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Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Real Magic*


 “Little Rabbit,” she said, “don’t you know who I am?”
 “I am the nursery magic Fairy,” she said. “I take care of all the playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn out and the children don’t need them any more, then I come and take them away with me and turn them into Real.”
          – from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams
     
Clambering out the back doors and up onto the roof of our old wood paneled station wagon was decadent fun. My sister and I threw our pillows onto the roof followed by our magic blankets and climbed safely inside the silver rectangle of the roof railings, an area ostensibly for the easy transport of luggage, but also just the right size for a bed for two children.

Fireflies floated in the dusky air, swings creaked at the small rusty playground meant for restless children, and the huge movie screen glowed. Cartoon hot dogs, sodas and popcorn danced on skinny legs across the screen, their happy tune cavorting from the speakers hooked on our station wagon windows, urging us to the delights of the concession stand.

With our parents in the front seat, Lisa and I settled on the roof in the familiar comfort of our magic blankets, blissfully mesmerized by the treat of a drive-in movie.

***********

I was about a year and a half old when my father was discharged from the Army in late 1963 and we moved from the area of Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines back to the United States and lived for a time with my mother’s parents in western North Carolina. We were scheduled to move to Pennsylvania soon, and after several years in the tropics, did not have warm bedding. But our young family was short on money.

Feed sack turned dish towel turned magic quilt.
  My grandmother Opal had a quilting bag filled with fabric scraps that she was happy to give to the warm bedding cause and my mother was happy to turn into quilts. Each of the fabric squares on our 'magic blankets' has a story of family history behind it, not just a generational passing down of a subsistence skill and art, but fleshing out a picture of rural American resourcefulness in using livestock feed sacks to make clothes, dish towels and more.

  
The edging and backing of our quilts were made from cow feed sacks that came from Polkville where my Granddaddy Lee bought cow feed.

My Aunt Wanda had a dress out of this fabric, which was then passed down to my
mother. You can see the part that was protected on the right.
Most rural families sewed much of their own clothing prior to the 1960s and 1970s. While my mother was growing up, her Grandma Bridges was the main seamstress for the family until my mother, Pat, and her sister, Wanda, learned to sew well. With her parents busy farming and working at local textile mills, my mother looked forward to the treat of making trips to the fabric store in Spindale with her Grandma Bridges, whose love of sewing sparked that same love in my mother. The fabric store, Mitchell Company, had a remnants area called The Ragbox, where they sold fabric for fifty cents a yard. Sometimes they even ran specials for nickel a yard – and three yards of fabric would make a fashionable 1950s dress with a big skirt.  Fifteen cents for a dress! 
  



My mother and her sister had Sunday school dresses made
made from this fabric.

This square was my mother’s skirt at 4H Camp. Like many children from farming families, my mother and her sister went to 4H Camp at Swannanoa, North Carolina. During the week, casual dress (jeans, shorts) was expected, but the last night was special – campers dressed up for a square dance. My mother helped her Grandma Bridges make a skirt from this fabric for that final night’s square dance. The skirt had a pinafore with straps and a white eyelet blouse that went with it.

***********

 Sleepy late afternoon at the shore. I am worn out after a day playing in the ocean. From the cocoon of our camper, I can hear the roar of the waves pounding the beach on the other side of the dunes. The canvas tent flaps push in and suck out with the salty breeze. I hear tinny pots and pans clanking as my mother fixes dinner on the Coleman stove set on a corner of the wooden picnic table.
           
Too hot to get in my sleeping bag, I lay on top of it. I turn on my side and pull my magic blanket over my shoulders to cool and comfort me. With each movement, sand falls off my dirty brown feet in soft tickles. I rub my fingers over the pretty flowered square of my grandmother’s dress and close my eyes.

This is the oldest fabric on my magic blanket. Grandmother Opal had a dress
made out of this when she was a young married woman. She was married at
 sixteen in about 1935.


















Unfaded portion of Grandmother's dress at left

**********
Usually quilts have fluffy batting inside them. Since we couldn’t afford that, and other material was readily available, our magic quilts had a different filler. That other filler came from the 'double blankets' my mother, Wanda, and their brother Robert had as children. Years after their original use, when my mother, aunt and uncle were grown, those blankets were crafted into the filler for our quilts, making our quilts sturdy and heavy. This weight was one of my favorite things about our quilts and why Lisa and I called them our magic blankets  –  the weight acted as insulation.  We swore our quilts kept us cool in the summer and warm in the winter! That weight, both in the literal and metaphorical sense of family, was so comforting. As little girls, it was pure magic.

Our mother let us pick out the squares of fabric we wanted her to sew into our quilts from Grandmother Opal’s quilting bag and let us decide where each square would go.


Green girls go at the top, tucked under my chin. I liked their hearts.

     
These three fabrics were part of a set. The green and white fabrics were first made into a ‘border skirt’ for my Aunt Wanda, with the waist and main area made from the fabric with the white background, the green girls next to the bottom and the green background fabric at the very bottom. It was later handed down to my mother who wore it for a while, then took it apart and made it into a short blouse to wear with Bermuda shorts.
     
Uncle Steve's sun suit.
     When my mother learned to sew fairly well, she made sun suits for her youngest brother, Steve. They had straps at the shoulder and snaps at the bottom to change his diaper.





This mama bear rocking a baby bear used to be a cow feed sack. There are several squares of this fabric on my quilt and it is one of my favorites. The biggest square in the middle of my quilt is this fabric; I always thought of it as the heart of my magic blanket.
My mother's Home Economics project fabric.
My mother also enjoyed sewing in her Home Economics classes in high school. In tenth grade, they were assigned a redecoration project. The students were to sew something to redecorate a room. My mother sewed cushions to match a bedspread and also made a seat and seat cushion for a dressing table set. Her father helped her make the seat for the dressing table out of a little wooden barrel and she made a cushion to sit on top of the seat out of this same fabric. 

My mother’s Grandma Bridges sewed Easter dresses out of this lamb fabric for my mother and her sister. My mother’s fabric was blue lambs to go with her blue eyes and this is the fabric that ended up on my quilt. My aunt’s fabric was yellow lambs to complement her brown eyes, and that was used on my sister’s quilt.

This fabric was first a dress for Wanda, then for my mother. You can see where I tried (very badly) to repair a rip when I was about 12. This, unfortunately, was the extent and sum of my sewing talent.

My mother made herself some babydoll pajama sets from this pink checked and pink and blue flowered fabric.


***********

Two little girls laying on newly made, brightly colored quilts on the floor in their grandmother’s front hallway, looking through the screen door, across the porch to the front yard. Two heads leaning together, whispering, giggling, telling stories about the pictures and animals on their new quilts, flying over mystical lands on their magic carpets. Two little girls discovering the magic of their blankets.

***********

 Young as I was, I remember being given the finished quilt and marveling at it. I remember the feeling of awe in that amazing gift. The wonderful weight, the bright patchwork of patterns each with a different family history, the pictures in the patterns that I would look at for hours and that became comforting to me – all of these things made my magic blanket a treasured companion that I used almost daily for decades - for warmth, play and comfort. I also covered my own children, now young adults, with my magic blanket more than a few times when they were little.
     
My quilt is now sadly worn, yellowed and tattered beyond repair. Although the quilt itself is fifty years old, the family fabrics in the quilt are several decades older than that. It has been washed countless times over its life but can no longer be since the fabric is so old and fragile. It is still one of my most favorite things from my childhood and a treasure of family memories.
    
My quilt’s ability to keep me cool in summer and warm in winter certainly felt magical, but the real magic was in being covered and comforted by family memories.

                   “What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day.
        “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
        “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
        “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse. “Generally by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But those things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” – from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

*Originally published in Rich Fabric - An Anthology. The Symbolism, Tradition and Culture of Quilting, edited by Melinda McGuire as a multi-media ebook. 



9 comments:

  1. What a beautiful story and how wonderful to be able to wrap up in your family's history.

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  2. What a beautiful story and how wonderful to be able to wrap up in your family's history.

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  3. I hope you can incorporates some of these stories into your story! Such memories...

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    1. Yes, very special memories. Thanks for commenting, Carol!

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  4. I absolutely love this essay with photos. The photos of the different worn quilt fabrics are beautiful and evocative.

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    1. Thank you, Caroline. So glad you enjoyed it!

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  5. Kara,
    This is beautiful. Keep that quilt forever. I hope you'll preserve the memories and photos, in book form too so it can be enjoyed from cover to cover.

    I've never seen most of these patterns. What a treasure! I loved hearing your experiences too. Especially the ones about being on top of the station wagon with your sister and your magic blankets.

    Thanks for sharing.

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