A Legacy of Turtles

Whimsical is not a word I would use to describe my Grandma Howard. Oh, she had a fine sense of humor, and a wonderful smile–the kind that requires the whole face to get in on the act, chin to forehead, ear to ear–this despite the fact that as long as I knew her, she had nary a tooth.

Certainly she had an appetite for beauty: filling her home with handmade quilts, crocheted rugs, and embroidered dresser scarves; and her garden with peonies and cleome.

But more than anything, Elsie Goldie Collins Howard was practical. Life had asked too much of her for her to indulge in frivolity.

Perhaps that is what makes the turtles so unexpected. And so special.

turtles2

The first turtle quilt was a baby gift, given to my parents not long after I was born. It has been well-loved and much used in the intervening years and is barely hanging together in places. But I count it among my dearest treasures.

When I was a little girl, I thought it was so funny, all those colorful little fellas, some wearing familiar cloth, parading across a white ground, linking arms as if to play Ring a Ring o’ Roses. It was not til I started sewing and quilting myself that I realized how much work it had required. The basic block is similar to the one used for the familiar drunkard’s path. But to this was added a hand-appliqued head and tail. For every. single. turtle. VERY impractical.

I don’t think I ever told her how much I loved the quilt. It didn’t even occur to me, in the way it seldom occurs to children to say thank you for dinner or for new socks. Making quilts was so much a part of who she was I might just as readily have thanked her for breathing.

When she died, she left a number of finished quilts that had never been used. Additionally, there was a stack of quilt tops that had yet to be quilted. These were distributed among the children and grandchildren. When my mom saw that one of the quilt tops was turtles, she thoughtfully chose that one for me. She quilted it herself on my grandmother’s frame. I spent a few summer afternoons in the cool of the basement working on it myself, alongside Mom and my Grandma Nelson. I sleep under that quilt every night.

turtles1

Out of the attic of our new old house, we have carved a little playroom for Kenzie, and for the other grandchildren we hope are in our future. We included two sleeping alcoves, each sized to accommodate one twin mattress. As I contemplated how to dress the beds, I decided to make quilts for them–not to save money, you understand. Truth is, I will have as much money in supplies as it would cost to buy a nice enough, mass produced, machine quilted quilt.

But when my grandbabies climb under those quilts, I want them to feel the love I feel when I crawl into my own bed. I want them to know I have stitched something of myself and my love for them into the cloth.

One of the quilts is butterflies, in honor of Kenzie’s summer of butterflies. But the other, is turtles. I was intimidated by the curves and made one practice block first, just to make sure I could do it. Also, I should confess that I am considerably less patient–and far more lazy–than my grandmother, so I ran borders between them to cut down on how many turtles I had to make (a decision I have regretted somewhat because you lose the turtles linking arms).

turtles3

The top is finished and I have bound it to the backing, but a great many fall evenings will find me with a parade of turtles across my lap as I push a needle in and out, paying forward a legacy of love, and whimsy, and turtles.

p.s. The treadle sewing machine in the top photo is the very one my grandmother used to make all those quilt-tops, including my turtles. 🙂