Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Orphan Quilt

I think this house has ghosts. I don’t live here yet. But as I wander the many hallways, climb the stairs to the attic, and walk through the orchard, they come and talk to me. The first was Isabella. She is a sweet lady, sly and mischievous. Angus, the Scotsman wanders through the orchard. He has put in a few appearances but is strangely silent. I may learn his story on a later trip. Jess didn’t appear till I hung her portrait. It must have been her portal into my home.

As I lay there in the dark in my mother’s bed I could feel her eyes on me. They were dark, piercing, unsmiling. I wonder what she was thinking silently staring out of the painting I had hung on the wall in the red room.
I always liked the headshot. It was a copy from a full-length portrait of my great grandmother Janet. Her story is a mystery. My mother and her sisters would never speak about her. And yet I have her portrait. Her sisters sent it to my mother and later I asked for it. But- who are you Grandmother Janet?

“Children, They break your hearts.  I never wanted to be a mom. But there I sat on the boat, slowly rocking back and forth in the surf’, my stomach extended more than I ever thought was possible. What was I going to do now? Soon I would be ashore, my husband would be meeting me. He would know this child wasn’t his. He left home three years ago. There was no way he would accept this child as his own. How was I going to survive the mess I had gotten myself into?

I married young in Glasgow Scotland. I was running away from an abusive home and ended up in the arms of a cold stern Presbyterian minister.  He left one morning to sail to America to make his fortune in the coalfields of the Great West, and to save the souls of the savages. “Jesse”, he said, “I’ll write and send for ye. Be a good gal na.”

Tenderly I ran my fingers across my stretched belly. Hush, hush, we’ll be there soon. Hang on. I had been having contractions since late last night. I was anxious to give birth to my burden, but I’d rather not drop it into the ocean while wading to solid ground. The trip had been horrid. I had passage in the hull of the great ship. Having little money, I wasn’t able to get a cabin of my own or even one with ten other people crowded into it. I was in steerage with the seething masses trying to get out of England. We had left six weeks ago and tossed through the waves, the ship sometimes nearly lying on its side, ravaged by the winds and the rains.
The other women on the ship took pity on my little one. Each had contributed a piece of precious fabric or a quilt block from her own store. Together we spent the long trip stitching in the weak light till we had enough for a baby’s blanket. We called it the orphan quilt. I don’t know if it was because a different hand made each of the blocks or because they weren’t sure I’d make it. The wee bairn may be an orphan yet if my husband turns us away.

I folded the precious blanket, a memorial of my shipboard friends to pack away for the trip ashore.
The largest block is called The Battle of Thor. It is an ancient symbol from Germany. It is believed to represent the sun and be a sign of peace. I need that assurance. Lottie gave me that one. “ She had been a good friend, caring for me during my bouts of upheaval on the ship. I don’t suppose I’ll ever get on a boat again. I need the firm ground beneath me.
Marne gave me a similar block in black and white. She’s from India, and sang soothing chants to help me sleep through the storms. The same symbol in Hindu means Life is good. There is value. I’ll need to remember that through the next few weeks, I know.
I must finish packing to go ashore. I can’t wait to be on dry ground.


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