Monday, May 27, 2013

Remembering Mamie

Dr. Gaither with her mother and sister Kathy.
This past week we said goodbye to one of the founding members of Joan's quilting circle - her mother, Mamie. Mamie was an ever present fixture at Joan's events, workshops, and quilting sessions up until three years ago when she moved to Virginia to live with Joan's sister, Carolyn. Joan's "posse" consisting of her mother, sister, and great-niece were always guaranteed to come out and show their support. Mamie was a strong woman in a little package. She was the person who taught Joan how to quilt. She was frequently known to proudly say "I taught my daughter how to quilt, but I never taught her how to do anything like this."

Mamie worked on each of Joan's quilts, the final being the National Black Theatre Festival quilt. Never one to throw her words around, she was frequently found quilting quietly listening to all the conversations going on around her while creating surprises on the quilts that not even Joan knew about until several days, weeks, or months later.

Detail, Poulson Slaver Quilt
(c) Joan M.E. Gaither, 2006
One of Joan's favorite "Mamie surprises" is on the Poulson Slaver quilt. While Joan and her quilters were sewing this quilt, Mamie worked on different areas of the African fabric along the border. She would spend a considerable amount of time in specific locations leading Joan to think she was "stuck." When Joan would tell her mother she should move to another part of the quilt, Mamie would respond "I've got this." Several months later, Joan was giving a talk on the Poulson Slaver quilt when she suddenly stopped in amazement. She then informed the audience that her mother, who Joan had thought was sewing simple stitches, was in fact sewing faces into the African fabric every time a certain pattern appeared. When asked about it later, Mamie said that the quilt talked about people being taken from Africa, but you needed to have people in Africa to be able to take them away.

Mama Mamie Stories
(c) Joan M.E. Gaither
Over the years, Joan has created two quilts dedicated to her mother - Ode to Mama Mamie - The Wise One and Mama Mamie Stories. Those of you who have attended one of Joan's workshops have seen and heard about the Ode to Mama Mamie's quilt. This quilt is made up of six memorable stories from Joan's childhood. Each story shares an encounter between Joan and her mother where Mamie creatively instilled values and knowledge into her eldest child - respect, education, cleanliness, responsibility, sharing, and community. From taking a water pistol to Joan's new hairdo purchased with her first paycheck to teaching her daughter about what "being grown" really is by taking away everything in the house that had to be purchased (an experience shown on the Cosby Show many decades later).

Mama Mamie Stories is relatively unknown outside of Joan's family. Joan created this quilt four years ago to share stories of her mother and her siblings. Included on the quilt is a story about her mother and each one of her brothers and sisters. When Mamie moved to Virginia, Joan sent the quilt to her sister to put outside her mother's room as reminder of all of Mamie's children. The two quilts came together this week and were hung side by side at Mamie's Celebration of Life services as a testimony to her legacy, love, and strength.

Mamie Ellis working on
Journey to the White House
We will miss Mamie's physical presence but we know she will be present in spirit and through everything she taught Joan and her brothers and sisters. To end this post, I am including the quote that makes up the border of the Ode to Mama Mamie quilt.

"Someone once said to me, 'You are who you think you are; you are who others think you to be, you are who you actually are.' Mama says 'You are the sum total of your life experiences, childhood experiences set values for life.' I say 'life is about choices; you choose who you want to be. Be prepared. Expect the BEST.' The REAL DEAL is 'You are who you are, not who others think you are. All you can ever do is to be your BEST.' " 


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