My grandmother survived the Great Depression. A farmer in rural Michigan and one of seven children, there was barely enough to go around, be it food or clothing, and most certainly there was no extra anything. She didn’t have beautiful things. Her clothes were hand me downs from older cousins; her boots had cardboard in the soles to cover the holes.

Despite the great limitations of her circumstances, my grandmother found a way to create beauty in her world. She transformed rags into something regal: quilts. When clothing had been passed down too many times it would be dissected into smaller pieces and sewn together into intricate geometric patterns, creating dynamic tapestries. The faded white walls and rickety wood furniture of the farmhouse were lifted up by her creative designs, antagonizing the functional utility of all other household items.

My grandmother’s quilts are history books – the layers of material are the chapters of her life, of her family’s life, of my family’s life, of generations. She gifted each of her nineteen grandchildren a quilt – a material means by which to reflect upon and remember our roots.

My sister carries out my grandmother’s tradition. New to quilting, she is creating a resplendent tableau out of scraps of material from that which is outgrown. Years from now, her daughters will look at the quilt and locate parts of themselves – this was my favorite purple shirt when I was 3, those were my green corduroy pants that I got for my birthday.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a quilter exactly; it requires a particular type of attention to detail that would feel labored instead of soothing to me. But I do weave together layers of material, chapters of life, creating resplendent tableaus full of intricate patterns. To me, that is what therapy is: threading together your thoughts, feelings, memories, and perspectives, past and present, helping you form a vision of your future. A tapestry of pain, struggle, happiness, triumph, fear, excitement, woven into the story that is your life.

Quilts by my great-grandmother Magdalene Shaner


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