Martha Coleman, or Aunt Gallie as she is known, has a smile as big as she is. Photo by Alex Labry.
Story of the Underground Railroad, made by Carrie Henderson and quilted by the Blackland Neighborhood Center Quilters. The quilt hangs in the lobby of the neighborhood center. Photo by Alex Labry.
Martha Coleman stopped wearing high heels when she reached the age of 95—and that was almost ten years ago. But Martha, who’ll celebrate her 105th birthday in June, still prefers that her hat, purse, and shoes match when she goes out.
The stylin’ centenarian keeps a busy schedule, and one of her regular activities is going to quilt every Tuesday and Thursday with the Blackland Neighborhood Center Quilters in Austin, Texas. She often brings lunch for all of the other quilters—food that she has made at her nearby home, where she still lives by herself.
The Blackland Neighborhood Center Quilters consider Martha to be the heart and soul of their group. She is a blood relation to many of them, including her niece, 89-year-old Willie Mercer, and her grandniece (Mercer’s daughter), 69-year-old Carrie Henderson. Occasionally, her great-great-great-grandniece, seven-year-old Breonna, stops by for a quilting lesson.
Even the few members of the group who aren’t family refer to Martha as “Aunt Gallie” (Gallie being the nickname given to her years ago by a brother-in-law because she was such a “sassy gal”). “Rain, sleet, snow, it doesn’t matter, Aunt Gallie comes to quilting,” says another grandniece, Royce Pryor. “It could be the worst weather outside, and she’ll call you up and say, ‘Don’t you think it’s alright to go today?’ She keeps us all coming.”
If rest of us could be like Martha, it’s a sure bet that there would be fewer problems in the world. The diminutive widow, whose husband of 65 years died in 1997, has a smile almost as big as she is.
Everyone always wants to know the secret to her longevity, of course, and when asked that question yet again she patiently responds, “Be nice to everybody.” Then she adds, “And I drink water—I never drank soda water until I was 90—and I read the Bible a lot. Live right and treat your neighbors right. Regardless of what a person does to you, always forgive.”
Royce Pryor says that she has never heard her aunt raise her voice in anger. “Aunt Gallie never complains. She always has a positive attitude and her memory is better than mine!”
The activity of quilting and the companionship provided by working with family members and friends around a quilt frame are also important to Martha Coleman’s happy, long life. Her mother and a sister taught her to sew when she was seven, and she has been around quilting since she was a baby.
In the early 1970s, the group now known as the Blackland Neighborhood Center Quilters was started by one of Martha’s sisters, Susie McDonald (Royce’s grandmother) and several other ladies. When the Blackland Neighborhood Center opened its doors in 1984 and the quilters began meeting there, Martha and two more of her sisters joined in.
Since the group’s inception, they have worked on thousands of quilts, averaging two a week. They don’t quilt for the public, but rather work on one another’s tops; the owner of the top provides the backing, batting, and thread. Each year, the group gives the Blackland Neighborhood Center a quilt to use as a fundraiser, and they’ve donated quilts to other charitable causes as well. For the most part, though, the quilts are made for friends and family.
Sitting around the quilt frame, the women stitch and visit, laugh and joke. Their long association makes for a comfortable, easygoing atmosphere and it is obvious that they are all happy to be there passing the time together. It’ll be time for lunch soon, and they’ll enjoy the food that “Aunt Gallie” has prepared for them.
Martha Coleman looks up from her needle and flashes her wonderful smile. In her family, quilting has always been considered to be good for the health. At 104, Martha is living proof of that!
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Column 98: The Tobacco Sack Connection
Column 97: Meet the Sisters Who Are State Fair Quilting Queens
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Column 95: Her Mother Pieced Quilts
Column 94: Rebecca Barker’s Quiltscapes
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Column 82: Replicating the Past: Reproduction Fabrics for Today’s Quilts
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