Readers of this blog met the Desmarais family in the January 2014 post entitled “Chapters From the Family Plot.” “The Quilted Invitation,” which first appeared in the Maine Times “Back of the Book” in August 1997, took place just a few weeks after “Family Plot.”
My mother-in-law and I performed the ritual many times over the nineteen years we lived together. First Marie Anne would fling open the trunk’s heavy lid. The she would remove a sheet-wrapped quilt and place it in my arms. She would carefully remove the wrapping and together we would unfold the quilt, inspect it, and then refold and rewrap it. As we did this with each of the nine quilts, Marie Anne would tell me how much she missed her mother Alphonsine, the quilts’ maker. She would tell me how much Alphonsine loved flowers and how hard she worked. Finally, when we had re-nestled the quilts in the small wooden trunk, Marie Anne would let the lid drop down hard. Always she concluded the sessions with the promise, “When I go, these are yours. You do what you want with them.”
My mother-in-law passed away at the age of 88. One month later I learned that the Pejepscot Historical Society just up the street needed Franco quilts for their collection. My husband, daughter and I decided to donate some of our quilts as a memorial to Marie Anne.
This time I performed the ritual alone and, instead of leaving the quilts in the attic, I draped them on every available surface in the living room. The three of us finally chose four that we could bear to give away: an exuberantly colored embroidered crazy quilt, another of two-inch pastel squares, a pinwheel design of browns and pinks, and a saw tooth pattern in pinks and white. These quilts made by Alphonsine Plourde Desrosiers were physical evidence that we Francos were an integral part of this community, that e worked here, cried here, loved and laughed here.
It was already dark the afternoon I carried Alphonsine’s well-worn coverlets from my home near the old textile mill where she had toiled and up the street to the Historical Society, next door to the home where she died. I walked a mere four blocks. The quilts journeyed through four generations.
I stood on the museum’s front step trying to gather the courage to enter. I have lived in Brunswick all my life, my family has lived here for generations, and yet I was too intimidated to enter the building. I tried to imagine how the child Alphonsine might have felt standing at the entrance of the grand brick sea captain’s home on the corner of Park Row and Green Street, peering through an etched glass window into the elegant mansion. I couldn’t imagine it because, when French-speaking Alphonsine came to Brunswick from Quebec in the 1800s, she would have been welcome only as a servant girl. More than a hundred years ago she would have entered through the back door.
Later, inside the museum, the curator spread the four heavy quilts across a table and studied them. The museum could afford to care for only one. While she struggled to choose which quilt to keep, I pictured middle-aged Alphonsine at her sewing machine in the 1930s. Carefully, she pieced together triangles of brown and tan wool from husband Elzeard’s trousers and pink cotton from daughter Marie Anne’s dress. She briefly rested her eyes, gazing out her tenement window to the fort-like brick mill where she, her husband and their children were lucky to work.
The curator finally chose the pinwheel quilt. I gathered up the other three and trudged back home in the cold. I had expected to feel exhilarated. Finally, we Francos were a part of this institution. I only felt weary. As I walked I reflected on Alphonsine’s last years. I tried to envision how different Brunswick must have been with so many of the men off fighting the Second World War. Maybe the air was chilled and 70-year-old Alphnsine huddled under the still serviceable quilt. A widow now, she lived in daughter Marie Anne’s home on Green Street. Grandson Martin played at the foot of his memere’s bed while Marie Anne worked in her dress shop in the rear of the house. Alphonsine looked out her bedroom window and saw the rear of the Skolfield mansion. How ironic that her last view was of her quilt’s final home, for the Skolfield mansion is now the Pejepscot Historical Society.
When I paused at my own corner, I could see the former mill just down the street. Eighty windows were bright with light. High above, a spotlight on the building’s tower illuminated a fluttering American flag.
I asked Alphonsine from Quebec, “Did I do the right thing?” She didn’t answer.
I looked across the road to my home. Downstairs, the lights shone through the plate glass windows of my husband Marty’s music store. On the second floor a sliver of light escaped the closed curtain at the edge of our daughter Denise Marie’s bedroom window. Perhaps that sliver of light revealed the answer I sought. For me, Denise, Alphonsine’s great-granddaughter, represents each descendant of every Quebec immigrant. Perhaps Alphonsine’s quilt is this new generation’s invitation to enter through the front door.
Notes: Seven of Alphonsine’s quilts now reside with her descendants.
Next blog in two weeks: Between a Rock and a Hard Place.