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“Be an opener of doors for such as come after thee.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Recently, I found a box of old letters from the nineteen seventies and eighties. They were sent by friends and family members, many of whom are no longer living. They’re a treasured link with the past. Postage stamps cost eight cents in 1973, but the letters are priceless today.
A letter from my great aunt, Carrie Brandes, contained fabric samples. The women in my family were dedicated to sewing and liked to share what was on their sewing machines. Often when you opened a letter, a square of fabric would fall out. It told more about a project than a wordy description. A springy color. A challenging fabric. A visual of someone’s prom dress.
Carrie’s letter does more than tell about a project. It reveals her thoughts and character at the age of eighty three. Carrie was one of the characters in Secrets of the Dark Closet, my historical fiction, which was set in 1899 to 1907. Much of the book was based on other research. However, a lot of the stories came from Carrie.
Because Aunt Carrie recorded many stories with a tape recorder, we know her mother was a fine seamstress. She passed her skills and commitment to excellence to her daughters, Bessie and Carrie. Bessie passed them on to her daughters, including my mother, Neva. Making clothing for babies through adults, piecing quilts, rug making, crocheting and knitting were among the skills that were common in our family. Today, several of my nieces enjoy quilting.
Here is what Carrie wrote some seventy years later in a letter postmarked Jan. 27, 1973: Neva tells me you are piecing tops for boys beds I know it takes a lot of pieces I have been piecing too-I have an asst left and would like to send themto you the squares are like the enclosed about 4 inches sq. If you still nrrd a variety just let me knw or via Neva and I’ll quick them off PDQ.
I know. Carrie never learned to type. She headed the county draft board for twenty-five years, pecking away at a manual typewriter with two fingers. You have to wonder what all those government forms, filled out in triplicate, looked like.
Nevertheless, this letter shows a lot. Mom phoned her aunt and told her I was piecing quilts. That must have been the news of the day. I can imagine them being happy that I was beginning to take up a skill that defined the women in our family. Carrie followed up by offering me tangible support.
The letter is a fine lesson to me in the way one generation nurtures another by passing on a life pattern. In this case, it’s quilting.
Carrie was still quilting in her eighties. Mom made quilts for each of her seven children and for some grandchildren after she retired. She used various patterns to cut and sew the tops. Then she’d set up her quilting frame in the tiny living room of her home and hand stitch the quilt together. (This is the same house that has the Dark Closet.)
Patterns. One generation shows the next how to manage life. Passing on our skills is as old as life itself, and not just how to do things, but how to be. How to appreciate nature or handle emergencies. How to fill time, when at last you have some extra on hand. How to encourage and bless others.
Among the most famous of all letters are those written by the apostle Paul in the New Testament. The letters I kept are only a few decades old, but Paul’s were written two thousand years ago. It’s powerful to see that the patterns for life that he set are still valid.
Paul wrote two letters to a young man named Timothy. He began by blessing Timothy with “grace, mercy and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.” The letters to Timothy include Paul’s concerns, thoughts, and feelings. He also instructed, encouraged and cautioned the younger man.
“Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me,” II Tim. 1:13. (NKJV)
How we need the same kind of blessing, encouragement and instruction today.