It was another odd theme for the Quilt Groups, but there's something incredibly festive and positive about balloons. I decided to go for it.
With the senior groups we tied in a little history.
We talked about the history of hot air ballooning, starting with helium balloons and some of the impossible designs that were created.
We talked about all the what if possibilities of balloons, using photos like this.
We talked about dreams of flying in a hot air balloon. With my senior groups we had a good number of folks who had all wished for a ride in a balloon at one point in their lives. We also had a few that had no desire at all! I told them my rather long and ridiculous story of talking my way into a balloon ride when I was 17. (written up in Barbie Bucket List Blog)
The Quilt Kids at the Shelter
A Balloon Theme sounds like a no fail plan to do with the kids. But I was stressing before I even arrived at the shelter. I had picked up 2 orange helium balloons on the way to the shelter, with thoughts of a balloon launch...with a note attached. But before I even arrived I realized this is 2013. I can't pretend I don't know about the concerns of sending latex and string up into the air. The kids would probably lecture me about our balloons becoming litter.
So when I gathered the kids outside on that gorgeous October afternoon, I had them help me decorate the balloons like pumpkins. 12 kids and 2 balloons...that already was tricky. But the group actually cooperated with ideas. Some kids helped with the markers and some just gave ideas for nose shapes and eye details. They all agreed on one idea. "One happy face and one mean one!" Then we decorated a tag to hang down from the 2 balloons. The kids put pumpkin stickers on the back of the tag and a message on the other...from the Quilt Kids, which is what we call our group.
To Launch or Not?
Then I had the kids wonder with me about letting the 2 balloons go. I knew it wasn't "environmentally correct" but I opened up the idea, hoping they could make a good decision on their own. "Should we?" I asked. 4 year old Sara reacted first. "NO!" she shouted. I thought she'd cry. But 4 older children begged yes. For many minutes we argued pros and cons, which was an odd thing to do with a group of 2 to 11 year olds. There were eager voices pushing to let them go, with wonderful arguments like, "Think how pretty it will be going up!" and "Maybe a small child who is feeling sad will be the one to find the balloon when it comes down."
The youngest were the most passionate with their concerns about letting the balloons go. "Then we'll never see them again...they'll fly away and pop and be gone!" Little Sara didn't seem to trust me. She kept reaching out to grab the strings from me. I promised I was holding very tightly and told her I understood why she was scared. I told the kids a story of my son when he was devastated as a little boy when he accidently let go of his balloon. I helped Scott feel better by encouraging him to make a wish as he watched it float away. My family has since made wishes when we see balloons flying free. The kids got excited thinking up wishes they would make if we let our balloons go. "I wish I could have a penguin." "I would wish for another balloon." "I would wish that my family could all be together!" That made me a little sad.
None of the children brought up environmental concerns, so I had to be the teacher and share a few. But I let the real decision be made by the kids. We voted and the majority wanted to keep the balloons. We did however end up with a special plan that seemed to please all the kids. We untied the balloons from each other and had all the children hold onto the string of the happy balloon. We counted to 3 and let go...under the shelter of the playground tent. We watched the balloon and string zip straight up and hit the ceiling where it bobbed about for awhile. The other balloon went inside to decorate the Playcare Center. Everyone was happy.
I only brought 2 balloons, but I did have lots of fat, colorful chalk.
We spent the rest of the time until dinner drawing balloons on the sidewalk.
I loved this wonderful balloon family...with hands holding onto the strings!
Some of this art work may not look like balloons, but the children kept running up to me and dragging me over to see their balloons with strings and faces and even dangling messages. I thought they would start drawing ninjas and flowers, but they never strayed from balloon images.
What did I learn?
Such young children of varying ages can actually discuss and plan together and compromise! I so often over plan to avoid problems. I try to bring enough props so there's little waiting for turns. But today I had only 2 balloons and I let the kids figure out what to do with them. They reminded me they are capable of making decisions as a group. These kids could teach the adults in our world a thing or two!
Farms of the Past
All the farm stories that were shared in my groups took place a many years back. In 50 years I wonder what kind of farm stories anyone will be able to tell?
My Silverado Group
Betty remembered when she was young trying to make some money by picking cotton. "Just once!" She laughed. It was the most difficult job she ever tried and she only lasted a day. Mimi shared some interesting facts about cotton farming and when I asked if she had ever picked cotton she shook her head. "Oh no! My father was involved in the export/import cotton market. He was an accountant for Alexander Sprunt and Sons." Such different points of view!
Milk and Eggs
At the hospital we chatted about cows and chickens. Alice said one of her chores was milking the cows. Ken said he never got to do milking at his grandmother's farm but he got to collect the eggs. Robert grew up in San Diego where dairy was the #1 agricultural product. He talked about the sadness of seeing the farms disappear over the years. 50 years ago, there were 150 dairy farms in San Diego County. Robert talked about the frustration of watching the land turn into shopping centers and subdivisions. When he was a young man he made a little money with his friend on one of the dairy farms. They didn't milk cows, but they hunted rats using impressive sling shots, that he described in detail. At the end of their hunt, they tied the tails of the rats together and turned them in for pay. I made a face at that image, but Robert laughed. "25 cents a rat was pretty good money for kids!"
On to the Community Center
Every single one of the 10 at our table had farm stories! As soon as they sat down and started picking up husks of corn and bolls of cotton, the stories began to fly. There were so many talking at once I had to lay down the law. "Here's a potato!" I shook my head, grinning. "We can't all talk at once! When you've got the potato it's your turn to talk!" They went along with my silly preschool approach and I had to laugh to hear them enforcing it. "Wait a minute! You can talk in a minute, I have the potato now!
Helping on the Farm
I was blown away by the enthusiasm of this bunch. Some talked about helping with the family farm, but many worked on numerous farms to support the family. Some moved within a number of states with the picking of numerous crops. I'm sure these were tough times for many in our group, but the fact that they shared so many similar experiences created an explosion of eager voices. "I remember that, too!" "How many pounds did you pick!?" I had to ignore the potato rule now and then and let them just go at it.
Since most grew up in Texas, cotton was the main crop they all had in common. Many had memories that went way back. R. was 7 when she joined her father and 12 siblings riding on the back of a trailer to a farm for a day's work. "They called us the Little Rats!" She laughed, even though it sounded cruel. "They didn't think we were going to be able to do much but we showed them!" She said her nickname was still "Little Rat" to some.
V. was about 11 when she did her first cotton picking. She so carefully plucked the dirt and twigs from each boll and placed it in her flour sack. When her father saw her full bag of perfect white cotton he scolded her and emptied the cotton in the dirt. "Don't clean all the dirt off the cotton! It won't be as heavy!" They coated the cotton with dirt and returned it to the bag.
J. proudly announced that he picked 500 pounds of cotton on his very best picking day. The words flew so fast I kept trying to remember it all. There were tips about stretching the cotton to see how valuable it was and the different ways of hand picking whether you're picking the cotton from the boll or pulling the cotton with the boll. It made me wish the cotton hadn't already been picked this season, so we could all go out in a field and they could show me!
A few mentioned that Friday was the day the cotton went to the gin near the RR tracks in Richmond. "They called it Mud Alley." Said A. "On the weekend we would go to town and sit under a tree near the water tower while my mother and father went shopping. Sometimes we'd go in the 10 cent store." It was so fun picturing that very tower I drive by on my way to the Center.
There was less talk about farm animals because this was a group that knew more about working in the fields. But there were a few rather dreadful stories about animal slaughtering and chicken killing techniques. I won't go into those!
J. talked about all the different crops that had to be picked. After the corn came the pecans. She couldn't go to school until the picking was over...unless there was a rainy day. M. remembered how they learned to feel the corn to know when it was ready for picking.
S. was living in Michigan and picked potatoes in the snow and cherries in the summer. "I used to get to the tree early morning and I would just keep eating cherries until I was full. Then I'd start picking!" R. loved picking tomatoes. She used to carry a little salt shaker with her because there was nothing better that eating a tomato right off the vine, with salt! A. said cotton was the only thing she hated picking. Then she listed with great pride all the crops she remembered. "There were sweet potatoes and corn. Okra and strawberries. We had peach trees, apples trees, fig, plum and persimmon... but that was nasty." M. remembered her job of peeling the potatoes. "Mmm, I would eat the potato raw, even the peels!" G. remembered her grandpa growing tobacco right near his porch steps. "He'd smoke it in his pipe!"
Wells and Windmills
Everyone loved windmills. I forgot to ask if anyone ever climbed one. That's something I always wanted to try.
A few couldn't speak highly enough of well water. "It was so cold and delicious!" M. described visiting her grandmother and looking under the lid of the well. There she discovered all the wonderful foods that her grandma kept cold. "There was butter and smoked bacon!" They had hit the jackpot!
I had one last question before we left. "I know it's just because of movies, but I picture people singing when they pick cotton. Did anyone ever do that?" A few shrugged and nodded as if they maybe couldn't recall. But A. chuckled and said her parents did. "Sometimes they'd get so caught up singing spirituals they'd just stop picking and sing until they were practically yelling and crying." That was a pretty powerful image to end with.
What I learned: People find it a lot easier to share when they're gathered with others who have had similar experiences. Everyone at the Center seemed to be in sort of the same farm club. It was interesting to see how comfortable they were sharing. I wish I could spend a day on the farm with all of them!
Jogging Memories with Props
Out of all the props I spread out on the quilt for a Back to School theme, this toy school
desk prompted the most stories.
My first group was at the Community Center. We were ready to get started when Mary, one of the most upbeat in the Tuesday group arrived late, looking shaken and worn. "What's wrong, Mary?" I put a hand on her back and she felt clammy, almost trembling. "The bus didn't stop for me." I'd never seen this side of Mary. She looked broken, like she'd been abandoned. She winced as she carefully sat down at the table and began to talk about her morning. "Every day I wait by the window for the senior bus. I was watching today and I saw it coming." She described how the bus raced around the corner as if the driver were running late. Before Mary could open her door the bus roared on. This dear woman, whose voice usually booms out above the others, spoke almost in a whisper. "I called my son and he had to stop what he was doing and come drive me." I actually saw a tear roll from her cheek to the quilt. The wonderful group sitting around the table offered hugs and supportive words but they didn't seem to lift Mary at all. I was debating how to deal with this when suddenly the desk distracted Mary in a way that I couldn't. It was the oddest thing to see her face when she suddenly caught sight of the wooden desk on the quilt. Her watery eyes lit up and she pointed like a child surprised by an animal at the zoo. "I had a desk just like that!" Mary laughed. She sat up taller and studied the desk as she described the one she remembered in her one room school house. Before long the whole group was sharing and laughing and talking over one another. The desk managed to lift Mary from her miserable place...but it was actually a recording of Chuck Berry's School Day a few minutes later, that ended up getting Mary out of her chair dancing!
The School Bell
This wobbly old school bell helped conjure up some memories when I joined another group at the hospital. Genny picked up the bell and gave a couple clunky rings and told about her Sunday School teacher who had a bell just like it on her desk.
But it wasn't until Margaret mentioned an old TV show that my own memory surfaced!
The image of this smiling face, posing with the lifted bell had long been forgotten until Margaret mentioned Mrs. Frances of Ding Dong School! I vaguely remember her on a TV show, but mostly I remember the cover of an old child's 45 record. Her record was in a stack along with Harry Belafonte and Burl Ives, next to a portable record player that provided hours of entertainment when I as a child. Picturing the wood paneled family room I played in until I was 10 brought back memories of playing school. In our family room we actually had a set of antique desks that looked like the toy pictured above. I remember fighting over who got to be teacher. Being teacher gave you just about as much control as being leader for a game of Red Light, Green Light or Mother May I. If I couldn't get my siblings to play school I might be able to talk them into Rock School. The teacher in this game stood at the bottom of the stairs and only advanced students to the next grade (up a step) if they guessed correctly which hand held the rock.
I was surprised at how many of my own memories surfaced once we focused on that silly bell. I didn't have time to share them with all the other stories going around, but I found myself remembering those thoughts for the rest of the day.
Reminded by a Ruler
It was the ruler in a box of school supplies that steered our conversation with the Silverado group towards discipline. Luckily there were no horror stories of cruelty, but I had a moment of concern when the punishment discussion reminded Betty of a hospital school where she lived when she was quite young.
Betty's upbeat voice set me at ease as she talked about the hospital that cared for TB patients in a town called Sanatorium, Texas. "I was sent there for 6 months and slept in a ward with other children and we had school lessons in the day." She said she didn't have TB, but was sent for preventative reasons, possibly because she had spent so much time with a dear uncle who did. Although the thought of a child in such a place sounds eerie, Betty's face lit up as remembered her time there. She admitted her home life had been rigid, due to a very strict stepfather. She seemed amused by the notion that she could enjoy getting into a little mischief with other children thanks to the fact they were in a hospital with more gentle ways of disciplining children.
What I learned: Obviously I already know that props can trigger memories. That's why I bring them. But it was especially nice to witness how the desk prop not only triggered Mary's memory, but wiped out (at least briefly) her memory of her bad morning!
What I also learned: Some of the simplest props (a ruler) can bring up rather complicated or detailed memories. As I listened to Betty with her story of Sanatorium, TX, I didn't worry about how much was true or changed by dementia. I was only concerned that her sharing was a positive experience and it seemed to be. Curiosity did lead me to the computer that night and I learned that there was once a Sanatorium, TX (no longer) and a TB hospital that also cared for children who were at risk. Betty was pleased the next week to know I'd found a postcard picture on the internet!
Repeating a Theme
I've been doing Quilt Groups with seniors for 3 1/2 years now. I haven't run out of ideas yet, but sometimes I have to repeat a theme because it's just too much fun. Recently I revisited a Boat & Ship theme. I brought some of the same props and ideas, but the stories I heard and the tangents we wandered off on, were all new!
Queen Mary Memories
Ken is one of my favorite participants, because he is enthused about all subjects. I couldn't have been more thrilled when he looked at this postcard and told me he was once on board the Queen Mary with 15,000 members of the military headed for England during WWII. He sort of chuckled to tell me there were nurses on board too, but they were restricted to one area of the ship. "Except for one night..." Ken suddenly recalled an evening on the ship when everyone on board gathered on deck to sing. I could tell by Ken's sudden serious tone, that the memory was a special one. I pictured the moonlit deck packed with young people, singing... and wondering and maybe worrying about what was ahead.
Ken shared other things about the journey, from the horrible British food... "Kidney Pie! It seems like that's all there was!" to details about the ship itself. I loved the way he kept me interested with his questions. "We had no protection that whole journey. Why do you think the ship was never attacked by the enemy?" He answered my shrug with a description of the ship's speed and zigzagging route that made it a difficult target.
In our 90 minutes around the quilt, we went off on many tangents with our theme. But it was after our group had ended that I heard the most touching story. Ken and his daughter lingered and we got back to the subject of the Queen Mary. This time Ken described the celebratory spirit of all on board, as the ship returned to America after the war. His voice became softer and he gazed off when he mentioned seeing the Statue of Liberty as the ship pulled into the Hudson Bay. "It was pretty emotional." he said. Then he shared one more thought. "And then across the bay, I spotted the building where my father's office was. And it was a weekday and I knew he was there." Ken's daughter smiled like she had heard that story before. I smiled because I was hearing his story for the first time. In my family, we have no stories about the war or ships. I'm so glad Ken shared his.
What I learned: I learned some pretty interesting facts from Ken about his ship and a specific time in history. But I will forget some of those numbers he quoted and I'll remember his voice when he shared about coming home. The personal thoughts always stick with me more than the facts!
Last week I spent a little quilt time with some kids about 90 minutes from my home. This should have been less challenging than some of my other traveling quilt adventures since the kids all spoke my language and I didn't have to lug my stuff onto a plane. But this experience took a little more courage...and moved me a tiny bit more than my other quilt gatherings in recent months.
Children of Galveston
Since I knew my husband and I would be in Galveston for a few days in September, I did a little internet exploring and learned about a shelter that houses homeless families. After a few phone calls and some paperwork, I was lined up to volunteer. As always, I spent days before my visit wondering about the kids I might be working with. In fact, for years I've pondered about the kids of Galveston... Galveston, long ago. When I first visited the city 15 years ago, I was haunted by the story of the children of St. Mary's Orphanage who weren't able to survive the flood of the Great Storm in 1900. I've always felt that the spirit of those dear children and the nuns who sang to calm them must still be lingering on the island.
On Thursday evening after dinner, I walked up to a brick building lugging 2 tote bags and feeling a bit uneasy. My bags were full of props and my brain was full of activity ideas, but I had no idea what I was actually going to do. I didn't know how many children I would have or their ages, or who would greet me and what the space would be like. I didn't even know if I should knock or walk in. Soon I was inside the kitchen talking to a woman washing dishes. She reached for the phone with soapy hands and talked to the director who apologized for the communication glitch, since no one in the center knew I was coming. The dishwasher dried her hands and went into the entry hall and called upstairs to the kids. She said I could use the spacious hall for my activity, then she sighed and explained, "Now most of the kids are bathing and getting ready for bed." I think she wondered why I'd been told to come at 6:30...so did I.
Gathered on the Quilt
I spread out the quilt on the floor as a few kids entered. The first child I noticed was a young girl holding a baby, tiny enough to have been born that day! I was relieved a minute later when she handed the fragile bundle to her own mother and settled onto the quilt with about 15 other kids. The kids ranged in age from about 2 to 13. Some were fresh from an evening bath, but most still wore school uniforms. All were squirmy and eager with anticipation, so I grabbed the puppet bag first. I winked to older kids to play along and soon every child was taking turns singing into the bag to wake Pickles from his nap.
Scraps of Fabric
Puppet aside, I had the kids examine what they were sitting on. They had fun pointing out the suns and fish and balloons on the quilt material. We talked about how quilts can be made with old scraps from worn clothes and then I handed out some scraps of fabric to the kids. They examined the prints and I was surprised how curious they were, pointing out the colors and animals and designs they found. Not one child complained about wanting a different color or print. Then we had some fun with the puzzle challenge of fitting the shapes together to create a new quilt design. The older ones were pretty involved, but the little ones grew restless. Time to move on.
I tried out a few games, but the wooden jumping man was once again the star. When I have a wide age span, the puppet dancing on the board seems to be the only thing that pleases all. By the time the kids were up jumping and dancing and singing along with the man (they named Mr. Basketball) a few moms had pulled up chairs. Now and then I saw a brief smile, but these moms were weary and it was bedtime for the little ones. I felt a twinge of guilt because I do remember what it's like to put kids down after they have been wound up physically. I softened things a bit with some quieter games and then I had Pickles come out to say good-bye. I wish I could have read each little one a story before bed. I wish I could have helped the mom who struggled to round up her 6 kids off for bed. It didn't look easy.
I made sure to quietly thank the 6 oldest children. I had noticed these kids on the quilt, raising their hands like polite school children, eager to answer my questions or to take a turn. I had expected some of these kids to roll their eyes at some of the kiddie activities or at having to share the quilt with little kids. But not only did they participate, they encouraged the younger ones to sing along and take turns. There was an amazing family feel to this group of kids, even with the kids who had no siblings. Before the older ones headed off, I quickly showed them the new quilt I've been gradually building using fabric squares decorated by children from all over. "Thanks for helping me with the little guys." I told the big kids. "After you help get them back to their moms, if you want to come help me with this quilt, I'll be around a little longer."
A few minutes later the kids returned, along with a little brother who convinced me he was a big kid. For the next 30 minutes I felt my (what am I doing?) stress drain. The time on the quilt had been fun, but these peaceful minutes standing around a table with markers and fabric and quiet conversation is what I will always remember. The kids took time picking material and talked about what they were drawing...dogs, stars, going to the park. One boy said he had to go help his mom get the kids to bed. He took a square with him and returned later with a list of 7 names on a square...his name and his siblings. Another young boy grinned when I praised his geometric design. Then he rushed off and came back with spiral notebook packed with his drawings. "Guess who taught me to draw?" Then he beamed with his answer. "Nobody. I taught myself."
First Visit, First Day
A few of the kids asked when I was coming back. I wanted to say "Very soon." But I was honest, telling them it was my first visit and I hoped I could come again. One disappointed boy said he had hoped I would come on Fridays. Then a quiet young girl who was decorating her pink square with a pink marker, looked up with a surprised little smile. "Really? It's my first day here, too." I laughed gently and said. "We're both new!" But it made me sad to think about how uneasy she must feel, since I knew a little bit of that feeling when I entered the building 90 minutes earlier.
We spent some time looking over their drawings and words and I thanked them for letting me add them to the quilt. I let them pick out some material shapes to keep for themselves and before long they dashed off up the stairs. As I headed out the front door I noticed 3 women and a few kids chatting under the street light. I waved and made some comment about the weather and then the curious Moms began to ask questions about why I had come. "Too bad you have to go back to Houston." One woman said. "The kids get bored. They need things to do. I wish you could come on weekends." I promised to look into it and then we chatted a while longer. So maybe it wasn't just the kids who enjoyed a little break in routine. It was a nice way to end my visit, with a mom-connection. I heard their voices as I pulled from the curb. "Drive careful now. Be safe!"
What I Learned
The next day I couldn't stop thinking about those amazingly resilient kids who showed few signs of the stress they must live with. The moms who came to gather them, appeared a little worn out or worried. And the one dad I saw, offered only a weak smile when his son hollered, "Look Daddy! It's Pickles!" Unlike the parents, every child I saw on Thursday evening showed the ability to stop and enjoy the moment. There wasn't a child in that group who didn't show me their positive side even for a while. Maybe it's just the strength of youth, or maybe the spirit of those dear children from St. Mary's Orphanage really is lingering on the island!
The day after my visit, Don and I were exploring the island and came across this old building just around the corner from the shelter. After doing a little research I learned this was a Protestant Orphanage that did survive the hurricane in 1900. The organization that runs the shelter where I volunteered actually has roots that date back to this orphanage. So the kids I worked with do indeed have a distant connection to some brave orphans who faced the storm of 1900. Or... let's at least say, the kids of Galveston are a pretty tough bunch!
For 20+ years children have called it the Magic Quilt. They've danced and pretended all over these colorful squares. I've dragged it to schools, shelters and studios where children have climbed on top to hear Magic Quilt Stories and to act them out.