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 141: Tom Korn’s Military Medal Quilts
Column 140: The Return of Double Knits!
Column 139: Passage Quilts
Column 138: Home of the Brave Quilts
Column 137: The Story of Fabric Yo-Yos
Column 136: Christmas in July
Column 135: Trifles
Column 134: Deaf Initiatives—Communicating Through Quilts
Column 133: My Betty Boop Quilt
Column 132: Maura Grace Ambrose
Column 131: All You Need Is Love
Column 130: Chicken Linens
Column 129: The Quilted Chuppah
Column 128: Patchwork Around the World: Yoruba Dance Costumes
Column 127: The Bowers Co-Op Quilts
Column 126: Fon Appliqué and Haitian Voodoo Flags
Column 125: The Quilt Garden at The North Carolina Arboretum
Column 124: Harriet Powers and Handful’s Mauma
Column 123: Quilters de Mexico
Column 122: An Appliquéd Surprise
Column 121: Matisse’s Fabric Stash
Column 120: Soogan—The Cowboy’s Quilt
Column 119: The Ron Swanson Quilt
Column 118: HClarkdale, Georgia—A Thread of History
Column 117: How WWI Changed the Color of Quilts in the United States
Column 116: Wagga—The Bushman’s Quilt
Column 115: All in the Family
Column 114: The Alabama State Quilt
Column 113: Balloon Quilts of Albuquerque
Column 112: The Family That Quilts Together, Stays Together
Column 111: Two Rivers, Three Sisters
Column 110: Quilters Helping Quilters
Column 109: Community Cookbooks and Fundraiser Quilts—Parallel Histories
Column 108: Quilting to Freedom
Column 107: National Quilting Day
Column 106: The Airing of the Quilts
Column 105: A Call for a National Juneteenth Commemorative Quilt
Column 104: Dominoes
Column 103: 1936 Texas Centennial Bluebonnet Quilt
Column 102: Helen Blackstone, A Texas Quilter
Column 101: Montana CattleWomen Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 100: 100th Suzy's Fancy Column!
Column 99: Montana Stockgrowers Anniversary Brand Quilt
Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
Column 96: The connection between fairs and quilts.
Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
Column 93: The Thread and Thimble Club Mystery
See other archived columns here