Wednesday, July 22, 2009


To Naomi
Friendship is the joy of reason
Dearer yet than that of love.
Love but lasts a little season
Friendship forms the bliss above.

R.L. Rose 1843

“Girls—will you please help me put out the quilt?”

That request was a sign that the party would be starting within just a few hours. The quilt appeared at the last minute, on display only when the party was a big one, the buffet-supper kind, when guests outnumbered the hangers in the downstairs guest closet and had to be sent upstairs to leave their coats.

The activity of “putting out the quilt” was one both my sister and I enjoyed immensely. Together, the two of us with our mother would unroll it carefully, unfurling it onto the guest room’s big bed. Because it was oversized, the quilt needed to be tucked on one side of the bed between the box spring and mattress to keep it from dragging on the floor. Mother always did this herself so it would be straight and perfect—not trusting it to anyone else, not even her daughters. She wanted it to look spectacular from the guestroom doorway. Once the bed was dressed up in this fashion, we were forbidden to sit on it. We couldn’t touch it either, except gingerly if our hands were clean.

But our mother overlooked these rules for her friends who were encouraged to drape their coats—however dirty or damp they might be—over its century-old surface. Only the most boorish, ignorant, or blind person could fail to notice what a spectacular sight the quilt made—even when mink jackets and woolen capes were flung upon it. The guests would rave, prompting Mother to elaborate in a two-minute spiel that my sister and I knew almost by heart.

“It was handed down to me as the last Naomi in the family.” (Here, if we were within earshot, she’d look at us wistfully—communicating, we realized as we got older, her strong desire to have a namesake when we were old enough to procreate.) “I’ve been told by people who know quilts that this is a very rare example of a nineteenth century fad, quilts made collectively by friends for some special occasion.” The responsive oohs and ahs from her guests sounded as if she were a political candidate talking to her constituency. I loved observing her in this capacity, in bloom as a charming and intelligent woman, cocking her head up with that touch of privilege that heirlooms bestow.

We never looked at the quilt unless a party was in the making, and then only when Mother had checked off everything from her itemized list—the caterers were either in the kitchen or en route, the tablecloth was perfectly symmetrical and spread without a wrinkle, and small silver dishes were filled to overflowing with filtered cigarettes fanned out like peacock tails. Artfully arranged vases of fresh flowers gave off subtle fragrances, candles stood ramrod-straight in polished holders, bone china plates were stacked high with accompanying flatware lined up like soldiers at inspection. If Mother were already in her party dress, we could cajole her into lingering in the guest room to tell us about the quilt.

“The square in the middle? That’s the dedication. Naomi Murphy was my grandmother’s aunt—making her my great-great aunt. I believe the quilt was made in honor of her marriage to Charles Rittenhouse.”

One of us girls would read aloud, always stumbling at the words that had faded out of sight.

Friendship Offering
There is a sweet, a holy tie.
which wavers not, yet knows no __(illegible)
That tie is friendship, heavenly ¬ (illegible)
which brightly glows from day to day.
To Naomi Murphy 1852

“It’s so faded, I can’t read all of it.”

“Wow—it’s more than a hundred years old.”

“Even older, girls, because—look here—the earliest square is dated 1843. The women must have taken the fabric squares home to write on, but they didn’t return them very quickly. Ten years for this one.”

By the time all seventy-two squares were pieced together, each with a message written in sepia-colored ‘permanent’ ink, Naomi Murphy and Charles Rittenhouse had probably been married nearly a decade—either that, or the quilt was started for one occasion and finished for another. My mother didn’t know the reason for the delay—she could only speculate. “Things just took longer then, I suppose.” The latest squares were inscribed with the date 1853.

My sister and I would pore over the butter-soft calico fabric in patterns of blue, white, and wheaten hues offset by plain white fabric in between. We would read the legible names and verses aloud; many of them were faded too much to make out.

May the sun of thy morning be clear
And the eve of they day be serene.
May the moon in full splendor appear
And no cloud of distress intervene.
Lucy Anna Rose 1843

We would read names: Rebecca Kidd; J & A. Matton; John & Rachel Childs; Letitia Murphy; Almira R. Murphy; Ann Whitelock; Jonathan Rittenhouse; Ann Kendal; Hannah Walker, George & Jennie Lehman—each square was signed by a different friend or family member.

To N. Murphy
Remember me not, I entreat
In scenes ensconced a festal week-day joy,
For then it were neither kind or meet
Thy thought thy pleasures should alloy;
But on the sacred, solemn day,
And, dearest, on thy bended knee,
When thou for those thou lovst dost pray
Sweet sister, then remember me.
Thy sister, Sarah C. Murphy

It was hard for us to imagine ever writing such stiff, formal poetry to each other as sisters. Sometimes we got the giggles looking at it—especially when we noticed soiled spots on it, brown stains that looked suspiciously like blood. Mother would frown; this was serious business. The quilt was too fragile to wash, she’d remind us—and, besides, the poetry and names that remained might wash away in the wrong laundry-soap. As we read the quilt aloud, we would beg her to tell us what she knew about the people. There was never enough time, but we both remember hearing that one was a descendant of Benjamin Franklin, and others were illustrious members of Philadelphia’s inner-circle.

As Mother talked about the quilt in her reverent, admiring tone, I would imagine old-fashioned ladies hovering around sewing and chattering. Maybe they were Quakers—all that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ language. Many years later I learned from a master-quilter that one stitcher had put it together, connecting the individual squares created by the various families. She could determine this fact with certainty because the “points” (the places where the small pieces of fabric were joined) had been joined by the same masterful hand. We will never know her name.

When our mother died almost forty years ago, my sister and I had multiple generations of heirlooms to divide between us, and worked months after our children were asleep and our husbands home to baby-sit, to finish the task. We split many sets of linen and tableware( if we both had interest in them) and took turns calling “dibs” on single items we coveted. The quilt proved to be an enigma; it’s not as if we could each take one-half, and we both loved it. But it was a burden, too. I offered to store it because at the time I had plenty of room in my linen closet. And somehow it became mine for keeping.

May the sun of thy morning be clear
And the eve of thy day be serene.
May the moon in full splendor appear
And no cloud of distress intervene.
Lucy Anna Rose 1843

One year when I was in my thirties, my husband and I gave a big party. I decided I would direct our guests to put their coats upstairs, and display the quilt. Not having the luxury of a guestroom, I spread out the quilt on our bed, an inherited four-poster, and during the evening pointed out the quilt to many of our friends. I could hear my mother’s words inside my head, but quickly realized that my peers did not seem nearly as enchanted as my mother’s friends did. After that, the quilt stayed in the linen closet, languishing for air and admiration. Occasionally was it aired and re-rolled in an effort to keep the storage wear at a minimum. I lugged it through four moves, and it finally came to rest in the linen closet at my current house where it has been ignored for most of twenty years.

Periodically when our daughter visited, I would retrieve it from its dark shelf, and we would read the squares embellished with inscriptions penned in what was supposedly indelible ink. Every time I took it out of its pillowcase, it was in worse shape than I’d remembered. All those unwritten stories about the quilt that Mother remembered had faded along with the calico and ink. Conversations about the quilt would be punctuated by statements of regret—if only it weren’t so faded, if only that verse were still legible, if only I could remember who had been related to Benjamin Franklin. And although all four of our offspring were in established households, no one appeared to be craving the responsibility of preserving it for posterity.

One day I got to thinking, and realized we were posterity, my sister and I—and our children were, too. We had accomplished our mother’s goal, and her mother’s goal before her.

"What if,” I asked my sister, inspired by a quilting neighbor who talked to me one day about how old quilts deserved to be seen, “we gave it to a museum?”

“Yes,” was her unhesitating answer. We agreed that donating it a museum would be a perfect way to keep it available to up-and-coming generations—maybe the descendents of Lucy Rose, Charles Walker, or Ann Kendal.

That was three years ago. We began search out museums on the Internet, eliminating one after another for various reasons. Because our mother had instilled us with such pride in its Philadelphian beginnings (Naomi Murphy married a Rittenhouse, after all—of the same family as the city’s Rittenhouse Square), we eventually decided that the best place for it would be somewhere in Philadelphia.

We photographed and charted each of its seventy-two squares. We described it, had it appraised, and discovered many things about it we had never known. For instance, unique calicos had been assigned to families—a tiny blue tulip pattern, which appeared in what seemed to be a random pattern, only appeared on squares with the same surname, while another calico, say the daisy-chain motif, appeared only on squares with a different family name. One could, we realized, trace relatives by following fabric patterns. While we joked about the soil and quantity of DNA imbedded in the quilt, we began to revere the craftsmanship of the quilter and her artful choices of colors and pattern. We discovered references to Frankford, Pennsylvania—once a separate township, now a district of Philadelphia. We bonded to our ancestors in new way, feeling the living history of the quilt.

In 2008 we officially made a gift of the Murphy-Rittenhouse Friendship Quilt to the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia. Sadly, there are no more Naomi’s in our family. But one treasured legacy from our ancestral Naomi’s has made it back to its hometown, an outcome that feels just right.

To Naomi Johnsone, my mother
Everyone who’s seen the quilt
Marvels at its craft.
Now it’s come full circle
In Philadelphia at last.
Mother, dear, we did it!
Kept it safe and sound,
To be admired by others
Perhaps to gain renown.
S. Glerum 2008

Copyright © 2009 Sara J. Glerum


Anonymous said...

What a completely touching story. Thank you for writing it. I had your mother's sweet smile in my mind as I read it

Larry Lorenz said...

Lovely, Sallie.

I have a number of the things my mother cherished, and you made me realize I need to think about getting them out of boxes and into someplace more appropriate.

Yrs in the sunny southland,


The word for verification is "exuall." So, from me all to you all....