Monday, March 30, 2015

Week 13: Shroud, Chapter 1: Caswell County, 1917-1970

   Memory is a time-shifter. It landscapes the past through relics and artifacts, and envelopes the present in a fog of semi-reality expressed as narrative. Memories can have an aspect of being both alive and dead. This week's book-of-the-week is the first chapter of the book Shroud... which is about memories expressed through a landscape in the form of a paper quilt. Chapter 1, Caswell County 1917-1970,  is made from a 1964 US Geological Survey map of Caswell County, North Carolina.
Chapter 1.... a 9-patch quilt pattern
   The map was cut into pieces and re-sewn as a nine-patch quilt square. The nine-patch is one of the simplest quilt patterns and is characterized by three rows, with each row having three squares each. The image below shows a nine-patch section on each corner, and a smaller nine-patch in the middle of the quilt.
a nine-patch quilt with 5 nine-patch sections

   This particular pattern was chosen because it was used in many of the quilts made by the farm woman in the book. It was quick, interesting, and utilized material efficiently. During the Depression era, farm families made use of everything.... money was tight and time was limited. Nearly everything had to be homegrown or crafted from materials at the farm. These days, the possibility of artisan-made butter and cheeses, organic beef and hams, fresh milk warm from the cow, eggs and vegetables picked from a garden not 20 yards from the back door... is a precious rarity. But in my Grandparents time... on their farm in Caswell County.... from the day of their marriage in 1917 until a few years before their death in the 1970's... these things were an everyday occurance.

Granny, about 1932

  At each of the four corners of the piece, are etchings made from old photographs of the area. Red silk thread binds the etchings to the nine-patch. The prints express what the mind cannot adequately render. ...Today, most of those places hardly resemble the image they express in memory.
Wedding party in the cornfield, 1917
   Handwritten in blue ink are the local hangouts, activity centers, villages and towns, meeting spots, churches, communities, and parks that were so important in past times.

Carver's Store, around 1940 by Marian Post Wolcott
   All during our youth, we kids heard stories about how... during the Depression... Mr. Henry Warren used to give all the kids a penny for every Indian arrowhead they brought him. He embedded them into the stonework of his house, mantles, and walkways. Later, after he retired from farming... he cemented them into the adorable miniature stone village, Shangri-La, that he built in his front yard...on the winding country highway that is NC 86 through Prospect Hill, North Carolina.... just like the stories that weave in and out of the landscape.  More information about Shangri-La and Mr. Warren's 10-year undertaking can be seen at Shangri-La.

   A family tree with births and deaths that range from the 1800-s to mid 1900's is penned in black ink in the center of the map. It has been abridged to give significance to the important persons in this narrative. 

Mildred, graduation from Prospect Hill High School, 1940
Bobby and Mildred just home from elopement in Texas, 1942.
   The final component is a handwritten narrative of a visit for Sunday dinner at the grandparents farm in Caswell County in the late 1950's. The narrative meanders throughout the nine-patch, just as the 1954 Plymouth rolled along the county roads from Raleigh to Prospect Hill all those Sundays ago. It is penned in gray ink as if it is a whisper... or coming through a fog... only bits and pieces clear.

An exerpt reads...

   Sunday lunch at Grandmama's house...we'd arrive after the hour-long drive from Raleigh.... cruising down Corbett Ridge Road, past the old Carver's store where Daddy's daddy, Exie Carver, had sold gas, and Nabs, and Coca-Colas to all the farmers... before he died.. before I was born. Daddy would pull the old Plymouth into the dusty driveway... rolling past the pig lot and the cow pasture to come to a stop right in front of the tractor shed... at the bottom of the hill leading up to the tidy whitewashed two-story farm house. My gaze always moved upward to the tin roof of the big old house and then landed on the lightening rod, perched straight and tall on the highest apex of the roof. Not an ordinary lightening rod, this one had an aqua blue glass ball midway up its shaft. I thought that aqua blue glass ball looked like a jewel. I gazed at it and imagined the delicate wrought ironwork... with its aqua blue glass ball.... was my princess' scepter. 

    It's been more than 50 years since that Sunday dinner. The old farmhouse is still whitewashed and tidy, but it's been empty for.. a long time. Most of the folks from that day are long gone too... Still, the memories lay in the psyche like a quilt, a warm blanket, or a shroud.

Google map of the Murphy farmhouse today

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