The wind scattered the cotton clouds across that summer sky. It looked like a dog had been playing with God’s pillow, and the frolic just got out of hand.
“Get’n the car,” Mama said. “We head’n down to your Aunt Mazie’s house.”
The air, sauteed in August with a splash of mosquitos, was too thin to breathe and too thick to ignore. It stuck to you like a car salesman after finding out you have a job and a little cash to pay down.
Folded up on the backseat was a quilt top. Mama’s mama had cut out and stitched it together decades ago. What a tedious job that was for Granny Martin—cutting the small squares and diamonds from old shirts and feed sacks, sewing them together one by one, stitch-by-stitch, thimble pushing and fingers pulling.
In my mind, I can see her now.
There is no telling how many cans of Dental Sweet Snuff she went through getting that job done.
Lord only knows how much she loved her snuff. Grandpa loved his snuff, too. If I remember right, he dipped Railroad brand, which only goes to show you that people can live together without agreeing on every little thing.
She gave the quilt top to Mama and now it was on its way to Aunt Mazie’s house to become a quilt that could warm you in more ways than one.
When we got there, the doors and windows on the almost-paid-for Jim Walter house were all open. It was more of a gesture of defiance against the North Florida summer than any relief it might bring on this windless day. On days like this, the air was so still that the leaves looked like a drawing on a sweaty artist’s melting canvas.
Inside, three women would spend several afternoons sitting around a squared wooden frame that Daddy built. It was held together on each corner by wood clamps and suspended off the floor by small ropes tied to hooks screwed into the ceiling. The women, all sitting in straight-back chairs, looked different but similar, having obvious features from kindred stock.
From the oldest on down, they were three of the five Martin sisters. They were bound by common blood from uncommon ancestors as durable as the pine plank floors of their old homeplace that sat on the Alabama dirt many years ago.
Aunt Mazie—the oldest and the one who looked most like their mama, Aunt Eunice—next to the oldest, and Mama—the one born in the middle. Each sister was armed with a thimble, thread, and a needle. They sat side-by-side, looking out across colorful squares and diamonds Granny had cut from old work shirts, denim overalls and Purina feed sacks.
Sprawled in front of them like cotton rows of color lay days and days of work to be done. Rolled up in their wake were days and days of work already done. And sometimes, like another layer of icing on an already wonderful cake, Granny Martin would be there sewing too—sometimes in flesh, always in spirit.
Aunt Mazie was still raising a family in that Jim Walter house and Mama was still raising a family in her Jim Walter house two miles away. Aunt Eunice had no children but kept herself busy by tattling on dozens of nieces and nephews.
As a young boy still wearing yesterday’s dirt, I was suspended somewhere in time between “Hey Diddle Diddle” and the ladies’ bra section of the Sears catalog.
I would crawl up under the dangling frame and lie on the floor. From that vantage, I’d look up and watch the sisters poking needle holes in the ceiling of my fort, stitching cotton clouds to the underside.
Under there, like a new lawnmower, my imagination would start on the first pull. Under there, I was whomever and wherever I wanted to be—from Captain Kangaroo to Winnie the Pooh, then Lash LaRue and Hoppy too. It was a boyhood fantasy, a who’s who of Saturday morning TV.
I don’t remember what the sisters talked about. It could have been about ol’ brother So-and-So selling buggy peas and okra so hard, that in a boy’s imagination, he could use it to kill vampires. Or maybe they were taking turns testifying and quoting scriptures or nodding in agreement that Mr. Cicero Hoover at Revel’s IGA was the best meat cutter in North Florida.
Beneath that canopy of cotton and color, I’d stay until the end of the day. Then, before dark, the chairs would scoot and bump back across the wooden floor. The sisters would stand and pull the ropes so the frame would rise until it was close to the ceiling. Then they’d tie it off, up and out of the way, so the living room, which was not much bigger than the quilting frame, could resume its original duties, its role in life.
Before I would crawl out, I would look up and see a sky that was now a patch of solid white cotton batting. It was as if the sisters, at least while inside that Jim Walter house, had the power and thread to stitch back together what that dog had torn apart in the real sky outside.
Up there above us all, the frame would hang until the next day.
“Get’n the car,” Mama said. “We go’n home. Your daddy’ll be there directly.”
That was fine with me because it was Wednesday, and that elusive ice cream truck would roll by the house that afternoon. I didn’t want to miss chasing it with a little cold cash burning a hole in the pocket of my short pants. A dime could do that, you know.
The next day we’d go back. The sisters would lower the frame and take up where they’d left off. I’d crawl back into my fort so my imagination could take up where it left off.
These sisters were no longer young but not old either. Over time, I would go to all three funerals, and I would sit on a pew and cry like a child after Father Time had demolished his fort.
Sometimes something will arouse those sleeping memories, blinking them awake the same way a barking fox wakes a sleeping dog in the middle of an unsettled night. And I will think about time spent under that quilting frame.
Everything just sort of fell into place under there. You know, kind of like when your Mama gave you a dime, and you’d chase the ice cream truck on foot with your pocket on fire. And then, right before you gave up, everything would get okay, because, through the dust that tasted like vanilla and Ford exhaust, you’d see the truck’s brake lights blink on.
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