Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Cameron's quilt

St. Louis is a wonderful place to live – especially if you are lucky enough to live outside the city near a lake. Our family lived in Lake St. Louis for five years. Lake St. Louis was one of those “new towns,” sort of like Reston, Virginia. I had always wanted to live in a planned community with shopping, schools, etc. close at hand. For us, Lake St. Louis was that town. And each of those places could be reached by boat. I had never expected to live like that!

Closeup of center block

There was an inexpensive country club for the residents with parties each month. There was a golf course in the development as well, and most residents golfed. There were clubs and activities for the kids. But, there was a downside to living in one of these developments: on the surface, all the residents seemed pretty much alike. There was little diversity. All the families had similar incomes. All had similar interests. Everyone seemed to think alike. You might ask, “What’s wrong with that?" Well, in my opinion, a lot!

I grew up in another kind of “planned” community – a low-income housing project, to be exact. People who lived there were from many ethnic backgrounds. There were a lot of Italians, but there were also Poles, Greeks, Romanians, and Irish. Names like Damatios, Diggiocobee, Alizia, Padula and McBride call up a world of warm, often hilarious memories for me. These people all lived, to some extent, like their ancestors. Families from each ethnic group brought their own traditions, foods, and ways of doing things. It made the neighborhood an infinitely interesting place in which to live. We walked everywhere. We socialized across cultures when we shopped together at the two grocery stores or when we met at the pastry cart that came around daily. It was as though we were one huge, unusual family – and everyone looked after one another.

Last remaining house in Westlawn

Now, only one gray building remains. It stands like a shabby monument in the center of a grassy field, looking very much as though left over from some ancient civilization. Seeing the paint peeling away and windows broken, who could possibly imagine the vibrant lives that once were lived there. On a cold day one February, I found myself standing in front of that lonely building, heart aching, memories flooding my consciousness. I turned my head as if listening for the sounds and voices of a time long ago. What the wind and place no longer held, I could hear in the depths of my memory as echoes from my childhood. All the precious souls who once occupied this project were now with me again as though no time had passed. I was once again a child, transported to my beloved Westlawn.

First quilt of flower baskets

Culturally, Lake St. Louis was exactly the opposite of Westlawn. And the longer we lived in Lake St. Louis, the more I longed for the diversity and “connectedness” of my Westlawn childhood. One day I decided to try to create some of that connectedness in Lake St. Louis. I decided to start a quilt club. I love quilts, but didn't have the time to make them. So, I decided to recruit 12 members from the Lake St. Louis community, one for each month of the year. We met once a month, rotating our meeting site among the members’ houses. At each meeting, we were given our quilting instructions for the month by our host.

Closeup of one of the blocks

I started the ball rolling by having everyone come to my home. “Flower baskets” was the theme for my quilt. I gave each woman a pattern and a square of white material that she was to applique. The finished squares were to be returned to me at the following month’s meeting, and all the squares would go into my quilt. At that meeting, we would then get our instructions from that month’s host for her quilt. I have started quilt clubs like this in every town I’ve lived in and have many beautiful quilts to show for it.

Another block from basket quilt

Everyone who joined the club was excited and participated all year. By the end of the year, each member of the club had 12 lovely squares to work with. But none of us knew how to quilt them together.

Block from Italian women quilt

Finally, I heard about a woman named Mrs. Jolsen who pieced quilts together for customers. I called her, and she invited me to her house in the rural countryside outside of Wentsville, Missouri. The road to her house was a meandering lane with cows roaming in the nearby pastures. As I approached, I noticed that her house was surrounded by several other buildings – a farm. Mrs. Jolsen and I became friends. Although I visited her many times, and even though we were about the same age, she always insisted that I refer to her as “Mrs. Jolsen.” She had the kind of formality a country woman of frontier days might have had. She always wore a hairnet and a flowered dress. Her home always smelled of freshly baked bread. And she always looked as though she was waiting for the men to come in from the fields for lunch. The work that Mrs. Jolsen did for me and for the other members of our club was always impeccable and reasonably priced.

Italian women quilt

In the end, I didn't achieve the village atmosphere I was longing for. But the other members of the club and I were able to rise above the anonymity of modern life at least one time each each month – and once in a while, I touched, ever so briefly, that magic sense of connection I remembered from my childhood.

Another block from Italian women quilt

I still long for my village. Perhaps that is why I travel to Italy as often as money allows. And perhaps that is why I have chosen to have a booth on the Roanoke Farmers’ Market. The atmosphere reminds me of that village feel – and there is certainly a broad diversity of personalities to be found there.

Farmers Market in Roanoke Virginia

New quilt in the making - my hobbies

A quilt with blocks of all my hobbies would cover several king size beds!

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