Piecing It: The Mother-Quilter as Artist and Historian in Teresa Palma Acosta's "My Mother Pieced Quilts"
Angeline Godwin Dvorak
The quilt as a historical art form clearly provides a history of its individual creator, usually a woman, but more importantly, the specific details of each quilt's visual narrative link the universal experiences of women, otherwise detached by cultural, social, and economic diversity. As though pulling the tension of the needle through the fabric, the tension in the history that is pieced into the quilter's artform is the universal oppressions of women that have forwarded a patriarchal history, and left diminished or neglected the voice, role and impact of women in world societies.
Adrienne Rich's poetry, in closely examining women's textile culture, is pregnant with metaphors which link women, the work of their hands, the institution of history, and patriarchal domination. Elaine Hedges, in her essay, "The Needle or the Pen: The Literary Rediscovery of Women's Textile Work," 1 responding to Rich's "When We Dead Awaken," explains these linkages:
From a canvas on which women inscribed a male history separate from their own, or onto which they displaced their anger, dividing themselves from themselves, the textile artifact had become woman's own self-habitation, dark with both suffering and her hidden potentials, the skein her very skin. (350)
It is women's isolation, oppression and patriarchally unposed duties that have shadowed their "hidden potential." Some women have survived within and because of the "life" in their textile culture.
Like Rich, Alice Walker has also explored the relationship of quilting and sewing and women. In "Writing The Color Purple," Walker notes that these household tasks are also artistic activities. Celie's quilting and sewing directly link her to prior generations of black women, who, though enslaved, oppressed or both, found the needle in their hands an agent to "Psychic survival" and of "Physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic liberation" (Hedges 354). This communion among women who suffer oppression encourages the bonding of all women, from the past to the present. This yoking seems especially powerful for women who are double burdened from both the patriarchal shackling of gender and economic deprivation. Thus, an even more solid link exists, then and now, between such women as the "papered7 female owned within the institution of slavery, the migrant working woman bound by intense poverty and debilitating labor, and the welfare mother trapped in a sociopolitical labyrinth of male-centered economics and politics.
Teresa Palma Acosta's poem, "My Mother Pieced Quilts," is a first-person testimonial of a Chicano woman who connects her mother's practical art of quilt making with her personal family and cultural histories. As the narrator discovers the significance of the quilts in her understanding of herself, the familiar bed coverings become portraits and sculptures of family and self, of life and death, of labor and love. Each embodies the history of the family's daily existence as the mother linked their experiences piece-by-piece in the quilt. The mother quilter, as artist and historian, ultimately gives a voice to the quilts; they then become the storytellers. Each tells its story. These stories are not insignificant. They are incidental.
Women's stories have not been told. And without stories there is not articulation of experience, Without stories a woman is lost when she comes to make the important decisions of her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories she cannot understand herself. (1)
The daughter-narrator, in "My Mother Pieced Quilts," inherits the stories, their songs and their pictures, in the quilts that her mother pieced,
It is through the quilt that several complex relationships unfold, to include the central bond between the narrator and her audience, that is, the daughter and her mother. The mother is a quilter, and it is in this role that she becomes the historian and the artist. Through her stories and through her art, the mother translates and preserves her history as a woman as well as the history of their culture. The matrix of roles and relationships further meshes as the mother-quilter embraces them and gives them a voice within the quilt that may "sing on7 for her daughter. So, if we can entertain Tillie Olsen's conclusion that "[m]ost of what has been, is, between mothers, daughters, and in motherhood, in daughterhood, has never been recorded,"(275) then Acosta's poem captures a rare moment.
Just as a mother bears a child, the quilter brings life into the form of the quilt-random remnants, shaped and arranged into a solid, functional object. The mother-quilter goes far beyond physically arranging and selecting the pieces of her quilt. She strategically constructs a defense against the elements that threaten her family. As adamantly, she fortresses against the loss of individual culture, as she captures her family's history, designs and shapes an artform, and ultimately, orders lives. As militant protector, maternal nurturer, inspired artist, and family historian, the mother-quilter transforms chaos and preserves culture for her family. Interwoven in this seemingly "natural" task of giving life and throughout all of these roles are the mother-quilter's salvaging, resurrecting and preserving the historical culture of her family and community.
In the body of the quilt, the common is married to the individual, the familiar with the unique. The narrator wakes up each day, experiencing this consummation of purpose and aesthetics. Acosta personifies the quilts as living things, perhaps even beings, as the "october ripened canvases" with 'cloth faces" (393) spark the narrator's curiosity. The quilts have matured after long periods of use. The narrator's curiosity also ripens and matures as she begins to wonder how her mother pieced an array of fabrics together, each linked to a place, a time or special event-"gentle communion cotton and ... wedding organdies" (393).
This act of piecing things together extends beyond the physical connection of thread to cloth. The mother's piecing involves linking the past, present and future, reconciling the irregular shapes and the clashing patterns and colors, ordering the chaotic, unmatched aspects of everyday life, and synchronizing the emotional revelation of a woman coming to understand and see her mother differently. The narrator observes how she 'shaped patterns square and oblong and round/positioned/ balanced" (393). The mother becomes a creator and a restorer as she, with God-like powers, shapes, positions, balances and forces the fragments of their lives together.
Created through Acostas imagery as a militant protector, the mother pieces quilts that "were just meant as cover/in winter/as weapons/against pounding january winds" (393). The narrator describes her mother's tools for quilting as hard and cold which function militantly: "cemented them [the pieces]/with your thread/a steel needle/a thimble ... you were the caravan master at the reins/driving your threaded needle artillery across the mosaic/ cloth bridges" (394). The quilts, like each stitch that creates them, are the mother's means of waging war against the poverty which threatens the well-being of her family. The quilts themselves, she describes, as "armed/ready" (395).
The practical purposes of the quilts, "just meant as covers," allows the mother-quilter to function in a traditional role within the family and community structure, fulfilling her mission as nurturer, comforter and provider. Unlike writing a novel, sculpting a statue or composing a song, quilting compliments the patriarchal requisites of the mother-woman. The utilitarian aspect of piecing a quilt overshadows the workings of the quilter's artistic imagination and creativity. The product of utility-a sturdy, warm bedcovering-satisfies any expectations of her duty as mother and caretaker. It is the textile artifact of beauty and expression, however, that replenishes her spirit and rewards "her hidden potential."
The narrator compares her mother's careful handling of the quilt pieces to her tucking the children into bed at night: "how the thread darted in and out/galloping along the frayed edges, tucking them in / as you did us at night"(394). The frayed edges of the scraps of materials, saved and salvaged from garments and mill goods, the quilter trims and arranges, neatly joining the smooth edges. Likewise, she soothes her children's fears and prepares them for the sounds and the silence which follow the chaos and the struggle of everyday life for the poor children of migrant workers. In the inevitable insecurities of their temporal lifestyle, with no longterm or permanent residence, the mother's quilts become "security blankets" which are familiar and lasting, almost synonymous with traditional concepts of home, regardless of where people may be. As long as the mother-quilter adequately fulfills the domestic needs of her family, she reduces the risk of interference or criticism as her practical skill poses as a front for her artistic imagination and creativity as they manifest themselves in piecing quilts.
Realizing that she is watching an act of creation take place, the narrator compares her mother's quilting to that of an artist preparing to execute her art on the canvas:
in the evening you sat at your canvas
—our cracked linoleum floor the drawing board
me lounging on your arm
and you staking out the plan:
whether to put the lilac purple of easter against the
red plaid of
whether to mix a yellow with blue and white and
corpus christi noon when my father held your hand
whether to shape a five-point star from the
somber black silk you wore to grandmother's
The quilt becomes the canvas; the floor, the drawing board. Here the mother-quilter plans, mixes, matches and blends. The history of the family is concurrently created and artistically drawn for the daughter-narrator, as the tightly stitched scraps of material tie people and places together. The quilts are touchable, living stores of individuals, as the fabrics of Easter dresses and wedding gowns touch each other, forming their lives within a given period of time, within a span of experiences. Glenda Neel Pender, in her poem, "My Grandmother's Gift," reflecting on the role of the quilt as story and the quilter as historian, writes: "My grandmother wrote necessary chore in her role as caretaker and nurturer, and an "allowed" leisure time, a moment of creativity. While the migrant woman shares the oppression of a chapter/of her autobiography/with every squarelof every quilt she ever made" (184). The mother-quilter, too, in "My Mother Pieced Quilts," opens herself up for others to see. It is her daughter's choice to see: ". . . delivering yourself in separate testimonies/oh mother you plunged me sobbing and laughing/into our past" (394).
History, by the nature of the discipline, links people, places, times and events. The work of the mother-quilter serves as a historical document of the family, its experiences and its culture. The quilts tell the story of the narrator's cultural milieu as part of a migrant worker family. Acosta weaves the migrant experience throughout the careful inventory of individual pieces. The references to the seasons and the various areas of the country clarify this connection to the regional movements of seasonal crop gathering. Michigan to Santa Fe to Corpus Christi ultimately link to the "crossing at five" of a river at the border. The family's coming across the border initiates a life of hard work and poverty, constantly being uprooted as the harvest of the crops forced the family's following. Their work takes them from the "spinach fields" to the "plainview cotton rows" which suggests that they migrated from produce farms, probably in California and also the Midwest, to the flat lands of Mississippi Delta area where the family picked cotton. Hard labor and hard life offer little comfort to migrant children. Acosta notes the hardships in referring to the "tuberculosis wards" and the "thrashings."
The fabrics, their textures and colors, are intricately linked with the seasons which, in turn, reflect the temporary home: "your michigan spring faded curtain pieces / my father's santa fe work shirt / the summer denims, the tweeds of fall ... the lilac purple of easter" (394). Seasonal labor does not provide a substantial income, for indeed, the curtains are faded, for the "dime store velvets" are cheap substitutes that lose their texture quickly, unlike a rich fabric which would hold its beauty.
In an essay overflowing with references to works which explore the relationship of women's writing and women's textile culture, Hedges notes how the needle and the pen become almost interchangeable, how one serves as the foil of the other.3 Pender's poem, noted earlier, also makes this connection:
They told the story of her life
just as surely as if her needle
had been threaded with ink and
her beautiful evenly spaced stitche
had become words. (184)
Sewing was very much a part of woman's work, and her cultural sphere clearly evidenced her daily connection with the work of her hands (Hedges 34041). Doing her needlework was an acceptable part of a woman's domestic role. However, for the migrant mother who works the fruit orchards, the produce fields or the cotton patch, quilting represents also a patriarchal society that women in general have experienced; she also endures the oppressions of poverty and the demands of its labor which have ultimately been fostered by a male-directed economy. Like the fingers of the woman-quilter which grow calloused and toughened after the needle's repeated sticking, the migrant mother-woman salvages strength from her impoverished conditions. While her life and her family's lives have not been easy or benevolent, the cloth itself often symbolizes that rare special occasion when there was a reason or an excuse for celebration, a moment that forced or entertained a memory.
Strength and material compassion bond with skill and imagination in the quilts that the mother pieces. The same qualities that she stitches into her quilts, in order to make them functional and durable, she gives her daughter-"sewn hard and taut to withstand the thrashings of / twenty-five years" (394. They become tools and weapons; they become shields and songs. Though the narrator is the child of a migrant working family, perhaps now a twenty-five year-old woman, we do not know her fate. We also do not know whether or not she has acquired the tools to survive. Her mother has ordered and preserved them in the quilts that she has made. And the daughter-narrator has become aware of who her mother is and what the quilts mean: "oh mother you plunged me sobbing and laughing into our past ... stretched out they [the quilts] lay armed / ready / shouting / celebrating knotted with love, the quilts sing on" (394-95).
Facing the quilt and experiencing the quilt as the offspring of her mother's creative womb, the narrator imagines a sisterhood between herself and the quilt. Ultimately, she undergoes a catharsis through which her life, as it links to the life of her family and its past, comes to fruition. From her recollections of waking every day to discover the quilts and their unique characteristics, the daughter-narrator begins "to wonder how [her mother] pieced all these together" (393). As the "quilts sing on," they seemingly lure the daughter-narrator into the past, into an honest encounter with her mother, with her family's history, and with her mother's role in preserving that culture and past within her own quest for selfhood. The songs of the quilts, "the roaring notes," link back to the ordering effect of the mother-quilter's work in piecing the frayed shapes into patterns, as the differences come to complement each other like the melody and unifying harmony of a song.
With the quilts described as "knotted with love," love provides the reinforcement. The daughter embraces the love that the mother has embodied in the quilts like the knots fixed in a rope. She can hold on to her family's historical and cultural past, and to the quilter as her mother and as the woman who sews the stories and scenes.
1 Hedges' essay traces the "negative relationship between women's textile and text making" and then looks at the works of Adrienne Rich and Alice Walker.
2 Carol P. Christ, Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest (Boston: Beacon, 1980). This study focuses on the fiction of Kate Chopin, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Ntozake Shange, and Adrienne Rich as they explore women's experiences and the spiritual quest for selfhood.
3 Some of the works making this connection that Hedges lists in the notes include Elaine Showalter, "Piecing and Writing," in The Poetics of Gender, ed. Nancy K. Miller (New York: Columbia UP, 1986); Annie Fields, ed., Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989); and Cheryl Walker, The Nightingale's Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1982).
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Angeline Godwin Dvorak holds a Ph.D. in English from Florida State University and a J.D. from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Her work, primarily in women's studies and Southern literature, has been published in such journals as The CEA Critic and Southern Quarterly. She currently serves as the Dean of Arts and Sciences at Jackson State Community College in Jackson, Tennessee.
Copyright 1996, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Dvorak, Angeline Godwin. (1996). "Piecing It: The Mother-Quilter as Artist and Historian in Teresa Palma Acosta's "My Mother Pieced Quilts." WILLA, Volume V, pp. 13-17.