Aunt Mildred was our family's version of an IED.
She'd lurk quietly, waiting for you to make the most minor misstep. Then, boy oh boy, she'd let you have it. Her tongue could slice tomatoes, it was so sharp. Her glare could freeze you faster than a winter wind off Lake Michigan. The only time you'd get your way with her was if she had determined what you wanted and you agreed to it. She was difficult, demanding and a first-rate battle-axe, to use a term of the day.
It's fair to say I was generally terrified of her. But there were certain things I actually admired about her.
Although she had married into the family, Aunt Mildred assumed the role of matriarch after my grandmother -- her mother-in-law -- died in 1962. She was a savvy businesswoman, building a successful business with my uncle. Her knitting and needlepoint were outstanding. She had lovely silver hair. But, more than any of that, she was easily the most impressive cook I've ever known. She'd come home from a day at the office and tap-tap-tap those stilletto heels around the kitchen, whipping up a veal marsala with the same ease the rest of us might make a sandwich. Her Thanksgiving dinners and other family feasts weren't to be missed. Before she married Uncle Al, she'd worked in a cookbook test kitchen. I imagine she was considered quite an asset there.
By no means were my mom and Aunt Mildred close. The enmity may have begun earlier, but it probably didn't help when, soon after I was born, Aunt Mildred visited, looked at me and announced, "Pretty she won't be." (Seriously -- in what kind of family does someone say this to a new mother. And who is cruel enough to compound the insult by actually telling the subject of the slur what was said?)
When I was a teenager, maybe four or five years my mom died, I was minimally helping Aunt Mildred prepare a meal. I don't know if it was a perverse test on my part or what, but I asked her if she had thought my mother was a good cook.
She answered, She was a good cook. (A beat's pause.) A plain cook, but a good cook.
Now, I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with that response, although it would have been kinder to cut the one-upsmanship and simply say yes. There's no real dichotomy here -- plain and good aren't halves of the same whole. They can exist together or separately, right?
So if a plain cook can be a good one, can a plain quilt be a good quilt?
This topic has been roiling around in my brain since I overheard a discussion by some Guild members at the quilt store. Apparently one of the organizations to which they donate charity quilts had asked if some more care might be put into their donations.
One woman took the position that she didn't have to do the quilt at all, so whoever got it should be happy with it. Another agreed, adding that she wasn't going to spend a lot of time on something she was giving away. The last of the Macbeth trio said they'd just have to realize that what she was offering was good enough for them.
It reminded me of the struggles I had when I chaired the Social Action Council at church, trying to convince certain congregants that donating expired canned goods or open cereal boxes to the Food Bank wasn't really doing anyone any good. The argument I got in return: If they're hungry enough, they'll eat it. Wow. Talk about disregard for basic human dignity.
As you know, one of the ways I'm sewing through my stash is by making charity pillowcases, flannel blankies and quilts. Because I'm aiming for high production, I can't spend the months it would take to, say, piece 1300 scraps into a New York Beauty. But there are plenty of simple patterns out there that make quite handsome quilts. I make sure that the fabrics are appropriate and go well together. I take time with my finishing and binding.
So, all in all, my charity pillowcases, flannel blankies and quilts might be plain, but they're good. And by that, I mean they're done with the same care I'd make any items, so I can feel good about giving them. Plain and simple.