Years ago after our family moved from New England to a farm on the Kentucky Ridge, my neighbors invited my daughter Addie and I to experience something few people are able to witness. A group of women from the local Old Order Mennonite community in Casey County, Kentucky, led by several of my good friends in this faith, wanted to make a 'friendship' quilt for my husband's December birthday. That summer I had selected the fabrics and decided upon the pattern with my Mennonite friend Anna. She pieced the blocks together and took each of thirty-six blocks to different families and individuals that we knew in the community. In the autumn we gathered at a home to quilt the sewn back and front together and to bind it off.
All day the women worked at the quilt frame in the late October sunlight on the southern side of the home, where sewing is traditionally done because there is not always electricity. At noon we took a break with a meal my daughter and I provided—because we were not quilters. I also took photographs to document the process, being careful not to include faces. The assembled group allowed that, given that it's not everyday that one is given a handmade friendship quilt or gets to see part of its creation. (Mennonites believe photographs of faces defy the Bible’s teaching against having graven images).
Many of these women are the most industrious women I know: they easily run domestic circles around me. (To stay on task, and so well, is an enviable attribute.) A quilting provides a necessary pause away from all of that domestic routine and solitude, and a time for more intimate discussions, a chance to share news, some polite well-meaning "gossip," or to share recipes. Being a part of that day showed me what women can do when they put their minds to it, in whatever capacity: how, when working together, they can make great things. It was truly humbling for me. (The men in their communities work together the same way on building projects.)
The quilt, which we now use and see every day, represents these friendships and acquaintances that we hold dear. There is such harmony in its pattern and yet great diversity, too. And there, stitched on each block, are the names and individual embellishments from so many families in the community. I can run my fingers over the stitching and think of each one, each gift they have given us with their participation and handiwork–and many with their friendship.
On Christmas Day in 2009 we assembled at the home of Anna and Melvin to sing hymns together in the afternoon. The day was dreary and dark but the songs of the many gathered there lifted us up to the place you should be on Christmas. I felt a stark kind of spiritual experience. To be a part of their fellowship made me feel all the more welcome here on a holiday that can be hard so far away from one's familiar.
After the singing, Anna and I and some other women walked out with the quilt. My husband was surprised, moved, and, for once in his life, speechless.
Today I look at that quilt and am reminded of how well this community of Old Order Mennonites works together. They are the first to show up for local blood drives and to help in times of disaster, not only for each other but for their “English” neighbors.
The quilt represents beauty, order, benevolence and individuality amongst unity. While it was crafted by women in two Mennonite churches that had split apart, it remains a constant reminder that among discord there can always be a quiet, resonant harmony, and a joining together despite differences of opinion or ways of worship. It is often the final outcome or greater glory that is important and not necessarily the details.
The quilt is like an intricate rosary of fabric and stitches and handmade, heartfelt care. It has helped bind together our new lives in Kentucky.
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