Two Quilts

Part One 1973

My mother’s favourite television programme in the 1970s was The Waltons. The series tells the story of a three generation Baptist family living in rural Virginia during the Depression. Critics considered the show naive and sentimental, but its dedicated followers found it charming and sensitively written. I liked it because there were so many Walton children and I desperately wanted siblings, especially a kindly order brother like John Boy, who would take an interest in me and help me feel safe in the world. My mother liked company when she watched television, and so when I reached an age where I was at risk of drifting away from The Waltons, she hit on a plan: she suggested I sew a patchwork quilt, just like the one Mary Ellen had made in the quilting bee episode. She told me that she had a pillowcase full of material, including pieces of her wedding dress and scraps of linen and silk that had belonged to my grandmother. So, in the evenings I began to sew my quilt, joining my mother, not only for The Waltons, but also, on occasion, for The Galloping Gourmet and The Val Doonican Show.

Taken from The Absent Prince: In search of missing men

Part Two 2020

For several months, I spent every afternoon in what my husband began to refer to as the ‘sewing room’. In the days before we were visited by a global pandemic, the sewing room was in fact the guest room. Since March, however, the free movement of people in and out of our house is ‘verboten’ and flouting the rules can incur an on-the-spot fine of £200.

Three weeks after lockdown was imposed, I learned that I was to be a grandmother. Once I’d digested this wonderful piece of news and come to terms with the aching disappointment that I would be spending very little time with our daughter during her pregnancy, I began thinking about an appropriate gift. Whilst on a visit to the attic, I re-discovered my mother’s pillowcase full of linen sheets and lace-edged napkins. The hand- embroidered tablecloths from her trousseau date back to the early 1940s. My grandmother’s thick and creamy linen aprons are pre-WWI and Great Aunt Bertha’s sheets and pillow cases recall her days as a ‘gouvernante de lingerie’. Some pieces are embossed with their initials, expertly stitched in white and duck-egg blue thread – LK.RK.BG.

Using my 47 year old patchwork quilt as inspiration, I spent the next four months repurposing these ancestral remnants to make a quilt for my granddaughter. Trading in Waltons’ Mountain, Virginia for Starrs Hollow, Connecticut, I watched my way through 82 episodes of The Gilmore Girls as I cut and stitched and pieced together Thea’s quilt.

In 1902, Thea’s Great Great Great Aunt Bertha moved from her tiny village in Switzerland to the French Riviera, where, for 8 years she was employed in the linen room at The Grand Hotel du Louvre in Marseille. In 1910 she returned to Switzerland to work at resort hotels in Gstaad and finishing schools on the shores of Lake Leman. Her employers describe Bertha Gilomen as hard-working, dependable, loyal and morally upright but work was seasonal and in spite of her excellent references, Bertha lost her job at The Palace Hotel in Lausanne shortly before the outbreak of WWI. She was unemployed for 16 months. After the war, Bertha found a position as a housekeeper at The Grand Hotel Dent du Midi in Champery before falling into another period of extended unemployment. I have no idea what my great aunt did to survive during these fallow years. She was unmarried and there was no social security. Bertha moved to Davos in 1926 and spent the next eight years working in tuberculosis sanatoriums. The exclusive alpine resort was to become a notorious Nazi outpost, often referred to as ‘Hitlerbad’. Bertha’s final position was at The Savoy Hotel in Zurich and her career ended as the Second World War began. She retired at the age of 57 and moved to a small rented apartment near the Basel train station. Bertha Gilomen died in 1966 at the age of 84.

My still tiny granddaughter, born in 2020, will have opportunities that Aunt Bertha, born in 1882, did not have. Although Thea will not be spared the inevitable setbacks and sadness associated with being human, she will, I hope, also inherit some of the strength, resourcefulness and resilience of her Great Great Great Aunt Bertha.