I Why & How · II Heritage & Challenge · III Cloth, Fabric, Materials
IV What Difference Does It Make? · V Through the Layers
VI Fun, Frustration & Fruition
In only 15 years, from 1981 to 1996, the two square miles of northern New Mexico territory between my house and the Arroyo Seco post office has changed so drastically that it suddenly has become imperative for me to try to record an older way of life before it becomes totally obliterated. Farm and pasture land is being subdivided. Cattle and sheep are being replaced by llamas and geese, definitely non-subsistence creatures. No longer can I anticipate meeting a hog along the road bent on finding the food of his dreams outside his own pen. Today someone will call the sheriff. Fifteen years ago the news would have been met by a neighbor with a philosophical shrug and words to the effect that it is better to roam and eat than to stay home and starve. The community was expected, where possible, to do its part.
My husband and I retired here from Ohio in 1981, twenty years after our first glimpse of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, discovered while on a summer vacation. I was too young, then, to take his declaration "This is where we're coming when I retire" seriously. It wasn't until 1975, when his determination had never wavered, that I insisted he spend a winter in northern New Mexico. I was certain he would be cured and our life in Ohio, near children and old friends, could continue uninterrupted.
My resistance to his plan remained strong. I vividly remember one blistering hot July day, driving west across Kansas, when I announced that I would not go another mile. He cajoled me with the sure promise that it would be cool in the mountains. Of course, he was right. The climate is dry and always cool in the shade. The mountains loom and recede, changing color every hour of the day, every season of the year. During the last 15 years, I've learned that landscapes need not necessarily be green to be beautiful. Great rocks and boulders, gashes in the earth, canyons and sage-brush beneath vivid blue sky and ever-changing clouds, are always beckoning me to look again.
I had retired in 1980 from many years as a high school art teacher, expecting to settle back comfortably in familiar surroundings. Instead, being the "social" partner, I became the contractor for our 800 square-foot adobe home. A dedicated son-in-law, two nephews, and a couple of local boys who were in training to play football, comprised our building crew, directed by my husband, who doubled as carpenter. My sister had a warm meal waiting each evening. We moved in on October 15, 1981. It snowed the next day.
Morada, Des Montes, New Mexico
That fall of 1981, and for many years thereafter, I walked the two miles to the post office in hopes of a letter from one of our four children, a thousand or more miles away, literally and figuratively. I was in an unfamiliar world. The hard-packed dirt of the yards around the small adobe houses was swept clean, not planted in grass. There were a few mobile homes, and more would come soon. There was also the camposanto, cemetery, which was the most colorful place on my entire walk! It was filled with bright flowers, both plastic and real, flags and balloons, on the anniversary of a death. The homemade crosses and low fences around each plot were painted in vivid colors. This wasn't my Ohio world.
Cemetery, Amalia, New Mexico
When we had moved before, I had always kept up an enthusiastic front because of the children. It had become a habit to say that each new place was better then the last. Now, with the frantic activity of building over, with no children to buoy me up, and a husband who didn't leave for work each day, I collapsed into tears. My life seemed purposeless. The few quilts I made that first winter - I've always made quilts - were predominantly black.
A notice in the weekly newspaper finally piqued my interest. It was for a Christmas tea and local crafts display, to be held in the old Arroyo Seco church building. The bell tower of that building had always been a landmark for my walks, and I was curious to see the interior of the old adobe building.
That Christmas of 1981, the local women giving the tea were weavers and quilters. The walls of the sanctuary were hung with wool and cotton rag rugs and quilts. Pillows and other smaller items were spread on the big sewing tables. Six looms, big, stand-up, two-harness looms, were draped with more rugs. The altar had been converted into a buffet of punch and cookies. They welcomed me, this woman who had been walking silently to the post office for so many months, and after reciprocating smiles, I was invited to come there to work on my own quilts, to have a place among peers, every Tuesday for the next ten years. Thus, I joined Pearl Martinez, Casimira Madrid, Ida Martinez, Mabel Read, Precides Martinez, Teresa Archuleta, Viola Varos, Margaret Woodall, and Priscilla Cruz.
Martinez Hacienda, Taos, New Mexico, 1997
"Every Friday we meet and continue the tradition..."
photograph © Susan Ressler
Although Spanish was the language of choice, most of the women were bilingual, which made translation seem effortless. An older weaver, who spoke no English, was a superb story teller. With Pearl at my elbow, Casimira would begin to flutter her hands, roll her eyes, and we knew that it was story time. All her life, 78 years in 1981, Casimira had never lived more than a mile from that church. This day she was talking about the church before it had a wooden floor. She looked straight at me and pointed her finger down; then her hands began to outline the bodies that were interred in that dirt under the floor. Fear of wild animals desecrating the graves, she positively snarled, had made the people bury their dead inside the building in the early years. Now, with her hands moving in circles, we knew that those ancestors were still watching under us, keeping everything snug and secure.
I learned lesson after lesson. What I had known as one of the miracles of the New Testament, feeding the multitude with only a few loaves and fishes, was re-enacted for me weekly with whomever happened to be in the building. Nobody else had a neat little sandwich in a tightly folded brown paper bag. They brought the remains of a box of crackers or a loaf of bread, a can or two of sardines or Vienna sausages, some roasted green chilies or a jar of red pureed chili, plus a few cents to go into the coffee fund. We shared. I learned to cut up a sandwich into eight or ten pieces, to eat tamales and wild spinach. They taught me to find asparagus along the ditches and I showed them how to cook up milkweed buds for a spring treat. We all made pie after pie from the apples and apricots picked in the fall. We did a lot of sharing and a lot of laughing. In Ida's words, "We had a ball."
I also learned that there are as many ways to make quilts as there are people who make them. My grandmother in New Jersey had used new cotton fabrics left over from dressmaking; she used a template to mark every piece; she pieced by hand. Suddenly that technique was long ago and far away. In the old church, our fabric was donated used clothing, often left after a garage sale. What was really good went to Mexico for relief work. The knits were set aside for the weavers to make rag rugs. The rest was divided according to color, not fiber, into big plastic bags for the quilters. The predominant color in a print determined the appropriate bag. Sewing machines, electric scissors which rarely worked, squares cut by folding, any technique that would help us keep even marginally ahead of those full bags was welcomed. I eventually used a paper cutter to make the strips for innumerable Log Cabin variations; the fabric was trimmings from the bottoms of men's trousers carefully saved for us by the alterations department of a men's clothing store. Once in a while we quilted; more often we tied. The quilts and woven rugs were used as family gifts or sold to keep the building heated and in repair.
When that building, La Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad, Church of the Holy Trinity, was condemned in 1989, I knew that something had to be done to record a traditional way of life that was disappearing all over rural New Mexico. I was inspired by quilt historian Jeannette Lasansky, who had been hired in 1986 by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, to spend six weeks in New Mexico collecting stories and quilts that were typical of the regions. Her tour had begun and ended in La Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad, where she had made a short film for television. Her stories and enthusiasm suggested that quilts could be my vehicle for recording the rural ways of New Mexican life.