Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Remembering Edith

The first memory I have of my mother’s friend Edith Rhodes, was when I was in the first day of the first grade at Immaculate Conception School and I took the wrong bus home. I got off at the first stop and called home. Since my mother didn’t have a car, Edith came and got me in a lumbering, black, ancient car (pre WWII) she called “the machine.”
I was so glad to see her face, weathered and seamed even then. As usual, she wore men’s trousers and a blouse she had sewn herself from donated quilt scraps, a montage of pale patterns of no particular relationship. Her thick gray hair was chopped off by her own hand and no makeup had ever touched her typically Appalachian face . Good humor was her only ornament. She lived across the street from us in Kettering Ohio, and so she delivered me safely home, having driven the whole way at about 10 miles an hour.
Her husband, a railroad man, was dead, her son grown and gone and my Mom was her “adopted” daughter. My mother was raised without a mother and Edith taught her
a thousand things about housekeeping…all of them thrifty. She also restarted my Mom’s childhood interest in quilting, all by hand of course. Both Mom and Edith had treadle machines, but would not dream of using them for quilting.

Everyone gave Edith old fabrics and rags. I remember one quilt made of the cut off sleeves of shirts. Some wife had shortened her husband’s long sleeved shirts when they wore out at the elbow…voila a quilt! Edith was from the hardscrabble hills of Kentucky and everything in her life was utilitarian. Her house was plain and simple, her garden had only those things that grew without a lot of help…mostly tomatoes. She cared nothing for food and spent her spare time smoking and quilting and watching whatever came on t.v. When Mom was buried by her three kids under five years old she would send me to Edith’s where I would sort quilt pieces and blab nonstop.
We moved, Edith moved, we went our separate ways until one day when I was visiting my Mom and we decided to try to find her. We made some calls and found a friend
who said Edith had last lived in the hamlet of Pulse, Ohio. Mom and I piled in the car and took off, not sure how to locate her. It was my Mom who had the bright idea of going to the town’s only Laundromat and asking if anyone knew a quilter named Edith Rhodes and sure enough, someone gave us directions.
There was “dear old Edith” in a trailer parked in someone’s back yard. Every inch of the trailer was stuffed with quilt scraps, sorted and piled according to some mysterious system. Edith was hand quilting and watching “The Price is Right” and pleased as punch to see us. She was wizened and nut-brown (she claimed Indian blood) and her coarse hair stood almost on end. Her numerous cats lounged under the trailer, sustained only by their rations of government handout cheese and peanut butter, and the baby rabbits attracted to the tomato patch.
She still had her ancient car, now brush painted robin’s egg blue, by Edith of course.
“Oh Edith, is there anything I can do for you or get for you?” my Mom asked.
“What else could I use?” Edith replied, her voice deep and raspy. “I’ve got everything already.”
Those words hit me like a tidal wave. I was a yuppie with a BMW who wanted everything all the time in every color and here was a woman I would classify as poor who was utterly content. You meet the Buddha in the strangest places.
One last time, maybe ten years later, we found Edith in another small town in Ohio. Her raspy voice had turned into a hacking cough, but she was still the same. She rented a little 4 room house , and still slept in the bed her parents had used in Kentucky, their stern portraits hung over the headboard. The bare living room had only her couch and t.v. and a coffee table with a little lip around it. Every inch of the table was stuffed with threads, all within arm’s reach. Edith had slowed down a lot, and was preparing to visit her son in Florida. She sold us all the quilts she had to finance the trip, which would be her last.
Her cats lounged in the kitchen playing with government issue raisins and the heavy peace of the simple life hung over her old house. I could hear the bugs whirring in the heat and smell the smashed tomatoes she threw out the kitchen door for the “varmints” in the neighborhood. It struck me that she lived a life that would have been much the same even a hundred years ago. What a contrast with the frantic pace I maintained!
One of Edith’s quilts is on my bed. Her utter self reliance and self sufficiency still seem to me remarkable. I often think of her. In my heart, I still think I may live the way she did eventually. My husband and I have offered to sell our house to our son, fully furnished . Some day we may crank up the “machine” and head away, only my fabric and dogs stuffed in the back.
Until then, may the peace of Edith be with you.

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