I visited my grandmother, Virginia-Lee Beaird-Fitzgerald, last week, and like always our conversation drifted back to where she came from and what her mother and grandmothers were like. You might be wondering why I’d mention her entire name up there. If you knit or crochet, it should be obvious–that’s the most Celtic name a human being could have, aside from a name written entirely in the old Irish or Scottish Gaelic. Yeah. My grandmother’s family founded the Scottish Catholic Church in America (otherwise known as Old Presbyterians), farmed potatoes and cotton from Virginia to Texas, are mostly red heads, and have a running family history of being allergic to the sun. True story. My grandmother can’t sit outside without being fully covered, or she will end up in the hospital. I think the name for the condition is simply called being “photosensitive,” but it’s real, and a good portion of the Beairds have this condition. Thankfully, it missed me.
So, when I visit Virginia-Lee, I usually sit indoors with her, or next to her completely shaded position on the back porch of my parents’ house. She doesn’t hear too well, and she’s always praying in tongues under her breath, so she rarely listens to anything I say, but when she does, the conversations are grand. She has this thick Oklahoma-Texas twang, and there’s no doubting that her ancestors hailed from Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee. I mentioned something about the Civil War the other day, and she said,
“None of your relatives were Yankees. Let’s get that straight.”
“Yes, ma’am. I really had never pictured them as Minnesotans or anything.”
She laughed. “That’s not even funny.”
We talked about her “daddy’s” early life in Texas and how he came to Oklahoma in a covered wagon. He lived to be 98, I believe.
“We never die,” she said. “We outlive whole countries.”
She expressed irritation that I was not paying close enough attention to what she was saying. “Grandma, I’m right here,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“But you’re doing that thing Mama always used to do, and it drove me so crazy, I swore I’d never pick one of them hooks up because of it!”
I held my crochet hook up to her. “Crocheting? Your mother crocheted!?” I was thrilled. I have been working on deeper crafting roots in my family, but in order of when they had arrived in the United States in the 1600’s. This was a jut in the trail I could not leave cold for the sake of remaining on course. Perhaps, this journey would not stay on a linear path. “What did she crochet?”
“Oh, everything.” Grandma waved her hand like she was swatting a fly. “Hats, blankets, comforters, doilies, slippers, dresses…everything. She was always wrapping yarn around a hook–when Daddy would drive, when she was waiting in line for something. She’d have the ball of yarn in her purse, and she’s stand in line at the supermarket making a sweater for a grandkid. It was ridiculous! You could never see her eyes, because they were always on yarn.”
I almost jumped out of my chair. “Do you have anything of hers?!”
But she didn’t. She said the other sisters got most of her things, because, “I don’t care about much of that. But I did get her quilt and Viola-Mae’s, too.” She smirked. Viola-Mae was her (mostly) Choctaw mother-in-law from deep down in the Kiamichi Mountains, and she did not much care for Virignia-Lee Beaird. “She thought I was too white. She had an Indian picked out for your Grandpa. I was never good enough. But I have one of her quilts, too. Both are about 60 years old, at least.”
I ran up the stairs after her when she agreed to show them to me. “Slow down, Tiffani-Lynne. You’re gonna knock me over!”
“Did you know that Uncle Jim used to call me Ani, because he said that Tiffani was too high brow a name for a child born in Oklahoma?”
“That’s stupid,” she said. “You’re from Tulsa. That’s a very cosmopolitan city.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I told her. “But that’s my pen name for my crochet and knitting work.”
“I don’t know what that means, but your name is Tiffani-Lynne (pronounced “Tiffnee” in that Oklahoma-Texas twang), and it’s a pretty, elegant name.”
“It’s also a common stripper name.”
She gasped. “I won’t have that.” And then, under her breath, “That’s something Viola would have said.”
She pulled the two quilts out from the bottom of her closet and unfolded each of them onto the guest bed for me to see. Can you guess which one was made in Choctaw colors and patterns and which one was made by the Celtic, Esther-Mae Tacker-Beaird? (Yes, both of my great grandmother’s had “Mae” as the second half of their name. All real Southerners have two first names. If you’re Southern and you don’t, something is terribly wrong. Quickly add a second name. In my family, Sue, Lynne, Ann, and Mae are most common. You can have one of those. We’re a sharing lot).
Anyhoo, this is what she revealed to me.
Note the bold colors and the sharp geometric shapes. Viola was a no-nonsense business woman (and a bootlegger’s wife) from the Oklahoma hills. She was 3/4th Choctaw and lived her whole life in railroad towns. She had to be tough and direct in order to survive, I imagine. And she didn’t just survive, she was quite successful. I think this original design of hers reveals that work ethic and attention to detail. I wonder if she’s the one whispering in my ear, when I knit or crochet, “Go back and do that row. The one stitch doesn’t exactly match the others.” In no other place in my life am I as detailed and precise as I am in my needle arts. I get it from somewhere.
And then I look at Esther’s work and I think that her attention to detail is just as lovely. She was known for her long, beautiful Celtic thick hair. When I was a little girl, and my mother would tuck me in at night, she would always ask, “Did you brush your hair? You have hair like Esther-Mae, your great grandmother, and she had a young woman’s hair until the day she died. She said it was because she brushed it 100 strokes every night.” She and my aunt, Judy (really Judy-Lynne, for whom I am named), both praise her every time I ask about my great grandmother. My mother has said repeatedly, “She was the sweetest woman I’ve ever known. She was the Southern grandmother everyone wants. She tatted and knitted, quilted and sewed, could bake an apple pie from scratch in nothin’ flat. But it was her crochet work that I loved most, and I think it was her favorite as well.”
Esther was not much of a church-goer, because she believed faith was a matter of the heart and not a public exposition. Virginia-Lee, her daughter, said that Esther was always suspicious of religious people (which makes me think Virginia-Lee’s Pentecostalism is a rebellion) and married in the Unitarian Church. Family members argue otherwise, but folks, I have a copy of the wedding certificate. “Her church was the outdoors,” my grandmother told me once. I think this work reveals Esther’s love of life, color, and beauty. She must be the one whispering in my ear, “Use more color! Think of the water lilies.”
While I still haven’t found my great grandmother’s crochet work, and I began in the middle of my journey (I was working my way down the Susquehanna River with a 7th great grandmother from Switzerland when Virginia-Lee made this revelation of quilts and stories), I have begun the trip. I am inspired to make something–either knitted or crocheted–in honor of these two resilient women who preceded me into the world.