Monday, August 31, 2015

Dog Days

As fans of the movie Throw Momma from the Train can attest, the night was sultry

photo by Tony Alter

And sultry is a good way to describe the Dog Days of Summer—those fry-an-egg-on-the-sidewalk days at summer’s end, just when we’re all in a mood to fill the bathtub with ice and lemonade and dive in.

How did the Dog Days get their name? Is it because at this time of year, you can see dogs panting and seeking shade under shrubs and bushes?

photo by xlibber

Actually, the reason is far more mythic than that. In this season, the constellation Orion rises in the morning—and with the celestial Hunter comes his trusty dog—Canis Major.

In fact, Sirius--the brightest star in Canis Major--is also called the Dog Star. Since the hottest days of the year coincided with the rising of the Big Dog (and the Dog Star), the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans came to associate the weather with the stars.

Parthenon, AndyLiang

The poet Homer alludes to Orion's Dog in the epic poem, The Illiad:

    Sirius rises late in the dark, liquid sky
    On summer nights, star of stars,
    Orion's Dog they call it, brightest
    Of all, but an evil portent, bringing heat
    And fevers to suffering humanity.

Of course, we have to remember that Homer was penning these words in a house with no refrigeration or air conditioning or ice cream. No wonder he thought the Dog Star was bad news.

photo by paata

In some ways, I identify with those wacky, star-gazing ancient Egyptians. Before we moved back to the city, we lived in the country for sixteen years--on flat farmland away from city lights and city distractions. I never thought I would like living someplace that flat, but what it lacked in rolling hills, it made up for in spectacular scenery. We only had to look up. 

Each morning we could watch the red sun rise from the earth, and in the evening, we could watch it sink into the horizon. In summer I could stroll up our long driveway at night at look at Scorpio and Sagittarius, strung like Christmas tree ornaments across the southern sky. 

In winter, the landscape wasn't much--endless brown and gray and too much mud tracked into the house. But the sky-scape was ablaze with Orion, Taurus, Gemini, and Canis Major. In a place like that, the spinning pinwheel of the heavens is a bigger part of your life. Looking at the Milky Way, I felt like a small speck--but a small speck who is part of a grand and glorious design.   

Pharoah's Dog - Tesem

Since we moved, I have been suffering from too much time indoors and from stellar deprivation. For me, the biggest blessing of Dog Days is that the Hunter and the Dog return from their long absence in the glare of the sun. And although I left many dear friends behind when we left the country, my oldest friends--the stars--are with me still.

Egyptian sunrise--photo, Geagea

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Quilts: Stitches in Time

Every quilt is a story.

Sad to say, this butterfly quilt has spent most of its life in a garbage bag, waiting to be finished. My Aunt Doris made it for me when I was a child, but for some reason, no one ever finished it by binding the edge. I don’t remember exactly when the quilt was passed on to me, but I had every intention of finishing it myself--especially when after three boys, I finally had a daughter. 

Yes, I intended to finish it. I intended repeatedly. I intended fervently, but the bag was put away in a closet, and other projects (mostly computer-related) distracted me from this sewing job. Now and then, I would stumble upon the bag and think once again, I really need to put the binding on this quilt. Not that I knew how to do a binding, but it didn’t seem like it would be the stitchery version of rocket science.

This month I finally got up the gumption and went to Hancock’s Fabrics to buy some quilt binding. Hot pink seemed like the best match. I watched YouTube videos about how to do a quilt binding and then plunged ahead—making several mistakes. Apparently, it’s harder than it looks in the videos.

But with perseverance, I wrangled the binding onto the quilt, and in early September, I plan to present it to my daughter’s daughter for her third birthday. Her mom has just gone through a divorce, and they are making a new start in a new home. Amanda has a new room and a new big girl bed, and I think this quilt will be lovely for it. 

I remember lying in bed as a child under various quilts, made by my mom or her sisters. On a luxurious Saturday morning—before getting up to watch cartoons--I would stare at the little fabric pieces, magically joined together in kaleidoscopic patterns. Aunt Doris sewed clothes as well as quilts, and I could recognize scraps from cloth she had used to make a dress for my mom or a shirt for me. How odd to see all those little memories put together in a sort of fabric version of stained glass.

I especially remember one quilt that my family had made—a friendship quilt with appliqued blocks from various quilters, joined together and signed in embroidery.  It was tattered and torn by the time my sister-in-law gave it a new home after my parents passed away, but I’m sure she is preserving it as a piece of family history.

Okay, I had to take one picture of the binding!

As far as I know, all those family quilts were made by hand—pieces cut out and sewn together with fingers shielded with thimbles—then quilted, also by hand. Perhaps some of the bindings were stitched on treadle sewing machines, but I’m not sure. I don’t think my mom ever used a sewing machine. It took a staggering number of stitches to join all those little pieces of the top and then combine the layers together. Stitch, stitch, stitch. A lot of work went into these bed covers.

A double wedding ring quilt, made by my mother

I picture my mom and the other women quilting--a pot of green beans bubbling on the stovetop, a pie in the oven, and laundry dancing on the line in the backyard--making a sort of patchwork against the blue sky. And as if all the housework didn't quite satisfy their thirst for hard work, these women filled "leisure" hours with quilting. Apparently, the human spirit longs for beauty, even if forged from the scraps at hand.

I hand-hemmed the binding on the underside of the butterfly quilt, and it took a gazillion stitches--but only a mere fraction of the number of stitches in the quilt. They are stitches through time, joining families and generations and traditions and stories together in the colored pieces.

Until this humble binding project, I had never been a part of making a quilt. But with the butterfly quilt, I also inherited a stack of Grandma’s Flower Garden blocks that someone assembled. I'm thinking that my mom started this quilt and then had to stop when she injured her hand. I recently read that Flower Garden quilts are seldom made anymore because they are labor intensive. Maybe this would be another way to ease into quilting without the major commitment of doing it all by myself. Even with all the years that separate us, My mom and I could finally make a quilt together! And better still, maybe my daughter will help.

Grandma's Flower Garden, by Arria Belli

As an adult I discovered other quilts, not like the Kentucky farmhouse quilts of my childhood. Such as the Amish quilts with their use of more black pieces, giving stark contrast to the other colors. Or the art quilts by contemporary artists creating striking designs in abstracts.

Dawn Nebula Quilt by Michael F. James
Contemporary quilters create such phenomenal designs. But I recognize that the country quilters, with their simple patterns are also great artists, creating works that illustrate how the disparate pieces of our memories and our lives are stitched together by the loving and skilled hands of God to make a work of lasting beauty.

Robert Hillestad Textiles Gallery
Michael F. James

But my granddaughter doesn't have to think about all that. She can just sleep with the butterflies and with an inter-generational hug from Aunt Doris and Grandma.