Lucinda Ann Crumly. She was called Lou, and she married William Frank Crumly (called Frank) sometime around 1903. They had six children, and their first one, a baby girl named Bessie born in 1904, died at the age of eight months after a pot of boiling water was accidentally spilled over her. I don’t know the details, but I remember growing up hearing that very sad story and being powerfully affected by it. Lou also spent much of her adult life wheelchair-bound due to arthritis that attacked her body at a fairly young age. Frank died in 1964, but Lou lived until 1985 when she died at the age of 102.
She was my dad’s grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Great-grandma Crumly. She is also the person who created this quilt, which I suddenly realized today when I spotted it on a closet shelf, is about a hundred years old now.
I had to take it down from that shelf and touch it and smell it. And photograph it. It’s in surprisingly good shape for its age, especially considering how much it has been used through the years. There are only a couple of holes in it. So many memories spanning the many seasons of my life.
I remember taking naps on this already-old quilt on hot Alabama days. My mother would place it on the hardwood floor and turn an electric floor fan on me. I loved that fan, although I was also terrified of it — my mother’s repeated warnings ringing through my ears. That fan would cut off my fingers if I reached through the grill on the front — a grill with spaces plenty wide enough to allow curious preschool fingers to pass easily through to the heavy metal blades inside. Thankfully, I was more fearful than curious, and the mental image of my fingers lying on the floor in pools of blood kept my hands close to my sides. But I loved that fan from a distance, and even now, my breathing slows and my body relaxes as I close my eyes and hear the soothing hum of that fan mingled with the summer sounds drifting in through my open window. The chirp of crickets, distant yells of lucky neighborhood kids who had outgrown naps, the faint whack of a bat hitting a baseball somewhere on our street, the rhythmic thwock, thwock, thwock of my brother riding his bike with playing cards clothes-pinned to the wheel spokes. I remember that fan’s cool air blowing so effectively across my body that I would eventually wrap this quilt around me, burying myself in its cocoon before slipping into a peaceful sleep.
Then many years later, a couple of my own babies napped on this quilt. I even remember setting up fans (much safer fans!) for those naps in spite of the fact that we had air-conditioning. I wanted to recreate for them those same feelings of safety and comfort and peace. I don’t know that I ever did. These things are individually personal. But it made me feel like a good mother, and those actions were filled with love for my little ones and a great desire to nurture them.
Grandma Crumly was a stern woman with heavy, bushy eyebrows, who dipped snuff, sitting in her wheelchair — always wearing an apron over her skirt — and spitting her “used-up” snuff into an old tin can before using a little brown stick to pack fresh snuff behind her lower lip. And I was always scared of her. I grew up seeing her only once or twice a year when we would drive to “the country” for family reunions and that southern May tradition, Decoration Day. We would start at the cemetery where pockets of relatives would gather here and there in a hushed reverence, placing flowers on graves of loved ones. Later, everyone would make their way to Grandma’s big white house for a good, old-fashioned, pot-luck meal. Always lots of jello at those meals. And potato salad.
Her house was always dimly lit, and it always smelled of old things and old times. There was an elevator that Grandma Crumly had apparently used in much earlier days, until the upstairs portion was vacated and she settled into the downstairs to live out the rest of her life. That upstairs, sitting empty and abandoned above us, always haunted me, and I was told once that the deserted elevator had been relegated to a place for storing slaughtered hogs, greatly adding to the creepiness factor in the mind of fearful little me. But Grandma’s fifth child, Uncle Pete, is the one who told me that. And Uncle Pete was always drunk. I don’t think I ever remember seeing him sober. So who knows the truth about that forsaken elevator.
Grandma Crumly always seemed to me to be unhappy. Maybe even angry. I mostly kept my distance from her because the thought of doing anything to upset her made me quake in my scuffed, white patent Mary Janes. But I wonder now what she was really like. She had certainly been through so many hard times in her life. Robbed of the gift of walking, carrying a mother’s guilt over the horrendous death of her first precious baby. I was told that her husband Frank was a gentle, patient, and loving man. I was only four when he died, so I don’t remember.
But as I studied the many scraps of material that her hands sewed into this beloved quilt a hundred years ago, I realized that I long to know the stories of her life. If only those old scraps could talk and tell what roles they filled all those years ago. A dress for Sunday best? A shirt for working in the cotton fields that surrounded their house? A lovingly sewn baby gown? If only they could tell all of the things they saw and heard in that house as the years passed. Births and deaths. Joys and heartbreaks. Arguments and forgiveness. Marriages and divorces. What secrets must be stitched into this quilt!
I’ll never know. This is all I have left of this great-grandmother. Is this all there is as her legacy? I don’t remember any stories of good that she did in the world, any significant marks she left behind. But maybe she did do good, help others, make lives better in some way.
Is there any point to this post? Not really, I guess. Mostly this quilt, and the memories it brought back to me, just made me feel contemplative. But I do believe that it, and the reflections prompted by it, can serve as reminders that our time here is brief, and that we pass this way once. Only once. We get one real shot at making a difference in this world.
What do I hope to leave behind? I hope that I am leaving pieces of myself embedded in each of my children’s hearts. The better pieces. I hope that I leave them with a desire to love people, to be kind, to fight for the needy, to protect the vulnerable, and to laugh and sing and try to see the best in even the grumpy receptionist on the other end of the phone, or the angry driver who flips them off on I-75. We don’t know those people’s stories, but everyone has stories. Good and bad.
I pray that they will learn, even while watching me be honest about my own doubts and fears, to trust God a little more even when they don’t understand what he’s doing. I hope they will each believe that they are beautiful in their uniqueness, and valuable and gifted, and that there is a special someone out there to love them for who they are — and I hope that none of them will settle for someone who doesn’t love them and treat them as they should be loved and treated. I hope they understand that they don’t have to be perfect parents to love their own babies to places of wholeness and freedom to live life being who they were created to be.
Time is funny. Those potlucks in the downstairs of Great-grandma Crumly’s house seem like such a long, long, long time ago. At the same time, life seems to have zoomed by so very quickly. How did I reach, and pass, the age of 60 so soon? I am a grandmother. And now that I know how fast it all goes, I know that I will be someone’s great-grandmother before I can blink. I so much want to make every minute count. I want to learn to stop wasting any of the time I have left here in this world. I hope to leave behind more than only a quilt, although I feel very blessed to have this link to the past.