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three down, three to go…

Dorothy, 94

For most of my adult life I have felt that older women hold the wisdom this world so sorely needs. As young as 30 I longed to visit “old folks homes” and ask them about their stories.  Life intervened, I never had time being a working Mom and wife, to pursue the idea. Fast forward 35 years and with my father and sister both living in assisted care, I realized that many elder women’s minds are gone; memories and wisdom stolen from them. And again I shelved the idea.

When Marion died and I had finished our shared Defining Moments series, the elder women’s wisdom idea resurfaced. First, I asked younger women what wisdom they would want to know from elder women? Their responses were predominantly about menopause. How long does it last? When will the hot flashes stop, etc. I found it humorous because once ‘the change’ is past, who gives it a thought anymore?!

I developed a series of questions and asked women over 80 if they would participate? Most I asked did so. A couple did not. One was an immigrant who still feared for her safety and privacy, years later. I honored and respected her wishes. Most of the “interviews” took place by email. They sent me pages and pages of luscious details about their lives and lots of photos to scan.

Frances, 98

The first piece was about Frances who I spoke to in person. I had never met her before, but she was a former neighbor and long-time friend of the sister of an acquaintance. (lost yet?!) She was 97 at the time. I just learned this week that she died earlier this month at 101, and in her own home; something we all hope to achieve. Frances was a Navy nurse who worked at the Marin shipyards during WWII. She met her husband who was a ship welder, when he came into the clinic with a slag wound. They courted, married and bought their home on a quiet street in Mill Valley, where she continued to live the rest of her life. She spoke with great emotion about her experience with gender pay inequality, as if it were yesterday…that a janitor on the base property made more than she did as an educated nurse.

It took me a good year to design the second piece, on Vivian, 95, the mother of a woman in art group. She too had an interesting life, one of privilege and education, a doctor’s wife (and daughter), mother and accomplished artist. It wasn’t that it took an actual year to design; but that I was driven and motivated to make other work about relevant issues of our time; aka artivism!

I soon figured out that it was the interview process that really stimulated my muse, not the actual quilt making. And it did not help my motivation going forward, when Vivian commented how much she disliked the work, after I sent her images of it completed. Although I had explained my design process when I requested to interview her, she was unhappy that her story was not completely legible.

As my favorite person in the world, my dear Aunt Dorothy was approaching her 94th birthday, I decided I needed to get the piece made about her life; and potentially by her birthday which was earlier this month. She was 92 when I interviewed her. I really don’t know what sparked the design of this work, other than my great love for the woman and human being that she is.

Making this third piece about her life in particular, was the perfect salve after Vivian. First she gave me a big stack of photos to scan, and then a juicy & lengthy interview. She was the 2nd of 5 children born to a teacher and farmer in Iowa. Her childhood was filled with song, chores, and church. They lost the farm in the dust bowl and migrated to California. The family was poor and yet the richness that surrounded them in song and scripture sustained her. She married at 18, saying it was the best decision any 18 yr old ever made and their union lasted 72 years. They adopted two babies, both of whom are now seniors themselves. Her education was determined and lengthy earning her post grad degrees in psychology and education. Her husband’s occupation of pastor and counselor took them to many states and then to Europe where they served in major cities and in Lebanon during the civil war. In each place they lived, she found her place to thrive & contribute as special needs teacher, friend and confidante. They returned to California and continued their life of service to others.

teen Dorothy at the beach. when I pointed out the young man watching her, she named him right away!

If I were to sum up my Aunt Dorothy in a sentence …She is the most kind, selfless, generous, optimistic person I have ever met in my entire life. She makes everyone feel special, whether they are or not! She always has time to listen and wisdom to impart. For as long as I can remember, at maybe 4-5 years old, I have been aware that she ‘saw’ me. I never felt seen as a child; and by that I mean seen for who I was, not for my “flaws”. And yet, even as a very young girl, I was aware that she saw me. This piece became my love letter to her, that yes, I see her, in return. And that is why it was such a joy to create.

Initially when I started this series, I thought it might become my life’s work, as there are so many living elder women, as potential subjects. Many people told me about women in their 80’s, 90’s, 100’s who I could talk to. Immobilized by grief, I never followed up. The loss of yet another good friend to cancer (Marion grew the list to four) somehow inspired this series initially, but then it lost its luster for me, after the ‘interview’ process.

I suspect my lifelong yearning to speak to older women was satiated by simply doing that. I have three more quilts to go. All three women were in their early 80’s when I interviewed them. Time will tell when they are completed.

Meanwhile I am ordering paint for another activism piece! I just can’t help myself.

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