Photograph: Sewing a quilt. Gees Bend, Alabama/Jennie Pettway and another girl with the quilter Jorena Pettway/Nitrate negative/ Rothstein, Arthur, 1915-1985, photographer
1937 Apr.- United States–Alabama–Wilcox County–Gees Bend
Patchwork My husband’s people were from Kentucky. When they flew out for our wedding they brought quilts that had been in the family for decades. His mother taught school, paid taxes, saluted the flag. She didn’t have much use for Negroes. I’d sit on my hands, shoveling food to stem my growing rage, not sure what to say. We hung those quilts on our walls. A middle child of four suburban girls serial maids were a square in my patchwork. They slept in an alcove off the laundry room where mother once washed my mouth out with soap. They came and went, a stream of starched white aprons over pastel uniforms. While they went about their upstairs work I’d sneak into their room, a child Perry Mason hoping to glean the secrets of their lives. Bernice wore red Oxfords. She took a shine to me and we would talk into the night. She showed me photos of her kids, waiting down in Winston-Salem waiting for their mother to come home. How could she bear to leave her own to work for us, an average white family in a small Northeastern town? When I left home, I stored these memories in the cedar closet of the past beside my childhood quilts. Years later, wandering an exhibit—the quilts of Gee’s Bend— history came crawling back. As I walked the rooms I heard stories pieced together from flour sacks overalls, and mattress ticking. Whatever would hold its weave was stitched, rag to rag, to wrap a body, live or dead. In life-size photos I came to know the quilters in their barren shacks. Toughness and tenacity reached out and rocked me, and a gentleness stitched into the fabric passed from hand to hand and generation to generation. From dust they sewed the stories of their lives just as Chinese prisoners (I later learned) sewed floral quilts for Macy’s that used to grace our featherbeds.