This is not going to be a happy blog post about quilts.
This is a blog post about sadness, and grief, and children dying. I apologize in advance and understand those who don’t want to read it.
In the past month, two members of the QN team have dealt with the sudden deaths of young people. One was a young man just starting his independent life, the other was a baby who’d just celebrated her first birthday. Although the QN team members didn’t lose their own children, in both instances they are incredibly close to the mothers who did. No matter the age of a child lost, it’s a heart-obliterating, universe-upending, completely unjust and unreal experience for the parents.
I am the editor who currently writes the content for our regular Design Wall page, including the historical Backtrack items, something I really enjoy and find interesting. In the current October/November issue, I included a paragraph about Elizabeth Mitchell’s Graveyard Quilt:
1836 October 13, Elizabeth Mitchell’s two-year-old son John Vannatta died in Ohio. While in mourning Mitchell started making the first version of her Graveyard Quilt, which features an embroidered center medallion representing a cemetery surrounded by LeMoyne star blocks. The graveyard medallion of this first version, which was never quilted, includes coffin appliques representing John Vannatta and another son, Mathias, who died at 19 in 1843, by which time Mitchell was living in Kentucky. After Mathias’ death, Mitchell and her two daughters created a second, larger Graveyard Quilt that includes a border containing appliqued coffins embroidered with the names of family members, ready to be moved to the graveyard medallion after their deaths. It is now in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort, Kentucky. www.history.ky.gov
Quilts can be fun and beautiful. But they’re also a historical product of women’s work and a document of women’s lives, which are not always fun and beautiful. Sometimes quilts represent the difficult and tragic parts of our lives. I’ve been touched by the Graveyard Quilt since I first read about it. Maybe I tend to be detached and blasé and think that for women who lived in an era of higher infant mortality and who had quite a few children, losing one wouldn’t affect them as deeply as it affects mothers today. Clearly that viewpoint is selfish and myopic. Mothers have always – always – mourned the loss of their children. History doesn’t tell us how Elizabeth Mitchell’s sons died. John Vannatta, to be specific, was two years and eight months old, well past infancy and probably as rambunctious and inquisitive as any toddler.
But it doesn’t matter how they died. What matters is that they lived, and they mattered to their mother. In an era when states didn’t maintain death records, and when moving from Ohio to Kentucky meant that you’d probably never have a chance to travel back to visit your little boy’s gravesite again, Elizabeth Mitchell found a way, in what must have been her immense grief, to tell us all that they lived and they mattered. Because she did so, we have a link to the past beyond dates and events. We have a link back to her heart.
If you’ve read this knowing too well the grief of losing a child, please accept my deepest, deepest condolences.
Extra Credit: To read more about the Graveyard Quilt, read Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell’s Graveyard Quilt: An American Pioneer Saga by Linda Otto Lipsett (Halstead & Meadows Publishing, 1995).