Tales from Mom (2), The Quilt Nellie Makes

Posted on July 10, 2014

By Trudy A. Martinez

The very same quilt Nellie makes, now tattered and worn, that adorns her bed has a stitched piece of the flower sack that once held her secret stash of feathers. Ma shares many secret ways, as part of her Indian heritage, of remembering the past down to minute details. She adopts quilt making as a means of preserving for later recall of one’s own history. Nellie did the same. The survival of the flower patch in her quilt is a testament to that.

Her hand touches the patch as she pulls back the quilt, raises herself slowly from her reclining posture, and brings herself to a sitting position at the edge of the bed. “Nev’r nuff”, she utters as her fingers stroke the patchwork. More years than she cares to remember pass since she hand-stitches the pieces together; the once bright and colorful colors, now are fading; but the memory each patch holds are still bright and clear as they rise with the sun every morning, reminding her of her youth, her loves, her sorrow.

Nellie Mae only went to fifth or sixth grade; she no longer remembers which it is, fifth or sixth.

Then every day is miserable for her, coming home with tears streaming down her chubby cheeks and a group of children following her, laughing and teasing and asking, “What the matter? Your cat got your tongue. Are you going to be a clown when the circus comes to town? With that hair, you will surely make everyone laugh. You’ll fit right in.” They always say something about her.

Her hair, in addition to the usual, is a subject they just cannot resist this morning.

You see, Ma broke the regular bowl she sets on her head to guide the scissors when she cuts her hair. This morning the bowl is much smaller. As a result, Nellie’s hair is so different from the norm, she not only catches her classmates’ eye but also their criticism. Teasing her is a pastime they all seem to enjoy.


(Nellie Mae is the girl in the back row (circled in red) with the above the ear short hair –cut. The picture is of the last year she attends school.)

A mounting uneasiness encompasses Nellie during this encounter. Her dread of the situation brought about by her peer’s, increasing violent reaction, sets her heart a pounding.

As they poke at her with twigs and sticks, the sound of each beat of her heart echoes then ricochet off the walls of her chest, sending out a desperate cry for help like a drum beating out a message in the deepest, darkest jungle.

She feels like a lamb led to the slaughter. Inwardly, she prays in silence even though all the time she wants to cry out, “Those of you who is without faults cast the first stone.”

She wonders as she watches the oldest boy reach down to pick up a dirt ball if he can read her thoughts. At first, he pretends to throw the dirt, causing her to flinch. Then when the others see how she reacts, they follow the older boys lead, picking up a handful of dirt stones and pretending to throw them at her; and then changing directions, they hurl them in the air like a band of jugglers.

Nevertheless, when they discover their combine attempt fails to budge her as they try to rile her enough to holler at them so they can laugh at her some more, they throw the stones. Their attack and their teasing convince her to remain silent.

Ma and Pa told her, “A child should be seen and not heard”. However, their meaning and Nellie’s interpretation of the statement under her circumstance differs. She justifies her silence through her representation of those wise words, allowing herself to keep away from what she does not wish to endure.

At home, it is another matter altogether. She makes distinguishable noises that are easy to discern by family members. Even so, she does not say much if she says anything at all. Her eyes do most of the talking. Of course, her facial expressions and body language make it clear and understandable her meaning.

With the combination of communicating methods operating together as a unit, she begs Pa to let her stay home and help Ma instead of going to school because the other children, even the teacher, show her no mercy, and she just wants to die because of it.

Ma being sickly, her older sister taking a job at the mill to help out the family financially and not able to help Ma as much, and there being nine children (including Nellie) to feed and care for, and Ma being about to have another helps to convince Pa.


(Nellie is in the back row between her older brothers. In front is her older sister, holding one of the twin girls, a younger brother, her Ma, holding the other twin, their dog, and Pa)

There is always something for her to do; and whining not her nature, she never complains. She loves taking care of her little twin baby sisters and dressing them and putting pretty ribbons in their hair.