Pixie Dust and Quilts

Sara Etgen-Baker

© Copyright 2020 by Sara Etgen-Baker

Photo of a quilt.

This story preserves my memories of my mother and her quilt making as well as my appreciation for her gift of strength, courage, and heroism.

Mother slipped the vintage key into the keyhole turning it ever so slightly until the locking mechanism clicked open. She lifted up the lid to Granny’s heirloom cedar chest. I closed my eyes and sniffed; the air inside it smelled like my grandfather’s cedar cigar box with just a hint of overlying mustiness. And the hinges—stiff as an old man’s arthritic joints—complained as they reluctantly snapped into place. But once open, dust swirled and danced from inside the cedar chest into the cool, dusky air inside Mother’s attic.
Look, Mama! Look! They’re escaping!”

Who’s escaping?”

The pixies! The pixies!”

What pixies, darling?”

You know. Granny’s magical pixies.” I swiped my hand through the air hoping to capture one of them. “Here they are, Mama. Can’t you see them?”

No, Darlin’, I don’t see them. All I see is dust.”

But it’s pixie dust,” I insisted, “and the pixies are dancing all around us.”

Honestly child! You and your imagination!”
Photo of a cedar chest.
And even though their dust hung low in the air, the pixies dove right through it. Once their flight was fully restored, the pixies swirled their limbs, releasing even more of their magical dust into the air. I watched as their dust spun and swirled around us like a glorious cloud of shimmering glitter or colorful confetti. Indeed, there was something almost magical about opening my grandmother’s cedar chest and sitting next to Mother while she rummaged through its contents.

Oh, look!” Mother’s eyes brightened. “Here are some of your Granny’s quilts.” She reached inside the cedar chest; retrieved a timeworn and rather tattered-looking patchwork quilt; and draped it across my lap. “Oh my!” Tears flooded her eyes. “Granny made this such a long time ago.”
I brushed my fingers over the fabric, outlining the intricate patchwork design.

Did the pixies help Granny make her quilts?”

Well, hmmm.” Mother wiped the tears from her eyes then rubbed her chin.

I suppose. In a way of sorts. Yes! They helped her.”

How, Mama? Tell me, please! I wanna know.”

Well, baby, it was the Depression; times were tough; and there wasn’t enough money to buy blankets. But the harsh Kansas winter was drawing near; so Granny gathered up all the worn out and unused garments she could find; cut them up into small squares and strips; and sewed them together to make quilts to keep us warm. You see this fabric here?” Mother ran her fingers over a delicate pink and purple calico print. “It came from a dress I wore during the first grade. And this white, lacy fabric. It came from Aunt Dulce’s wedding dress.”

But what about the pixies? What did they do?”

Granny often fell asleep in her chair while stitching together the quilt pieces. I awoke on one such night curious about the finished quilts she’d placed inside her cedar chest. I opened it and peeked inside; when I did, the pixies escaped and hovered over her. Then each one took a turn; and one-by-one they stitched some of the pieces together for her. After working all night, the following morning the pixies returned to the cedar chest and fell asleep.”

Oh!” My eyes widened. “Have they been sleeping all this time?”

No, baby, I don’t think so. Remember, pixies are shy and humble creatures; so once they finish their work, they quickly disappear until they’re needed again. That’s why we rarely see them and their magical deeds.”

Mother smiled; gingerly folded the quilt; and dug deeper into the cedar chest unearthing a box containing scraps of material from a bygone time. “What an unexpected surprise!” She emptied the scraps onto the floor. “How lovely! These’ll make a beautiful quilt.”

From that day forward, Mother made quilts—lots of quilts; and I grew up watching her make them. Her early quilts were like her mother’s, utilitarian and prudent. But her later quilts were creative projects—works of art if you will. “I always wanted to be an artist,” she once confessed to me. And she was. Mother was a tireless painter whose fabric became her canvas. The shapes, colors, and designs were her paints; her stitches were her brush strokes; and she painted such fabulous pictures with her fabrics and stitch work.
But in her 60s, Mother—a diagnosed diabetic—became critically ill. Her temperature spiked as did her blood glucose and ketone levels, and she lapsed into a diabetic coma. She emerged from the coma but developed diabetic neuropathy—a debilitating disease that blurred her vision and frequently paralyzed her feet and hands. But even with her numb hands and diminished eyesight, Mother continued quilting—painstakingly feeling the fabric, cutting the shapes, and hand stitching the pieces together. And how heroic she was in making those stitches; what a martyr she was silently suffering from the pricks and misery her needle inflicted. Even when blood dripped from her fingers, not a single tear emerged from her eyes. These were some of the first lessons I learned in personal heroism, courage, and fortitude.

And when I asked her how she managed to continue making quilts, she smiled a pixyish, whimsical smile and said, “It’s Granny’s magical pixies. They’re always here when I need them.”
Photo of Sara' at 11 years old.
             Mother Winifred Christine Stainbrook-Etgen 1944

Mother has since passed, and few of her quilts remain. Yet when I’m having difficulty in life or feeling overwhelmed with some project, I yearn to curl up with one of Mother’s quilts. So, I gently open the lid to Granny’s cedar chest where two of Mother’s quilts are stored. I snap the now rusty hinges into place; delve into its contents; and retrieve one of Mother’s quilts. I wrap it around me and climb into bed, remembering her love and soaking up her courageous spirit. As the night swallows the day, my weary, troubled mind relaxes; and my eyelids become heavy. Before drifting off to sleep, I see them again—Granny’s magical pixies—dancing around the room. And Mother was right; Granny’s magical pixies always appear when I need them

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