Thursday 14 May 2015

Not All Stories are Written on a Page

I am very fortunate because I live in a medium sized city that has all the amenities I could hope for, is within an hour's drive of a large metropolis with arts and culture venues galore yet if I drive for 20 minutes north I find myself in farm country.  Said farm country has a very large Mennonite population, which mean farmers markets filled with farm to table foods, yummy preserves, free range eggs and homemade craft items including AMAZING QUILTS.

Once a year the region hosts the Mennonite Relief Sale, where the most gorgeous quilts are auctioned off in support of charities.  I noticed today that the featured quilt for 2015 is African themed and it has it's own story about how it came into being.  Not only that but imagine the stories told around the quilting frame as it was being stitched!

It also reminded me of an exhibition of quilts that I went to see last year that knocked my socks off.  Each one told a story that both amazed and humbled me.

Last Spring I was flipping through my community newspaper when the headline “From Oma to Oma” caught my attention.  The article was promoting a new exhibit at the Conestoga Mall Museum.  My first reaction was “Hmmm?  I didn’t know Conestoga Mall had a museum?”  As it turns out – they do!  It is one room of, to the best of my approximating skills maybe 800 square feet, tucked into an inconspicuous corner of the mall between the movie theatres and The Bay department store.   Now in all honesty, to call it a Museum is nothing short of an overstatement, however, calling it a Buried Treasure would be very true. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. 

The article explained that the museum was having a showing (and eventual sale) of quilts designed and sewn by Canadian grandmothers in support of their counterparts in Africa.  I learned about the plight of African grandmothers who have, by necessity, become very central to the life of their communities.  African grandmothers have stepped in to care for their grandchildren orphaned by AIDS, helping them through the loss of their parents, even as they are grieving themselves.  Often these grandmothers are widowed, with no form of income, yet they are taking on the raising their grandchildren.  The task of providing for their orphaned grandchildren is daunting.  The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign (or Oma to Oma as the paper called it) helps raise funds to enable the African grandmothers to feed, clothe and house their grandchildren, as well as send them to school.

As one Canadian grandmother of Ethiopian descent stated, “I can see that women suffer a lot there – like in other parts of the world.  Grandmothers are the most forgotten part of the society.  There is no social security system that provides support for grandmothers.  When things are bad for everyone else, it is worse for them.  Support one grandmother, and you are making a difference in the lives of generations.  Together we can change the world, one woman – one grandmother – at a time.

Thus a group of local grandmothers decided to make quilts, the proceeds from which will go directly to the Campaign.

The exhibit of the quilts intrigued me enough to want to go and see them so I checked out the museum’s hours and found that they are only open Tuesday through Friday from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. Well, that certainly was not going to work for me.  They are open on Sundays during the summer.  At the time I read the article July and August seemed very far away, so I filed the exhibit away in the back of my mind.

In May 2014 I read and reviewed (
a book by Sue Monk Kidd titled “The Invention of Wings”.  Charlotte, one of the central characters in the book was making a story quilt of her life.  Each square represented a milestone.  The description of the quilt and the quilting process was intriguing and it reminded me of my interest in visiting the quilt exhibit.

As craft-y as my mother was she did not do quilting.  I have a couple of crocheted blankets that she made, and many crocheted cotton doilies and tablecloths, which in my opinion are works of art.  I have seen pictures of doilies framed and used as wall art.  (Damn you Pinterest!) Those doilies were labors of love for my mom so someday I think I would like to take a few of my mother’s and do that … SOMEDAY!

Two years ago I was feeling a little maudlin about the upcoming Christmas season.  I wanted to make a gift for my girls that they could keep and remember me by when I wasn’t around anymore, the way I have my mom’s doilies.  Not having much of a talent in the arts and crafts department I couldn’t think of anything that was THAT lasting.  A quilt did come to mind, but I have neither the patience nor the stitching ability for a project like that.  I did come across something called a “Rag Tied Quilt” which involves no sewing what so ever.  That was right up my alley talent-wise.

I enthusiastically undertook the making of two of these “Rag Tied Quilts” and halfway through the process wondered what I had gotten myself into.  Just the measuring and cutting of the squares tested my meager reserves of patience – alas – I persevered.  What choice did I have?  What else was I going to do with hundreds of 10-inch by 10-inch squares of cloth?  I must admit that the faux-quilts did turn out rather well and the girls were very touched when they opened their gifts, especially since I had added a little personalized heart on one corner of the blanket.  My place in family history is assured now!

My youngest daughter has her quilt carefully draped over the corner of a loveseat in her apartment.  My eldest daughter lets the dog sleep on it!  And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between my girls! 

Let’s just say that another quilting project (like wallpapering the bathroom) is not anything I plan to undertake again any time soon.  I do think quilts are beautiful works of art and (after my experience) I totally respect the talent and time investment for the people involved in making them.  That being said, I can’t say that I am overly enthusiastic about quilting in general.

I would not describe myself as quilt-obsessed.  Yet, a thread had been pulled (not literally thank goodness – since we ARE talking about quilts) and I did want to go and see this quilt exhibit.  So on Sunday afternoon I took myself off in search of this mysterious, hitherto unheard of, museum.

I did find it, exactly where the website said it would be.  As I cautiously opened the door a very nice young lady approached me and asked if I had been to the museum before.  I responded that I had not and that, in fact, had not known that it existed until I read the article in the Community News.  She nodded her head and said that she “hears that a lot”.  She explained to me that there was no charge for entering the Museum (room!) and I was free to take my time, but please put on the disposable gloves they provided if I was tempted to touch the quilts.  Chuckling to myself, I told her those would not be necessary.  Let me tell you, I never did don the gloves, but there were a couple of moments where it was extremely tempting.  The quilts were astounding and I defy anyone not to describe them as “art”. 

I made a turn around the room to look at the quilts not bothering to read the cards describing them.  Each one was more intricate than the one before.  When I came to the last quilt about seven minutes later (I emphasize how small this “Museum” is) I finally read the card that was posted beside it.  It was then I realized that some of the quilters had been to Africa; living and working with their “Oma” counterparts and some invested their talent and time only because they felt moved to help.  I started my circuit all over again this time carefully reading each card beside its respective quilt.  When I got to the last quilt I meekly walked over to the desk to ask the girl whether pictures were allowed to which she quickly responded “OH YES!”  (I think she was a tad overly enthusiastic – no doubt at actually having someone in the place.)  I started my circuit again, taking pictures of the quilts with the stories that I found most touching.

A picture truly can tell 1000 words and each of these quilts told a story within its frame.  I was awestruck!  

Some of the pieces that particularly spoke to me are below.

By:  Nancy Winn, Waterloo, Ontario
Title:  Footprints for Change

“In the summer of 2011, I traveled to Africa (Uganda) on a mission trip.  I was overwhelmed by the great distances women traveled by foot.  They travel for their basic needs:  food, water, education and worship of God.  By simply putting one foot in front of the other, these women remind us that our daily journeys are something to be thankful for.”

By:  Mary Ann Gilhurst, Waterloo, Ontario
Title:  A Place to Grow

“The Stephen Lewis Foundation publication “Grassroots” (Summer 2009) had a story about a 96-year-old grandmother from Malawi, who was caring for four orphaned grandchildren in a hut with a mud floor and a leaky roof.  The Stephen Lewis Foundation sponsored Hope for the Elderly (HOFE) that repaired her roof and helped her with food.  She had a home that could be repaired but many sub-Saharan African women lose their homes when their husbands die.  If a grandmother has a home and an area to grow food, she can better care for, raise, even educate her grandchildren.  They can go from starving to thriving.”

By:  Dorothy Holdenmeyer
Title:  Women Do the Walking While Men Do the Talking

(Unfortunately I did not make not make note of this quilt’s description)

By: Lynne McCulloch, Burlington, Ontario
Title:  Helping Hope To Rise

“I wanted to represent that Canadian women have provided hope to grandmothers struggling to raise their grandchildren.  The base area contains friendship block in Canadian colours to suggest the support given.  The friendship provides a basis for hope.  The three female figures represent a grandmother, a child and a daughter whose generation is threatened by AIDS.  The dancing women dressed in colourful garments are celebrating their hope for a better future.  The butterflies rising and hovering at the top suggest hopefulness provided by the financial contributions and anti-viral drugs helping to save lives.”

By:  Margaret Hope, Oshawa, Ontario
Title:  Faith, Hope and Charity

“I am truly blessed with good eye sight, hands that work well and a vivid imagination.  My birthday is in May and I will be 91 years old.  If in some small way this art pieces helps the African grandmothers, it will be my way of counting my blessings.”

By:  Elaine Graham, Kitchener, Ontario
Title:  Floating Dandelions

“Dandelions embody many of the same qualities that African and Canadian grandmothers possess.  All are beautiful, playful and deeply committed to grow wherever they land.  Grandmothers, like dandelions, are hardy and strong with deep roots.  Both are bright, playful, and at times a little bit out of control.  Sadly, there are times when both are dismissed or ignored.  In Canada, as dandelions begin to emerge from the winter’s ground, we find hope that spring is on its way and that the long winter is behind us for another year.  Hope, renewal and new life are present in Grandmothers and dandelions.  I hope that this piece of art reflects and celebrates these ideas.”

By:  Judy Pearce, Kitchener, Ontario
Title:  Nyanya

“I am called Nana.  She is called Nyanya (Nyanya means grandmother in Swahili).  When my grandchildren are in my care, my children come home after a few hours.  Her children do not return.  I hope, in some small way, this piece will help her find the resources she needs to cope with her huge responsibility.”

By:  Mary Walsh, Waterloo, Ontaro
Title:  Rooted in Spirit

“Inspired by my great admiration for Africa’s grandmothers, Rooted in Spirit expresses my vision of a grandmother as an Acacia tree, a maternal symbol of protection, provider and link to the past.  Often standing alone, she is tall, strong, resilient and full of grace.  She is firmly rooted in the present as she raises her arms (tree limbs) to embrace her grandchildren while deeply connected to the sleeping souls (in the roots below) of her adult children lost to the AIDS pandemic.  She is caring, full of hope for the future and deeply rooted in spirit.”

I’m glad I went to see these cloth and thread masterpieces that each tell their own story.  It amounted to a grand total of about one-half hour out of my Sunday afternoon that I consider very well spent.   


  1. Wow, truly amazing, the story, the colors weaved in. These are indeed a masterpiece. Thanks for sharing this blog. Frank Talaber

    1. Thanks for the kind words ... I hesitated, thinking this might not belong on this blog but a story is a story no matter how it is told.