by Judith Miller
The Quilted Grapevine
by Nancy Lou Patterson, a reader of The Lewis Legacy
The Brucedale Press, Port Elgin, Ontario, Canada. $14.95
Reviewer Judith Miller, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of English at
Renison College, University of Waterloo. She teaches Canadian Literature
and Creative Writing as well as courses on the genres of literature. She
publishes poetry, reviews and critical essays.
A blue jay, after much splashing in the birdbath, is drying her wings in
the apple tree. The whirr of a hummingbird startles me. Bumblebees are
tumbling in the flowering of the columbine. And I have been reading The
Quilted Grapevine by Nancy Lou Patterson. The sheer abundance of things
never ceases to amaze me.
Patterson’s book is charming and gentle and wise. It is also brave, with
layers of topics difficult to write about: growing-up, cross-cultural
confusions, dowsing, story-telling, academic research… Through it all
runs the leitmotif of a small key, tied with a blue ribbon. The cover
reflects the experience of the book, in its loveliness of suggestion, of
complexity. This is a beautifully made book.
Elizabeth (Bizabet), whose company I have enjoyed in Patterson’s other
books, is moving from childhood into adulthood, full of grief, confusion,
joy, anticipation. Perhaps this aspect of the book catches my attention
because I do not know very many novels which look at this passage in the
lives of girls and their mothers. As Elizabeth tells her story of seeking
to understand a particularly wonderful quilt, the reader is aware that her
mother is protecting/guiding her from a respectful distance, sharing her
adventures with sympathy and occasional clumsiness. Which Elizabeth
notices, is irritated by — and forgives. Each learns from the other.
Dowsing — or intuitive research — is sometimes a controversial topic.
Anyone who has experienced it is moved by the unexpectedness of it — and
by its reliability. Elizabeth is no exception. Offered the opportunity to
try it, she is astonished by this gift, by the way a forked stick moves in
her hand, drawing her toward things lost in the earth. Most telling, she is
surprised by the way she can open her mind, to allow possibility:
“Gradually, I began to feel calmer, to hold my hand more steadily, to
concentrate, as I needed to do, on not concentrating. Even as the wind
whipped my hair across my cheeks, and the first fat drops of rain splashed
on the back of the hand that held the dangling key, I kept walking on”
Determined to find out who made the beautiful and puzzling Grapevine Quilt,
Elizabeth uses her new found skills, relying on her mother’s support, on the gift of her mother’s “key.” The Grapevine quilt has a break in the pattern: a strange motif of maple leaves, a pattern Elizabeth notices on a beaded band which her young, beloved, brother finds. The beaded band had been made by native women of the Bruce peninsula, and Elizabeth learns that it is a traditional pattern.
Just as dowsing finds the break in the pattern, the place where something
significant is hidden, so Elizabeth’s research begins from the break in the
quilt pattern. She discovers that answers can lie in silences, in stories
not told. She sees that learning happens in an atmosphere of mutual respect
and appreciation. She comes to understand that the researcher, with a
burning determination to find out, gives voice to things which cannot speak
for themselves. (Is it any wonder that I would enjoy this book?)
Through Elizabeth’s story runs the magic of the Bruce Peninsula: its
places, its peoples, its cultures. The hovering mysteries of the Bruce link
people across cultures and bring hidden gifts to the surface. Stories are
recorded in the rock, in libraries, in handwork, and in people’s memories.
Each story is a gift.
And the key. Which Elizabeth finds, claims, loses, and re-claims, having
made it her own. As it shifts back and forth between mother and daughter,
learning is exchanged–and old wisdom. Professor Tessa passes on her
research skills to her daughter, but even more important, she passes on a
habit of mind: openness, compassion, imagination–and curiosity. I delight
in watching the intellectual and intuitive links between this woman and her
daughter. Yes, I think, as I read. That is how it was for me. That is how
mother and daughter can–and often do–connect. It takes intelligence and
humour on both sides, a light touch. Helped by a small key with a blue
ribbon on it. (In my case, it was a lovely wooden jewel box.)
I have enjoyed the story of this book and its ways of resonating into image
and metaphor. This is a book for quilters, for academics, for mothers and
daughters, for supportive fathers–and for mischievous, stalwart brothers.
It is, itself, a gift.