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She Taught Me More Than How to Quilt

Life Lessons From The Summer With My Grandmother 

My grandmother was a straight-shooter who never sugarcoated things — sharp around the edges, self-sufficient and a disciplinarian. Born in 1918 in the south, she had to be strong. But she was soft on the inside…a thoughtful, nurturing soul, an empathetic and patient listener. At 21, having the opportunity to soak in her presence for an entire summer was life-changing for me. I grew up on the other side of the country and only saw her maybe once a year. I was drawn towards her wisdom and was mature enough to know this was a unique and fleeting opportunity as she was in her 80s by then.  

We agreed we would make a quilt together that summer. I was there for an intense summer internship, so we would sit and work on our quilt after dinner for a couple of hours most nights. We were both women of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Sorority, Incorporated.  With me just a few years in and she, a “golden” soror (50 years) we decided to make an AKA quilt together. Yes, Kamala is our soror. 

I learned a lot more than how to quilt that summer. She was a patient listener who took the time to truly connect with me. She asked me a lot of questions and now that I look back, I can see that she was trying to check my thinking on a range of topics. Not in a judgmental way, but just to understand how I thought about things. I think the careful attention she offered me strengthened our bond tremendously. I wanted to be around her.  

Here are a few life lessons she taught me:

Lesson One: Good quality takes time and effort. 

My grandmother didn’t believe in shortcuts. She told me that while they might be enticing, shortcuts will always come with a price. She owned a sewing machine, but chose to do her sewing by hand. Before we started our quilt, we planned it out in detail.  We shopped for all the fabric, washed it and cut it ever so precisely. She taught me how to sew the pieces together with consistent stitching and how to embroider intricate designs. She said that you could choose to skip the important steps, but your quilt wouldn’t last very long. Taking the easy way in the beginning would ultimately result in a fail.   

Lesson Two: Keep learning.

My grandmother was an avid learner and a highly educated woman. I have memories of her sitting at the table, just reading the dictionary when she had time — always looking for a word she didn’t know. She was a principal at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington DC. Unlike many women in her generation, she was college educated and held a graduate’s degree. She, like my mother, insisted I never stop pursuing knowledge. Not only about quilting, but about most things in life. I learned that true intelligence lies in knowing that you don’tknow everything. 

Lesson Three: Always forgive, for your sake.

Among our many talks was a powerful one about forgiveness. She observed I was struggling to forgive someone in my life. She told me that withholding forgiveness would do me more of a disservice than the person I wasn’t forgiving. She reminded me that we all make mistakes, and that while I didn’t have to be around that person, I needed to forgive if I wanted to enjoy the greatest possible peace and happiness in my own life.

Lesson Four: Fulfill your own desires.   

I’ve always loved flowers — a gift that’s been passed on to me by my mother, who kept a beautiful garden. One of the markets near my grandmother’s house had the most beautiful flowers. Even though I was making good money, I wouldn’t buy them because in my mind, I was waiting on someone else to buy them for me. She told me: “Buy your own flowers and don’t wait on anyone to give you something that brings you so much joy. Pursue that joy for yourself.”

My grandmother lived to be 92. She drove a Jeep Cherokee until she was 90. She may have driven just 20 miles an hour, but she climbed up into that Jeep like a master every day. It was a wonderful illustration of her life. She never allowed herself to be limited by anyone’s thinking; she did things her own way, even if they took a little longer. I still have some of her fabrics, her sorority pin and of course our pink and green AKA quilt. I hope she knows how much she touched and continues to touch my life.  

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