Monday, January 26, 2009

Appalachian Journal: Lucy Atkinson's Story

From left: Phyllis Epperly, Tim Atkinson, Connie Hall and Vivian Semones hold quilts made by mother and grandmother Lucy Atkinson.

By Sean Kotz
CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. -- She was called Mommy and Grandma by her family and "Aunt Lucy" by just about everyone else.

She was known for her hard work and soft heart, but Lucy Atkinson, in the last year of her life and at the age of 96, did something remarkable.

She hand-sewed 18 quilts.

"If you didn't get one, that was your fault," joked daughter Vivian Semones as she gathered with her family to tell her mother's story, "because all you had to do was ask."

By most people's estimation, Atkinson lived a hard life and might have had every right to feel weary in her later years. Her father was a sharecropper who lost the ability to feed his family after a drought, and Atkinson had to go to work at a mill at 14. She never had anything that one might call leisure time, spending much of her day cooking, washing, making and repairing clothes, and hand-churning butter for extra income.

In fact, her daughter Phyllis Epperly noted that people would come from as far away as Roanoke on a weekly basis to get her butter.

"I don't care what time of the morning you got up, the woman was up," recalled her grandson, Tim Atkinson. "The fire was going and the woman was up. And you go to bed at night, and the woman was still up."

Her hands were often raw from cleaning, scratched by blackberry thorns, or frozen from doing laundry in the winter. And after a lifetime of hard labor, she learned to drive a car at age 59 and went to work at a regular job.

So there was little time for pleasure sewing while she was raising her family -- for Lucy Atkinson, sewing was a matter of survival, putting clothes on her family's backs and quilts on their beds to fight off frigid nights.

However, in her later years, life afforded more time to sew for pleasure, and she was able to produce more quilts.

And while she had a sewing machine, she chose to hand-stitch each one to ensure quality. On this point, in near unison, the family repeated one of her favorite sayings: "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing right."

Her youngest daughter, Connie Hall, called her hand-sewn quilts a "gift of herself." Displaying a tag sewn into her quilt that reads, "Made with love by Mommy," and Hall pointed out that when Atkinson knew her time was getting short, she set to work on making a quilt for each member of the family.

In relative secrecy, she began working on quilts for each person individually, choosing colors and themes to fit each personality.

After she died Oct. 29, they were presented this past Christmas posthumously ... all except for one. The quilt for her grandson, Tim Atkinson, had disappeared.

A lifelong fan of Virginia Tech's sports programs, his was an orange and maroon quilt with Tech logos patched in. But on Christmas morning, it was nowhere to be found.

It occurred to them that the quilt might have been given away to the Roanoke Rescue Mission with her own clothes as was part of her final wishes. They called and found that a VT blanket had come through there and been sold.

At that point, Tim Atkinson's wife, Penny, went into action, organizing a search party for the missing quilt, offering rewards and a buyback, and contacting the media to help retrieve this piece of family history. And then, out of nowhere, it turned up at Tim Atkinson's mother's house.

It was like a second Christmas for Tim Atkinson, who said he had not let his initial disappointment get the better of him and had quietly resigned himself to live with the loss of her last gift to him.

But with admiration and emotion showing through his smile, he said:

"I guess for me, this makes it all the more special, especially knowing that this was one of the last things she did in her life." (source)


Aunrea said...

I love it. What a great lady.

I have a *beloved* quilt my aunt made me as a baby. It had been given away when I was young and as an adult I hunted it down from a cousin and got it back. ^_~

John Galt said...

Cool story.