Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Matrilineage by Deborah Thomas

This simulated quilt is composed of digitally reproduced family photos and a brightly colored baby quilt made for me by my great-grandmother. Five generations of women in my family are represented in this quilt/offering: my great-grandmother, who made the original quilt, my grandmother, my mother, my daughter, and me.

While cleaning out my mother’s house after her death last November, I discovered two suitcases full of family photo albums and photographs that I had never seen before. A number of the photos include my maternal grandmother, Ella Elizabeth Firestone Brooks, who died when I was two. Creating the “quilt” has provided me with the opportunity to sift through photos, memories and feelings, and has helped me especially to get to know and appreciate my grandmother, whom I barely remember.

Ellie, as she was called, was born at the turn of the twentieth century on a farm in Springfield, Pennsylvania, “up the mountain” on Chestnut Ridge, the last ridge of the Appalachians before they flatten into Ohio. She spent her childhood on the farm, where she worked hard helping her mother. To her deep regret, she was pulled out of school prematurely to care for her baby brother Clarence. Soon after, she married my grandfather Hess Lewis Brooks, who grew up on a neighboring farm. When Hess got a job, they moved to town. They had four children --Raymond, Madeline, Gladys (my mother), and Jack – between 1917 and 1934.

My only personal memory of Nana is of standing next to her at about knee-level, a toddler and a stroke victim learning to climb stairs together. Just a few weeks before she died in 1954 she gave me a puppy, Tiny, for Easter. She thought that I should have a puppy because I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. In many of the photos I found of Nana she is interacting with animals or surrounded by family. She was visibly fond of a horse she cared for as a teenager; cats and dogs were daily companions. Three generations later, my daughter also loves the company of animals. My grandmother became a mother at a very early age and appears to have been delighted by her children as well.

Nana showed a particular radiance and grace in many of the pictures I discovered, often in quite ordinary settings – on Sunday outings with her family, feeding the chickens, doing the laundry. Even after she left the farm, her life was shaped by work – she cooked and kept a meticulously clean house, took in boarders during the Depression, and studied to be a practical nurse during the 1940s. She and my grandfather shared an affectionate and devoted relationship until she died at 54 following a series of strokes.

“Because I know that time is always time

And place is always and only place

And what is actual is actual only for one time

And only for one place

I rejoice that things are as they are. . . .”

T.S. Eliot


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