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How Her Family’s Heirloom Quilts Brought Her Happiness

Her grandmother’s renowned quilts had been lost for years, until an angel brought them home.

An artist's rendering of a quilted angel holding colorful, patterned quilts.

One day I entered an antiques shop and saw the most enchanting bedroom on display.

The white iron bed was heavy with pieced and appliquéd quilts. A bow tie pattern stitched in a palette of blues. Flowers created with vibrant pinks and greens. Patchwork quilts and quilts with girls in sunbonnets. Next to the bed was an open pie safe chest overflowing with bolts of fabric. Beautiful calico I could dye or print on. Polished cottons. Atop the cozy bed sat a wicker basket with spool after spool of bright threads. Hanging above it was a sign with the words BLESSED ARE THE PIECEMAKERS. The scene pulled me in like a good story; I wanted to live there.

My family had had beautiful quilts like these—once. I never knew my grandmother, but I knew all about her quilts. Back in the day, people talked about those quilts for miles around. Her applique and pieced works. Her artistic selection of fabrics. Her intricate, even stitches. She created those quilts in the way that she lived her very life, one loving detail at a time. Few things are more personal than handmade objects, and Grandma’s quilts symbolized home itself—blankets wrap a body in warmth, but quilts wrap it in love. They would be cherished heirlooms…if only my family had held onto them.

The quilts had been gone for years. My grandmother had died in the Depression, when my mother was four and her sister, my aunt Joy, was five. Their mama got very sick, and one day she went to the hospital and never came home. That meant their daddy, an electrician for the coal company, had two little girls to take care of all by himself.

Swallowing his pride, Granddaddy approached a neighbor named Mabel. He had an offer, or rather, a plea. “I’m desperate. I need someone who will love my daughters as a mother would,” he told her. “I don’t have money, but I could pay you in my late wife’s quilts if you’ll accept them.”

Mabel agreed and was a wonderful caretaker for my mother and her sister. “Aunt” Mabel became part of the family. Of course I was glad she had come to the rescue of those motherless children, but I couldn’t help but wish we hadn’t given her those quilts. Looking at the display in the antiques store, I felt the loss more keenly than ever.

The next day, I met my mother and Aunt Joy for lunch and told them all about it. “If we could just see those quilts again, my heart would be happy,” I said.

“Maybe we could even buy them back,” Aunt Joy said. “I’d love nothing more than to have something my mother made with her own hands. The last I heard, Mabel was working as a cook at a hospital. It couldn’t hurt to make a few calls.”

We started there and followed every lead. We called the phone numbers we had for our old neighbors. When we couldn’t find them, we found their children and grandchildren, who gave us other numbers to try. Finally, after weeks of searching, we found a close friend of Mabel’s who told us she was living in a nursing home, suffering from dementia. And he told us even more.

“Before Mabel fell ill, she told me about your family and those quilts. She always intended to give them back to you one day. I know right where they are. She took good care of them.”

Of course we saw that she had. They were in perfect condition. Aunt Joy’s husband fixed it so that she could hang one of the pieced quilts on her living room wall, like the one-of-a-kind art it was. My mother and sisters and I took home the wonderful appliquéd ones.

I keep my quilt on my guest room bed, and I tell my visitors my family’s story. That sign in the antiques store made the perfect biblical reference, BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS. For that’s what Aunt Mabel at long last brought to my heart.

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