His 92 year old distant relative gave my husband a quilt. Back home after a quick trip to Abilene, we opened the quilt’s packaging and read the yellowed notes straight-pinned to it. The quilt was handmade by women in the community of Truby, Texas in the early 1930s.
Each woman had handstitched a square along with her name and some added dates. We recognized three names: Opal Pelton, my husband’s grandmother, who we later called Mamaw Ryan, her mom, Mrs. D.S. Pelton, (Mrs. D.S. had other four other first names Mary, Cordie, Minnie and Estes so I’m guessing she had a hard time decided what to stitch), and my husband’s great great Grandma Mathis who also stitched the date she finished her square, April 1, 1933.
Our eyes were wide as we took in the idea of this quilt. How could the still colors be so bright? It was created in the depression years. What was it like in West Texas then? Wasn’t it dry, desperate and hopeless? Where did these women get this material? How long had they saved it up in drawers or boxes under their beds, wrapped in salvaged tissue paper or old newspapers?
I tried to picture their quilting time. Were they together doing this? Did they talk about their families, the weather and God as they stitched? I could almost hear their laughter. I imagined tear stains on some of these squares as they shared heartbreak and hard times. Did Grandma Mathis have some arthritic pain in her fingers as she stitched? I pictured my husband’s grandmother, Opal, as 19-year-old, sitting with her mom, grandma, relatives and neighbors, quilting and hearing the stories she would later tell us. Oh my, what a gift, this colorful quilt.
The handwritten note said the back of the quilt was made from four flour sack pieces. They too are colorful and even flowery. My husband said there was a time when flour companies made flour sacks out of that kind of material in order to entice women to buy their flour. How does he even know this?
I asked him to hang it in my study, this sacred space where I write, this room where I have collected pictures of family, sloths doing yoga and signs that soothe my soul and inspire me. The sign I always see when I walk in my study is the sign that says Let your soul speak. I try to always let her speak, with God’s help, when I write.
I want to be surrounded by the women of this quilt, this cloud of witnesses. I only met one of them, but I treasured her. I am sure her friends and relatives were equally precious. Don’t you wish you could hear their stories? What would it be like to be in the quilting circle and coax from them their deepest tales, even the ones they may have never shared.
The reason we were in Abilene was because my in-laws, Robert (Opal’s son) and J’Lyn Ryan were receiving an award from their alma mater, Hardin-Simmons University. They received the John J. Keeter Jr. Service Award. My in-laws are in their 80’s but still have sharp minds and sparkling eyes. It was pure joy to see them honored and to hear their speeches. They both told stories we had never heard about the struggle of being first generation college students, how they met, the small Texas communities they served and even how my husband got the name Robin.
I’ve been a part of the Ryan family for almost 40 years. During the event, I felt grateful that I found this family who took me in and shared with me their habits of loving, serving and being all in wherever you are. I can now see the generational power of the values of military service, faith, athletics, coaching and education woven like a braid in the DNA of this family and now through each of our children’s lives as well.
In every community they loved the people, gave their all to their education jobs (they have a combined 79 years of service in public education in Texas schools.) They invested in their churches in every place and all along to their university, serving on committees, shaping the school for future generations, giving what they could to the scholarship funds for students like them, who needed some help to make college affordable.
That night we met the other athletes, the quarterback and wide receiver who hung out with my basketball playing father-in-law in his college days and heard tales of how they all met their loves in English class or at a certain place on campus. These octogenarians making us feel like it was happening all over again, right now, their words and stories so vivid,
The morning after the ceremony, a small group of relatives reminisced about it all over breakfast. My mother-in-law expressing astonishment that they would be honored in such a way. She said something about others giving far more to the university than they ever did.
I don’t think I responded well in the moment but I tried to say, you did it a better way. You did it stitch by stitch over your entire lifetime. You did it community by community, church by church, small gift by small gift, one small act of service at a time. You did it by always being all in with family, friends and by just doing the next right thing. You shoveled snow in the church parking lot, led the Bible study, worked the concession stand for the band and the athletic teams, you wrote that check when you could and it all made a beautiful, colorful tapestry of a life, a vibrant quilt of service, sacrifice and love.
I’m learning this is how a rich life is made, memory by memory, story by story, small act by small act, stitch by stitch.
This is how families are made. This is how churches are made. This is how communities become deep, colorful and vibrant too. This is how you hand down values to your children, by showing up wherever you are and doing your best to be all in. This is how our children learn to do the same.
Times may be tough, you may not see how it will all work out, so you just show up at the quilting circle with the precious cloth you salvaged from the flour sack, start stitching and sharing your messy life.
One day, when you can’t quite even imagine it, you get a glimpse of the whole thing...that life, attached to other lives, other stories and the all the little parts you managed to do, stitch by stitch,
Suddenly before you, you can see it, our deep. richly colorful lives, all of us connected through generations and time. God making it work, grace making it work, the pieces together better than they ever could have been apart, this life, this beautiful quilt.
Jesus said, God’s kingdom is like a tiny acorn that a farmer plants. It is quite small as seeds go, but in the course of years it grows into a huge oak tree and eagles build nests in it. Matthew 13:32 The Message
Dr. Cindy Ryan is a pastor, wife, mother of three, breast cancer survivor and Mosa to Keller, Pace and River. To read more blogs or to sign up for Cindy’s Inner Circle monthly email, go to http://www.drcindyryanblog.com.