In and out, in and out, the needle dives and resurfaces, dives and resurfaces in the nimble brown hands of the old woman. You wouldn’t think, looking at those hands, that they are nimble at all. They are about 800 years old, with knuckles the size and shape and texture of walnuts. Rheumatism, she says. “I got it bad, but what’s a body to do? Cain’t quit. Don’t hardly know how no more.”
Her back rises up above her hunched shoulders like the bristling hump of a whale and her head sags over her withered breasts. Holding her head up is not easy for her lately, but she makes up for it by staring fiercely out from under the great jutting brow bones that overhang her cavernous eye-sockets. Wrinkled flesh flops loosely on the backs of her arms, below the sleeves of her tie died pink t-shirt. It flips and jiggles like a turkey wattle. A few years ago her neck flesh did the same but now it is trapped under her chin. It will probably never wobble again.
In and out, in and out, the needle goes.
They have fast, modern sewing machines these days, Great-Grandma. You know that, right? Could probably quilt the entire thing in an hour.
“Oh hush with you, Brat,” she says fondly and pats my forearm with her right hand. “What call do I got to be doing that? Finish a quilt in an hour? I declare I never heard such a notion. Sakes alive, what will you whipper-snappers think up next?”
I didn’t think of it. If I had I would be rich and long gone from here.
“Besides, what would I do with myself afterwards, huh? You tell me that, you smart young thing you. I reckon I would go plum crazy and jest rot my brain out without something to keep my hands busy.”
You could make so many more quilts though. If you had a sewing machine you could piece one in a day. Another machine, a quilting machine, would let you quilt it in another day. Think how many quilts you could get through!
The almost invisible eyebrows arch disapprovingly, wrinkling up her vulture forehead. She flicks me on the back of the hand with a brass thimble. “Honey child, I tell you what, ain’t no good work the Lord gives us is only there to be got through. A quilt ain’t something you get through. Sakes-alive! Of all the fool notions!”
Money, Great Grandma. I’ve seen what one of your quilts goes for up to auction, or at the Quaker market. Comfort, Great Grandma, and a warm house with a heated john and insulation in the walls. Or one of those old people homes they got nowadays.
Her voice is sharp now, almost angry, “Now child you hush your mouth afore I wash it out with soap. That’s the problem with you young folks is y’all don’t realize what you got. Now you pick up a needle right this minute and you get a-stitching like I taught you.”
I mumble something about not remembering how.
“You do so too know how!” There is nothing wrong with her hearing. “I done taught you good, and just ‘cause you in high school I don’t reckon they learned all the knowledge out you yet.”
I pick up the needle and begin to follow the edges of the blocks. I don’t dare start in on the center. Her floral patterns, her whirligigs and curlicues and what-have-you’s of thread are a thing to behold. No one can do them but her. She doesn’t mark down a pattern in pencil like other quilters do. She grows the flowers in her head and plants them with her own hand on clean white muslin.
“You mad with me, brat?” She asks softly, glancing my way with rheumy brown eyes in her chocolate speckled face.
No, Great Grandma. I can’t ever get mad with you. I can get mad with anyone else and like it, but not with you.
“I loves you, child.”
I love you, Great Grandma.
“Do good work. When this quilt is finished it’ll be yours.”
I am speechless. I have seen a quilt of Great Grandma’s sell for $1,000 at an auction once. That could be a down-payment on a car, or half a semester of college!
But that thought dies with a sick, guilty feeling, and I wish I had never thought it.
I know I will never sell this quilt.
“Yes, child. I reckon I’m getting tired, all right. When this one is finished it’s yours. I think I might take a rest then. I don’t think I will start another.”
Great-Grandma, are you all right?
“Shucks, Brat, course I’m all right.” She rubs my forearm with her left hand. “I ain’t no machine, is all. Gotta stop sometime.”
I cough. My throat is tight, but I don’t want to know why. “I’m real glad you ain’t no machine, Great-Grandma.”
She laughs. “Me too, honey child. Me too.”