The ferry was closed. I had been wanting to take this trip to this quilt Mecca for a very long time, and as I sped toward the last leg of my journey, with only minutes to spare, I learned that the ferry had experienced mechanical trouble and had been shut down for the past two weeks. My life has been filled with these messages of “No, ma’am, you must take the long way around” for years. This was just another reminder that there are no short cuts in life, at least not for me.
This trip had already been changed a few times. I was supposed to take the trip with my mother last year (or was it two years ago) during the first week in July. It was extremely hot that week and I had to cancel the trip because I wasn’t feeling well. Earlier this year, I announced to my best friend, Sophia, that I was going to take a solo road trip. I was so excited. She, in her infinite wisdom, found a way to dissuade me from taking a trip that would surely send me in to a flare, and rerouted the journey via the air. We were all set to make the trip on Saturday when we got a call on Wednesday telling us that the building wouldn’t be open on Saturday because there was a funeral that the community would be attending. We moved the trip up to Friday, only to find that the ferry was shut down.
Had it not been for Sophia, I probably would have turned around in frustration and travelled back to the hotel, 90 plus miles away. She said very calmly and confidently, “Let’s just ask that man how we can drive there.” Drive there? It never occurred to me that I could drive there. I had been planning this trip for months and everything I read described the best way to get there was by ferry. The best way is never the only way.
After taking a few pictures, we drove in a 45 minute loop to reach our destination for the day, an area known in Alabama as Gee’s Bend. The women of this community are world renowned for their quilts. Their style is quite distinct and was born out of necessity. For more on their story, check out this great Smithsonian Magazine article here.
I had daydreamed about what it would be like to meet these women and hear their stories. In my mind, it was going to be a life changing experience that would inspire me to reach new artistic heights in my own quilting, a soul-stirring time that would make me see my life through a different lens, and it would all have the soundtrack of old Negro spirituals. The only thing I had remotely correct was the music.
When we arrived at the quilt collective, I was a bit worried that this was not going to be the experience I had in mind. I expected to walk into a building that was full of activity and energy; women sitting around a huge quilting loop, working on a quilt together. Instead, when we walked in, there were only two women there, one was sitting at a sewing machine working on a quilt, the other sitting by a window, using the natural light to hand quilt. There was gospel music playing in the background, but neither woman was singing.
China Pettway, Mary Ann’s cousin.
The woman at the machine turned out to be Mary Ann Pettway. We had spoken on the phone a couple of times in the past couple of weeks. She welcomed us in and invited us to look around and ask any questions we might have. I was instantly struck by a wonderful brown quilt hanging on the front wall. It was exactly the kind of quilt I had hoped to find here. Had it been a different color, I would’ve snatched it from the wall, paid for it, and would’ve been perfectly happy to get in the car and go back to Montgomery.
I pulled myself away from the quilt and I perused the framed black and white photographs that the lined the long wall of this shotgun styled building. Someone had done a magnificent job capturing the characters of this small, tight-knit community. As I moved from picture to picture, Ms. Pettway informed me, “Most all those people on the wall is dead.” There were a lot of pictures on the wall.
Suddenly, I heard Sophia calmly exclaim, “Uhhh, Kisha…!” I left the pictures and followed her voice into the next room. There were quilts everywhere. Several sets of utility shelving units lined the walls and were overstuffed with quilts. Tables in the middle of the floor were covered with quilts. I was completely overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure where to start, but I was determined to find a quilt that spoke to my soul and wouldn’t offend my budget.
After about 20 minutes of searching, I felt hugely disappointed. There was nothing in those stacks and stacks of quilts that looked like the quilts I have admired over the years. Nothing was making me break into my happy dance. Nothing was making my soul sing.
I decided to widen my search and looked at quilts I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford because of their size. There were a couple of beauties in that group, but nothing that I absolutely had to have. I was starting to give up hope when I unfolded a two toned blue beauty.
It was made from old post office work shirts and it had the kind of style and workmanship that I had hoped to find. My heart fluttered and my soul started to search for the proper key to sing its song in when I looked for the price tag. There was no price tag, but I found Ms. Pettway’s signature on the back. When she came in to check on us, Sophia asked her how much the quilt was. Even though I knew it would be out of my price range, I was willing to figure out a way to make it work. “Me-me-me-me-me-me-me”, sang my soul as it warmed up to sing its song of joy. “That quilt is $15,000, but it’s marked down to $10,000. That red and white quilt on top of it is $20,000 because I’m not ready to sell that one yet.” “Waha-waha-waha-waha” went the soundtrack in my mind as I was completely disqualified from taking that quilt home. “But I’m willing to negotiate, she said. As I folded up the quilt, Sophia sprang into action. Within seconds, she had negotiated the price down to something much more reasonable, but still so outside of my budget that I couldn’t figure out how I was going to be able to make it work and still have food to eat when I returned home.
I was starting to make myself sick with stress, so I had to just let it go, but I couldn’t leave empty-handed. I had come with the distinct purpose of buying my very own Gee’s Bend quilt, but there were only two quilts in the building that spoke to me. One I couldn’t afford and another that I liked the style of, but not the color.
I sat in silence and disappointment as Sophia continued going through the stacks of quilts. She had been through them all at least once already, but was going back through to be sure she hadn’t missed anything. I thought to myself that it had been a long and interesting trip so far, and I began to recall the events of the day. That’s when it dawned on me.
I would have to take the long way around.
“Ms. Pettway, I’m gonna have to leave this one here, but I wanna know if you will make me a quilt similar to the brown one hanging on the wall in the other room? I can put a deposit down on it today.”
“Naw, naw, naw, don’t give me no money today, ’cause I don’t know when I’ll be able to finish the quilt. But yes, I can make one for you, but I’ll tell you right now, it won’t be the same as the one on the wall.”
“That’s fine!”, I said, and just like that, by listening to the lesson of the journey, I had secured my very own, Mary Ann Pettway, custom-made, Gee’s Bend quilt.
Me, Mary Ann Pettway, and the Post Office Work Shirt Quilt