As children we’d often curl up beneath a patchwork blanket sewn by my grandmother. The squares of wool were worn thread-bare with time and the clutching of little hands, each piece held together with an assortment of leftover yarn. Through the years there were several of these blankets, each one a different color and size depending on whatever remnants remained in the bottom of the fabric grab bag. As each new one took shape, me and my cousins would discover a cozy new spot to read, a blanket for our babydoll or the makings of a tent where we’d hideout together telling ghost stories.
Like grandma’s blankets, the fabric of my family’s simple lives were made up of a patchwork of memories and shared history that we now call heritage and at the center of it all were my grandparents.
One of the earliest memories I can recall is from Goodwater, a tiny town in East Alabama where grandma first learned the story of Johnny Appleseed. Recounted for us as we snuggled under the comfort of a white, chenille bedspread, it came to represent the power of one and the limitless possibilities of a dream. I can imagine her packing up the story, along with her belongings, as she climbed aboard the City of Miami and road the streamliner south toward her future. It took a lot of guts for a small town girl to ride the rails until the end of the line but she had learned that small things could give birth to endless opportunities. From that solitary journey would come a career as a wedding gown seamstress for a Mrs. Burdine, founder of Burdines department stores, followed by a man she would later meet at a USO dance and three children who would begin the origins of what I now know as family.
Sewn into another corner of my childhood is the smell of fish frying on a stove in the garage and the pungent odor of coquina soup. Gathered from a day at the beach, it brings back memories of salty, sunburned skin stuck to the back of my Grandpa’s Vis-queen covered seats as we made our way home in an old Dodge Rambler. During the impatient lulls of those days on the pier he would tell us about the fish and the interactions of the things that lived in the ocean: survival of the fittest, symbiotic relationships and the order of the food chain. These were the lessons that taught me to appreciate that God created all things to work together.
Finally, tucked away in the recesses of the past are musty, old copies of National Geographic magazines. Leafing through those dogeared issues, sacredly preserved in a corner of the garage, was where I learned the wonder of a world that was larger than the four corners of my neighborhood. I often wonder as I write about places like Marrakech and Addis Ababa, Split and the Great Barrier Reef if these stories weren’t first born years ago sitting on a cold slab of concrete in a hot and humid Florida carport.
Before she passed, Grandma made sure each one of my kids had a patchwork quilt of their very own with their name embroidered in the corner. And even though the last one isn’t quite as big, thanks to the arthritis that had taken her hands, it’s no less special. I hope my children know the treasure those blankets hold. I hope that one day they’ll look back and remember the magical places they once escaped to inside those make-shift tents and the stories that were told beneath the warmth of the covers. Most of all, I hope they know that you can make priceless things from scraps and that sometimes there’s nothing more valuable than a gift that’s hand-sewn with love and worn thread-bare by the clutching of little hands.