"I was browsing in a flea market near my home that spring afternoon in 1997, when I turned and saw it--an old quilt draped over a screen--large white squares were framed with soft pink cotton. But it was the contents of each square that made me stop and look more closely. Stitches of black thread radiated from the center of each square like spokes on a wheel. Names were embroidered between the spokes--an entire community, it seemed, of people named Armalee and Madie and Ruby and Errol. '376 of em, lady' the dealer said. I counted. The guy I bought it from said it came from somewhere in north Georgia. 'It's probably 50 years old.' He spread it on a table so I could have a better look. I continued to read, drawn into a whole new world of people who I had a feeling, were as interesting as their names--Chester, Western, Flossie, Fosters, Dr. John Walker--a doctor like me, I thought. In my mind, I pictured a kindly G. P. who had helped generations of the same family enter and leave the world. A doctor unlike me. I worked in a technology-driven world where everything was state of the art, and instead of a simple black bag, a few trusty medicines and a lot of reassurances, we had a galazy of 'miracle' drugs and HMO's.
The quilt was a relic from a more leisurely time. A better one, I thought wistfully. From the variation in stitches and style, I could tell many different hands had been involved. 'A friendship quilt', I said. I knew that people years ago often got together to sew--their names on a quilt as a special gift or project. My fingers stroked the cotton worn soft from wear and the nubby lines of embroidery. This will really mean something to the families of the people who stitched it, I mused. 'Might, if you could find them' the dealer said. Well, maybe I'd try. Impulsively, I bought the quilt. At home, I showed it to my husband and then spread it like a coverlet on the four poster bed in our guest room. I couldn't get it out of my mind. When I came home at night--tired after a long day of seeing patients, reading test results and keeping up with the endless paperwork--I flopped on the bed and traced the embroidered names with my fingers. Jane Corn, Pearl Ackla, Annie Moon. Where had they lived? Where had the quilt come from? And, what about Dr. Walker?
. . . .In places, the thread was knotted or twisted to cover up mistakes. Clearly, some of the ladies hadn't been skilled seamstresses. But that had not kept them from making their contribution. And, look--on one of the squares was stitched 'Kate and Mike' and a question mark. Did that mean Kate and Mike had been expecting a new baby? I smiled at the possibility. It was as if I had a roomful of grandmothers whispering stories of by-gone days. As I fell under the quilt's spell, I strongly felt the need to find out where this special blanket had some from and who might want it back. In July, my parents and sister Holly came from Kentucky to visit. Dad's an amateur genealogist and who had traced our family tree. Going to courthouses and libraries, he'd gone back generations, listing our ancestors on a length of wallpaper. Now that he'd retired, I asked Dad if he'd be interested in tracing the original owners of the quilt. After sleeping under the pink and white cover with the spiderweb of names, he too was intrigued. 'This seems like a long shot, but we'll give it a try', Dad said. 'Let's pick out twenty of the more unusual names, maybe we can track them down through government records.' Then my sister came up with another idea: Why don't we put the names on the internet?
But, Dad's phone calls there produced no answer: 'No one at those churches knows anything about the quilt, but I did learn that they shared the same miniter, Ralph Foster, and one of the people I spoke to remembered the reverend had pastored another church on the outskirts of town--Chattahoochee Baptist.' The next day Dad called nearly shouting with excitement. 'I phoned the church clerk at Chattahoochee,' he said. 'The person who answered the phone sounded pretty young and didn't recognize any of the names, but she called their church historian Jeanette Samples, who is 76. 'Of course I know those people!' she said. 'We all made that quilt over 40 years ago. We stitched our names and gave it to Reverend Foster when he answered the call to another church and moved away.' They later learned that when he died, the quilt had been sold--never they thought, to be seen again.
It was time for the quilt to go home.
On a beautiful Sunday morning in November 1997, my parents and husband and I drove 200 miles to Chattahoochee Baptist Church to present the quilt to the congrgation. The quiet little clapboard country church I had pictured in my mind turned out to be a modern brick building on a six lane highway. But, the people were as welcoming and friendly as any old-fashioned congregation in my dreams. At the service, Dad and I presented the quilt. When Jeanette Samples got up to accept it her voice quivered. 'This is such a great joy, there are so many sweet names on here of folks who've gone on before us.'
Jeanette gave me a hug, warm and soft, like the quilt. Then we unfolded it and held it up so everyone could see. Her eyes filled with tears as her fingers closed on the square that she had embroidered so long ago with the names of her own family.
We wandered into the small graveyard out back where I saw Chester Websters tombstone, along with those of others whose names had become to dear to me. As Jeanette shared the stories, I felt a sense of continuity and community, and unbroken thread of joys and sorrows and laughter and prayers, running throughout time. That's something that will never change. People need to feel connected to one another and whether it's through a friendship quilt or the internet, God will find a way to bring us all together."
Dru Thomas Quarles, M. D.