The Family Quilt:
Harvesting and Sharing Life’s Wisdom

Editor's note: Steve Harsh, Ph.D., M.Div., is a pastor, teacher, writer, life coach, and trained Sage-ing Circle Facilitator with 64 years of life experience. Steve’s career includes forty years as a pastor, serving as the Director of The Interprofessional Commission of Ohio at Ohio State University, and teaching preaching as an Adjunct Professor at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio. His article is taken from his recently published book, Building Peace from the Inside Out (2011), a collection of short stories and plays for peace seekers and peacemakers. He and his wife, Diana Hoffman, live near Columbus, Ohio. You can visit Steve at www.livingwholly.com.

We are lifelong learners, and an important part of the curriculum is our own memories and experiences. Richard Morgan writes, “Life is an unfinished story. Let us be quite clear that sharing stories is not simply a matter of recalling the past, or clinging to what has been. Søren Kierkegaard has said that ‘Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.’ One of the rewards of remembering your story is to find direction for your last years….As we get in touch with our stories, we gain a sense of who we really are, the person we must be now…. Stories heal us as we remember the diverse fragments and witness the piecing together of the quilt.”(1)

When we take time to do the inner work of recollecting ourselves, we gain a perspective that only time and distance can provide, much like surveying the earth from 20,000 feet gives us a broader more inclusive view than we can get from ground level. The second half of life is an opportunity for sabbatical time to remember and celebrate our stories and also to break out of the past that can confine us. Through reflection on our life stories, and asking simple questions such as “What worked? What didn’t work? What’s next?,” we are able to recognize and change patterns of thinking and acting that no longer serve us. Life review is a prerequisite for life repair, the work of forgiveness and letting go of old burdens, so we can author a new chapter of our story for the next stage of life.

Journaling, writing memoirs, scrapbooking, using social media to share our stories, support groups — the venues and modes for remembering and sharing wisdom with others, especially future generations — are limited only by our own imaginations. For me, an especially poignant example of such use of imagination to remember and share is my grandmother’s creation of a certain family quilt made of many remnants.

The Hebrew Bible has 82 references to the word remnant. A remnant is a leftover, a scrap, an unlikely item to be of any useful purpose, and yet, time after time, in spite of unbelievable unfaithfulness, God finds a faithful remnant to carry on divine work — in the face of flood, pestilence, famine, greed, stupidity, violence, exodus, exile, and dispersion.

My grandmother seemed to be working on this quilt created of various remnants throughout my entire childhood. I don’t remember much about my impressions of the quilt when I was really young, except Grandma always seemed to have it on her lap working on it while she and the other adults sat around in the living room and “visited.” It always sounded a lot like gossiping to me, but they called it visiting.

When I was six or seven, I was at Grandma’s, playing outside with my cousin Dave, who was a couple years older. The grownups were talking in the living room while Grandma was quilting away. Dave found a garter snake under the woodpile and was chasing me around the barnyard with it, and I was afraid.

After making several laps around the house, my little legs were giving out. So I made a tactical decision to cut through the house to try and get away from Dave — and that darned snake. It wasn’t a bad plan, but as I ran through the living room I accidentally stepped on the corner of the quilt and got some of the mud (or something worse from the barnyard) on the quilt. That was when I learned how important that quilt was to my Grandma — and to my mother.

A couple of years later, when I was staying overnight at Grandma’s, she was working on the quilt late at night. It was almost my bedtime, and I thought, “Hmmm, maybe if I can get Grandma talking about the quilt she’ll let me stay up longer.” So I said to her, “Grandma, why are you sewing all those little scraps of material together? Wouldn’t it be a lot easier to go out and buy a piece of new material?”

She got a knowing smile on her face, like she had been asked that question before — or maybe even asked it herself. “Yes, it would be a lot easier, but then I wouldn’t be able to sew all the memories into the quilt.”

Well, of course, I saw my opening, and immediately asked her about the memories. She put me up on her lap and began to tell me the stories represented in the quilt.

She showed me first a square of tattered muslin. It was from the original family quilt that came over the Alleghenies in a covered wagon when our ancestors first came to Ohio to homestead.

Next to the muslin was a piece of material I recognized. It was from the apron Grandma always wore when she had the whole clan over for Thanksgiving dinner. Just seeing that material made me smell the turkey and dressing cooking. I could almost taste the pumpkin pie and see the homemade noodles spread out to dry on Grandma’s bed.

On the other side of the muslin there was a yellowed piece of once-white satin, and Grandma ran her hand gently over it. It was a piece of her wedding dress.

And close to the satin was a square of taffeta. She told me it was from the material from which she made the baptismal gown that all seven of her children wore when they were baptized.

Down in that part of the quilt there was also a faded beige square of cotton. It looked pretty old and was worn almost threadbare when I touched it. “Oh my, those were exciting days,” Grandma said. She explained to me that when she was young, women weren’t allowed to vote and that wasn’t right. So she and lots of other women marched and protested till the men in Washington changed the rules. Even as a young mother with several kids, Grandma found time to be involved in community affairs because it was important. I realized later that my Grandma was a feminist before we even had that word. Oh, she let Grandpa think he was in charge, but we all knew she was the glue that held the whole extended family together.

I asked her about a bright blue piece of wool. She got a very tired look in her eyes. She told me that my Uncle Frank had rheumatic fever when he was a little boy, and he was very, very sick. She sat up with him all night, praying and putting wet compresses on his forehead — hoping he’d be OK. When he got well, she cut out a corner of the blue blanket that was on his bed, washed it really well several times, and kept it for the family quilt.

Catty-corner from the blue wool was a square that looked like a piece of a plain white sheet, only it had a hole in it, like maybe for an eye in a ghost costume for Halloween. But when I asked her if that was what it was, she shook her head sadly. She told me when Uncle Frank was older she found out he was about to be initiated into the local Ku Klux Klan. Well, Grandma put a stop to that right then. She told him that in our family we treat all of God’s children like our sisters and brothers, no matter what color their skin or how much money they have.

I spied a khaki-colored piece next and asked her if it was from my Boy Scout uniform. A big tear ran down her cheek and she got very far away and quiet. I’d never seen Grandma like that before. She told me, “No, I wish it was. That’s a piece of the uniform your Uncle John was wearing when he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.”

An awkward silence ensued, and I tried to think of some way to cheer Grandma up. There was a red and white polka-dotted square over on the far side of the quilt; so I asked her about it, hoping it would inspire a happier story. And it did. I learned for the first time that Grandma used to dress up like a clown for all her kids’ birthday parties. That polka dot material was from her baggy clown pants.

Close by was a multicolored tie-dyed piece. Grandma said it was from a shirt my cousin Bob wore to some place called Woodstock. Every family needs a hippie, and Bob was ours. When he went to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War, everyone was real upset with him, but not Grandma. She said she missed Bob like crazy, but she supported his decision to be a conscientious objector and reminded anyone who would listen that Jesus was a pacifist too.

Well, it was really getting late by now. I was even beginning to feel sleepy, and I saw Grandma glance at the clock. When she was getting ready to tuck me in for the night I asked her if I could sleep under the quilt. She started to say, “No, it was only for very special occasions….” But then she changed her mind and said she guessed it would be OK. But she’d have to take the pins out first. Which was fine with me. That gave me more time to stay up.

Then as she put me to bed, Grandma told me one more story about the quilt. She said during the big blizzard of 1950 she and the kids were home and Grandpa was stranded for three days at the quarry where he worked. They ran low on coal and firewood to keep the stove going, and one of the things they did to keep warm was to huddle up and wrap that old family quilt around them.

I asked her, “Grandma, you’ve been through a lot of hard times. How do you keep going?”

“Oh,” she said, “I don’t know. I just ask God to give me strength to do whatever’s necessary; and so far he’s never let me down.” I fell asleep thinking about the stories Grandma pieced into that quilt. The next morning, while we ate our bacon and eggs, I asked Grandma, “How long do you think it will take you to finish the quilt?”

“Oh,” she said, “the quilt isn’t something you really ever finish. You just keep patching it up and adding to it, and then you pass it on to someone else.”

And one generation shall laud thy works to another.” (Ps. 145:4)

From remnants of the lives of insignificant and unknown saints, God weaves together a tapestry of truth that is from everlasting to everlasting. In the face of all odds, wise elders — faithful seekers and peacemakers — continue to pass on life’s wisdom.


1 Richard L. Morgan, Remembering Your Story: A Guide to Spiritual Autobiography, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1996), pp. 23-25.