MJB: Today I’m sitting down with Phyllis Lawson to talk about her new book, The Quilt of Souls. As I understand it (I have not read the book yet), the story is of your growing up and the legacy of your grandmother who made very special quilts. The fabric that she used for her quilts came from people who had passed on, thus imbuing the quilts with their stories and qualities, and paying homage to them. I find this to be amazingly personal craftwork. How did your grandmother develop this idea? Was it her own idea or did she learn about it from someone else?
PL: The making of quilts was a skill that was passed down from her mother. My grandmother was born in 1883. Her mother was Choctaw Indian and African. My great grandmother’s quilting skills were based on both her Native American and African culture.
MJB: A great many people in the US have that blend of Native American and African. It will be interesting to see how those two very different cultures were comingled in the quilting process.
You have one of these quilts. Do you know of everyone who is represented there? Can you tell their stories?
PL: I know about 75 percent of the individuals whose cloths are represented in my quilt; my grandmother passed on to me their stories.
MJB: I would guess that your grandmother had her own amazing story as well. Did she tell you about her early life and about moving beyond the yoke of slavery?
PL: Yes. My grandmother had a very interesting story to tell. Even though she was born about 16 years after slavery was abolished, she told me the stories that her mother passed down to her including the brutality of slavery. Some of these stories were of her sisters and brothers who were born years before and were sold to other plantation owners. All the quilts that she sewed over those many years were all hand-sewn. She also was the primary caretaker for my grandfather who was considered disabled. As a result, she plowed and farmed, tilled and reaped the land single-handedly. She was in her 70s at that time. In addition, she made quilts for anyone who asked.
MJB: Like so many of her generation, she simply did what needed to be done without complaint. That kind of wide-ranging hard work seems so foreign to us today. I have a feeling this book could point up all the things that we, in our time, can be grateful for.
How long did it take you to write this book?
PL: About 16 months from start to finish. I had made a promise to myself long ago that once I retired from the military, I would put my heart and soul into telling Grandma’s story.
MJB: Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
PL: Yes, many parts. Particularly when looking back on those days sitting under the old oak tree with my grandmother as she told the stories. Most of them were of how these individuals endured the pain and suffering of that time. I actually felt their pain as I wrote the earlier chapters of the book. I cried a lot and laughed a lot as well. During that time, not only are their stories of the quilt, but also of all the colorful characters that I came in contact with over those nine years. It was very impactful looking back over the years that I spent with her, watching her cry as she told some of the stories. Imagining how painful it must have been for her. Losing her family and friends in the most horrific ways you could ever imagine. Even with all this pain in her heart, she still found the will to love and care for anyone who was in need regardless of skin color. Her death at 103 and my time spent with her shortly before she died was heart wrenching for me to revisit. Maintaining Grandma’s dialogue and regurgitating many of her truisms was also difficult. Trying to keep her voice consistent and in a manner where the general public could understand was challenging. Remembering them was easy; putting it on paper was tough.
MJB: It sounds like an extraordinary, bittersweet experience, and she sounds like an amazing woman. I’ve learned that the height of love that we feel for someone is reflected in the depth of the pain we feel when they are gone. That’s obviously very true of you and your grandmother.
What part of writing the book came easily?
PL: Reminiscing about my grandmother was very easy. I have never met anyone like her in all my life. Even though the stories themselves were heart breaking, it was almost as though I could hear her every word as I put these stories to paper.
MJB: Have you always wanted to write, or was it just this story that drove you to the keyboard?
PL: I wrote poetry as a way of soothing the struggles that I had to endure during my teenage years. The love of poetry eventually turned into a love of story writing.
MJB: We all know writing can be therapeutic. What did you learn about yourself during the writing process? What did you learn about human nature and the human condition?
PL: During my teenage and early adulthood years, writing was my catharsis. It was a way to soothe my anger, my hurt and the abuse that I had to endure as a teenager. The most prolific realization that I encountered during the writing of this book was realizing that I had developed forgiveness. I didn’t ever think that I could forgive my mother for the physical and mental abuse that I had to endure once I was returned to her home. To see my life on paper and be able to chart my progress was truly amazing. I was able to see myself as I grew into adulthood without carrying all the negative baggage from my past. I could have easily turned into the angriest person on the planet. I was able to recognize how those valuable life lessons my grandmother passed on to me impacted my choices. This was particularly true in my early teen and adulthood years.
MJB: It sounds like you have found the best possible combination of benefits from writing: story-telling and your own personal growth. I don’t think there’s any doubt that writing about our lives gives us a unique and compassionate perspective.
If you could hand this book to your grandmother, what do you think she would think about it? What might she say to you?
PL: My grandmother never took credit for any of her good deeds. She would definitely defer to the person who wrote the book and all the other hands that were involved in making this book a reality. As you read the book you will gain a better understanding of this statement.
MJB: I wrote a book about my aunt who was a prisoner-of-war during WWII. The entire time I was writing, I was very conscious of what she might think of the book, and therefore I was very careful about what I wrote, being true to the facts without embellishment. Did you feel similarly that your grandmother—and/or other relatives who have gone on—was watching over your shoulder? Did that make it easier or harder to write the book?
PL: These were the most powerful moments in writing this book. I could actually feel the presence of all those souls whose stories are captured in this book. So many nights I shed tears. Somehow I knew they were somewhere smiling down saying thank you for telling our stories. I often wondered whether I was actually conveying everything about them that I wanted others to know. Even now it seems that I have shortchanged them somehow. Writing this book has been a spiritual journey through and through. I’d sometimes take my quilt and wrap it around my shoulders. Sure enough I could feel the spirits of those folks who lived so long ago.
MJB: That sounds wonderful. I have a feeling all your ancestors are very, very proud of you. A book like this is the greatest homage we can pay them, and keeping their stories alive means the experiences live on for others yet to come. It’s a moving tribute.
Anything else you’d like to add?
PL: This book speaks to anyone who has faced oppression or suffered from difficult times. All people will respond to this book because it tells a story of innocence encountering a harsh world. The book will also appeal to anyone with fond memories of their grandparents.
MJB: Now, where can people find out more about you?