ she joyously acclaimed. Yat made everything by hand and all her smocks were cut without a pattern in the brightest, wildest cotton print fabric she could find over dyed indigo blue. She loved bright happiness and having to wear white as a nurse caused her to explode using color at home.
Silver and black hair flowed in two braids that wrapped under her full round buttocks like a rope in stark contrast to the floppy raffia hat dyed bright Marigold yellow adorning her head like a halo. Yat and I were a powerful duo, as I proudly wore my matching outfit while following and mimicking her every creative hands adventure. From late morning until midday naptime, we swam in an ocean of dyed and over-dyed scraps of fabric, merrily stitching quilts with tobacco twine.
I was living a protected privileged life of creative innocence contrasted to the harsh reality surrounding me. Snippets of cruelty pushed their way inside through mouse holes and spider cracks, when playmates were drowned by “never to be found” klansmen. Stitching quilted memories keep me safely cloistered in a four- room house and fenced walls of overgrown shrubby with fragrant flowers.
“Be quite, still and observant like a deer,” I was taught from an early age. Stern warnings were issued to, “walk in the woods so the pine needles don’t crunch, bushes don’t snap and always be ready to hide out in plain sight,” Yat would demand. The stillness and concentration of quilting were meant to teach lessons of survival. Yat shared wisdom and provided me with strategies to cope with the disappointments, sorrows and brokenness we all experience in life. Slow stitching quilts also expresses the joy of each new day, the euphoria of falling in love and the bonds of friendship with other women.
I find myself wrapped in a shimmering blanket of memories humming and singing her favorite spiritual in the slow rhythm guiding my walking foot across a quilt. So much of Yat is inside of me, her words, her songs, her stories and her creative hands experiences as I continue quilting memories.