I didn’t know about the quilt top until several years after Laura Goff had died. But my great grandmother and I–the first and last of our family strand of oldest daughters–ended up sewing by hand on this same quilt.
At the same time I was drawn deeper into my family’s history.
Born shortly after the Civil War, in a Guthrie County log cabin west of Monteith, Laura Jordan was already a fourth-generation Iowan, but the first born in the state. When she grew up and became a country school teacher, Laura bought a gold watch so she could ring the school bell to call the children to class on time.
When Great Grandmother Laura died in 1962 (I was a freshman in college), the Periwinkle quilt top lay folded in a closet in the little house on N. 4th Street in Guthrie Center.
In 1890, when Laura married Milton Sheridan “Sherd” Goff, she had to retire from teaching. She no longer needed the gold watch so she traded it to her father for something she needed more–a cow.
No one wanted the quilt top of colorful pointy patches, set together with ecru octagons, with raw seams underneath. Well, the angle of the diamond-shaped pieces wasn’t quite right. The thing would not lie flat. As the quilter in the family, I was offered the curiously lumpy thing.
Laura bore 11 children in 21 years, while Sherd moved his family at least 13 times (out-of-state twice), seeking greener pastures. Laura agreed to move anywhere in the United States, but wanted to live where her children would be educated. During that time, five years was the longest they lived in any one place.
I knew that if I adopted the quilt, it would haunt me until I took the entire thing apart. But for the next four years, it lay folded in a box in West Des Moines. I finally disassembled it, thread by thread, my tiny stork-shaped scissors pulling out Great Grandmother’s neat little stitches. The fabric of the octagons was really too heavy to quilt through, so I discarded them and carefully washed the rest.
When three of Laura Goff’s sons were drafted during World War I, she knitted socks and mittens for the Red Cross in Guthrie Center and helped roll bandages. She assisted with the births of the 10 children of her oldest daughter, who had two sets of twins. When infant twins died of whooping cough in 1929, Laura made their lace and satin burial gowns.
Not until a year later did I cut out new octagons and recut the multicolored diamond shapes. Slowly I repieced the whole top, which turned out larger than the original. That meant that the red border, which really enhanced the rest of it, was too short.
Laura Goff worked hard, knew how to do without, could make a good meal from almost nothing, and–according to her daughter–could get more writing on a postcard than anyone. Probably the first woman in our family to vote, she wrote her daughter on Oct. 19, 1920, “Miss Grissel speaks at the Christian Church at 2:30 tomorrow and tells the women how to vote. Think I will learn how it’s done.”
There were a half-dozen remnants of fabric from Grandma’s closet. Mercy, one was that very piece of red. There was just barely enough of it. “Meant to be,” Great Grandma would have said.
Laura Goff was widowed in 1930. When World War II broke out, two more sons served in the military, as did six grandsons. Three of those grandsons lost their lives.
I stitched by hand through fabrics my great grandmother had chosen, cut out and sewn–with fingers that had learned to sew not that long after the Civil War, fingers that were already 75 years old when I was born. There was a lovely feeling of timelessness.
Over the next two years, I hand-quilted a spider web in each octagon and a chorus of singing birds around that cheerful red border. I presented the Periwinkle quilt to the third generation in this mother-line of oldest daughters–my own mother.
We agreed that Great Grandmother Laura would have approved.
Published in the September 19, 1999, issue of Grit Magazine.
This story aired on Our American Stories for the first time on March 30, 2021.
Great Grandmother Goff and I both worked on another small quilt, a Nine Patch with red centers.
The only thing better than an heirloom is an heirloom with a story. – Joy Neal Kidney