No Longer a Stranger
I feel like Mary Ann is a friend now, but when I called her this past May, she was a stranger.
Mary Ann lives in an area of Alabama called Gee's Bend, where women have quilted for generations. I found her phone number on the internet when I was exploring the idea of stopping in Gee's Bend while on a road trip with my husband. I called and introduced myself and asked a few questions. She answered my question about local accommodations with an easy going reply. "Well, there are no motels here, but you can stay here at my house." Then she added with a laugh. "If you don't mind my housekeeping."
Getting to Gee's Bend
It wasn't easy finding this tiny Alabama community, tucked into a bend of the Alabama River. While on the road we made several calls to Mary Ann, first when we got lost and later when we learned the ferry was closed. Mary Ann chuckled over the phone letting me know the unreliable ferry was a constant bother. After another 45 minutes driving around the river, we eventually spotted one of the quilt murals that are scattered about the small community. We found Mary Ann's modest brick house and a family of kittens on the front porch. As I knocked on the door I laughed to myself. "We are knocking on the door of a stranger... to stay at her house!"
When Mary Ann opened her door I felt welcomed by a hug, a laugh and the smell of just baked butter bundt cake. Mary Ann's used to playing host to travelers and she seemed comfortable inviting us in, but I was still pretty confused about what the plan was. We had talked about staying in her guest room and meeting the local quilters the next day. But what about dinner? We couldn't even offer to take her to dinner since there are no real restaurants in Gee's Bend. But Mary Ann had already contacted her friend Keitsha, who started a cooking business from her home. "Keitsha's cooking the catfish right now. She likes us to eat it while it's hot, so we better go get it." So we feasted on the catfish as well as biscuits, homemade macaroni and chicken strips. There's nothing like home cooking to make guests feel comfortable.
After dinner we experienced a little bit of Mary Ann's world when she took us to her grand niece's softball game. While we chatted with family in the bleachers I took in the atmosphere of summertime kids on the field, batting and running without uniforms or helmets and some without shoes. There were younger kids playing near a rustic Maypole, recently "woven" at a May Day Event. There were men congregating under a shade tree, along with a saddled horse. After the game we went "visiting" to meet Mary Ann's sister Julie, in her cozy living room. We met the grandkids Julie is raising and heard her dreams of retiring and doing mission work.
Getting to Know Mary Ann
But it wasn't until later on that night when we gathered around a folding table and Mary Ann pulled out bags of quilt material, that I began to feel completely at home. As we looked at numerous projects our talk went off on a million tangents. I heard about Mary Ann's mother who was the oldest of 17 and then had 12. I heard about Mary Ann's years working at the sewing factory in Selma, making blue jeans. I learned about Mary Ann's last name. She reminded me that all the Pettways in Gee's Bend are not related, they are just descendants of slaves who were given the name by plantation owner Mark Pettway.
And of course we talked about quilting. Mary Ann said she starts with small pieces and the project just grows. She likes colored fabric more than printed and red is her favorite. Sometimes she gets caught up working and her hands have to tell her when to quit...like when she keeps poking the same tender spot with the needle. And even though many of us have images of quilters working together, Mary Ann said she really likes working alone. "What do you think about when you quilt?" I asked. "Good thoughts." She paused, then added. "I'm very blessed." Mary Ann said she gets a lot of quilting done in the car on trips to show quilts. Many of her quilts are named for the memory of where she started the project, "I have 2 quilts I call Holiday Inn Express I and II." Mary Ann laughed. Or "Runnin' My Mouth" for the one she started on her sister's porch, when she was jabbering away telling stories.
I had to laugh when she told me some quilt friends called her the Bag Lady, because she's always picking up discarded scraps that no one else wants. "I call 'em L'il Pee
Wees!" She laughed. "I find 2 pieces with colors that look good
together and 2 sides that'll match up and I start by stitchin' 'em together." I marveled, watching her hands juggling the tiny pieces, using her finger nails to smooth the seems flat.
I was in a trance watching and listening as she talked about how things began to change when the quilters were suddenly spotlighted in national news. "Oprah sent her crew out with cameras one time. Soon we were being invited to big cities to show our quilts...and sing." She told us about John McCain visiting the area when he was campaigning. "He bought 10,000 dollars worth of quilts!" Mary Ann sort of chuckled at the thought.
"And when Obama was elected, we made a quilt and had it sent to him at the White House." She showed us a picture of the quilt and pointed out the pieces she created. I think Mary Ann's rectangle in 2 tones of blue, is the most unusual. I would love to have heard the conversations that took place as the Gee's Bend women worked on that quilt. I also would love to have seen their faces when they heard the unofficial news that Michelle is interested in having the quilting ladies visit the White House!
The Next Day
At 6 am we heard the sound of the school bus outside and the sound of Mary Ann in the kitchen. I greeted her at the stove in her curlers and apron as she busied herself cooking eggs, grits and 2 kinds of sausage.
After breakfast we took a drive around the area. We passed more quilt murals, created to look like some of the original Gee's Bend quilts that were bought up by art collectors a while back. We passed a horse on the side of the road, happily grazing. And we stopped to see Mary Ann's Baptist church where her mom and other adult family members packed in, to hear Dr. Martin Luther King preach in 1965. Many of those residents ended up joining Dr. King, in Selma, for voting rights. (the unreliable ferry had long been known to become more unreliable around election time)
Late morning, after a visit to the ferry terminal where the quilters gather on weekdays, Don and I joined Mary Ann at The Collective. Mary Ann couldn't have looked more at home in the cozy wood building that houses quilts made by locals. She has plenty to do as manager, organizing and selling quilts, handling emails and phone calls and meeting up with occasional visitors. Sometimes she has time to work on her own projects, too...of which there are many. We were sad that Mary Ann had no quilts of her own to sell, because they are gone too fast. But I asked to buy the sample of "L'il Pee Wees" that she had shown me in her demonstration the night before. And I placed an order, for her to complete a piece she was started on.
So thanks, Mary Ann! You welcomed us warmly, sharing your home, family and friends, not to mention stories and thoughts. I'll always remember how you answered Don's last question before we left. He wanted to know if you ever made a piece or a quilt, that you just couldn't part with?
You answered so quickly, that you loved all the quilts you made, but you loved them and sold them. Then you paused and showed us this orange, green and brown piece, made with fabrics that came from South Africa. You studied it and changed your mind.
"I might have to keep this..." You took a moment to look at the design, as if you'd never seen it before. "I really like this one."
I hope you kept it Mary Ann! You deserve to have something special of your own!
To celebrate my birthday in April 2012, I decided to reflect on the past with a different kind of list. I've met a lot of people in my 55 years, but I'm going to stop and remind myself about the strangers I've met. These are people I met by accident, not through friends or work. For some reason, these strangers dropped into my life. Even though we may have only spent a few minutes together, these people have never been forgotten.
Each week, I'll spotlight someone I met in the past, who in some small way, made me stop and think.
Remember 55 Strangers