Among the tops was this appliquéd Butterfly
Detail of Cactus Rose
A fantasy of mine goes like this: among an elderly relative’s possessions, I discover a trunk that nobody knows about. I open it up. Inside, I find quilt after beautiful quilt, artfully crafted from wonderful old fabrics, all in pristine condition, just waiting for someone who would appreciate them (that would be me, naturally) to discover their existence. Imagine my surprise when I met someone, not long ago, who had actually lived my fantasy—and not just once, but twice!
This story begins during the hardscrabble days of the 1920s and ‘30s. Mary Emma Coker and her daughter, Buena Vista, hailed from a tiny community called Victoria, near the north-central Texas town of Mart. Like just about every woman in rural Texas during the Depression years, Mary Emma made quilts for her family. She taught Buena Vista how to piece and quilt as well. When Buena Vista grew up, she married a schoolteacher from the same area, Oscar Cox, and the couple subsequently had two daughters: Estaline and Viva Mae.
Both Estaline and Viva Mae attended Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and upon graduation, followed in their father’s footsteps and became school teachers. Estaline, who taught in various schools all across the state, eventually became a reference librarian for Baylor and worked there until she retired. She never married. Viva Mae did marry, and she and her husband, Robert Wright, had a son, also named Robert. The sisters remained close and shared much in common, as both were small in stature but had commanding personalities—they were the sort of feisty Texas women whose character traits are the stuff of family legend. They shared another thing too—a secret that both would keep their whole lives.
Fast forward to just a few years ago, when, in her 90s, Estaline passed away and the chore of going through her things fell to her nephew, Robert, and his wife, Carol. Anyone who has ever had to sort through a loved one’s personal effects can attest to the fact that it is rarely a happy task. Dealing with someone else’s lifetime accumulation of memories is daunting and fraught with decisions one would just as soon not have to make.
But in Estaline’s case, something unexpected happened. Among the boxes, closets, and cupboards full of her belongings was an old trunk that no one in the family knew existed. And inside the trunk was—you guessed it, of course—quilt after quilt. There was something else in the trunk too: five quilt tops, beautifully constructed in classic 1930s fabrics. There was a Postage Stamp, a Double Wedding Ring, a Glittering Star, and two appliquéd patterns—a Butterfly and a Cactus Rose. In order to preserve them for her children, Carol had the tops quilted.
In the meantime, Viva Mae’s health and memory began to fail as she, too, entered her ninth decade. One day, when Robert and Carol were visiting Viva Mae’s house, they decided to begin the process of going through her things as well. Sure enough, they found an old cedar chest. Sure enough, it contained quilts. And sure enough, it contained something else: five wonderful quilt tops. There was a Postage Stamp, a Double Wedding Ring, a Glittering Star, and two appliquéd patterns: a Butterfly and a Cactus Rose. “It was a real déjà vu experience when I saw those quilt tops,” recounts Carol. “They were the same as the ones we found at Estaline’s house.”
Both Robert and Carol remember hearing about a Postage Stamp through the years, but their requests to see it had been met with evasion. Neither Estaline nor Viva Mae had ever mentioned the other tops. As far as anyone in the family knew, neither woman sewed. Both sisters were career women who were more interested in cattle than domestic pursuits. In any case, the likelihood of their piecing the quilt tops with such precision and skill seemed highly doubtful.
So where did the quilt tops come from? Carol Wright believes that the sisters’ grandmother, Mary Emma, made the tops for the girls, likely with help from Buena Vista. Furthermore, Carol feels that two of each pattern were made so that both sisters would have the same ones, thereby skirting potential sibling rivalry.
Why the existence of such treasures was kept secret will forever remain a mystery. If only quilts could talk and tell their stories…but then, that’s another fantasy of mine.
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Column 80: Southeastern Quilt and Textile Museum
Column 79: 54 Tons of Quilt
Column 78: Ollie Steele Burden’s Quilt Blocks
Column 77: Quilting with AMD
Column 76: Maverick Quilts and Cowgirls
Column 75: The Modern Quilt Guild—Cyberculture Quilting Ramps Up
Column 74: The Membership Quilt—Czech Quilting in Texas
Column 73: Maximum Security Quilts
Column 72: Author: Terri Thayer
Column 71: The Christmas Quilt
Column 70: New Mexico Centennial Quilt
Column 69: Scrub Quilts
Column 68: “Think Pink” Quilt Raises Funds for Rare Cancer Research
Column 67: Righting Old Wrongs.
Column 66: 100 Years, 100 Quilts - More on the Arizona Centennial.
Column 65: Arizona Centennial Quilt Project
Column 64: Capt. John Files Tom’s Family Tree
Column 63: The Fat Quarters
Column 62: Quilt Fiction Author: Clare O’Donohue
Column 61: Louisiana Bicentennial Quilt
Column 60: The Camo Quilt Project.
Column 59: Thread Wit
Column 58: Ralli Quilts
Column 57: Preschool Quilters
Column 56: The Story Quilt
Column 55: Red and Green Quilts
Column 54: On the Trail
Column 53: Quilt Trail Gathering
Column 52: True Confessions: First Quilt
Column 51: Quilted Pages
Column 50: Doll Quilts
Column 49: More Than a Quilt Shop
Column 48: Las Colchas of the Texas-Mexico Border
Column 47: Literary Gifts
Column 46: A Different Way of Seeing
Column 45: Sampling
Column 44: Hen and Chicks
Column 43: A Star Studied Event
Column 42: Shoo
Column 41: Awareness Quilts
Column 40: Tivaevae
Column 39: UnOILed UnspOILed Coast Quilt Project
Column 38: Katrina Recovery Quilts
Column 37: Quilted Vermont
Column 36: The Labyrinth Quilt—A Meditative Endeavor
See other archived columns here