Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Pieces of History: What Truth Inspires Your Fiction?

I've been thinking a lot about what inspires me to even want to tackle fiction writing.

What inspires you?
--to write?
--to read?
--to research?

More than just a desire to gain a new perspective, I think it's pieces of history that spark my curiosity and make me ask the questions. For instance, I bought an antique soapstone foot warmer.

I love to set it on our wood stove until it's toasty warm, then I take it to my office and rest my feet on it while I write. What about this piece of history? How old is it? Who used it? Did a young lady use it in her carriage or sleigh in the cold midwestern winters? Is soapstone native around here? Was it handcrafted from local natural resources or ordered from afar? What 19th century gowns draped the chilly legs of the fair maidens who rested their patten leather shoes upon it?

And that's only the beginning. With a little push from the reality of history, it doesn't take much for the imagination to go wild! 

Recently my mother was sent a family heirloom, a quilt that is 100 years old. The relative who sent it knew that my mother has researched the family history and wanted it to go to someone who would cherish it and care for it well. She researched on the web how to wash an antique quilt, and it held up beautifully.

I researched on the internet what kind of pattern it is. It seems to be a unique variation of the "Monkey Wrench" quilt pattern. It was hand pieced of cotton with cotton batting between the layers. The stitches are exquisitely tiny. My Grandma Emma would have smiled quietly, bent over, and proudly run her fingers over these tiny stitches, admiring the fine craft of the woman's hands who'd spent hours over this quilt.

So why didn't this quilt just stay locked up in some granddaughter's hope chest? 

To find the answer, my daughter, my mother, and I packed it up, and took a road trip to see some cousins, Rufus and Thelma Martin. Thelma has a whole room of her home for her genealogy library, most of which is her collection of family history of our Mennonite family in Elkhart County, Indiana, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Rufus is my mother's second cousin. This trip reminds me not only of the time I stepped into yesteryear at my Great Aunt Mattie's, it is treasured because I got to tell Rufus  a treasured memory of his brother, Jason Martin, who prayed over me when I was 14 years old that the Holy Spirit would enter my heart and annoint my life. As I watched him tell my daughter how he handcrafted this hutch, I recalled the same gentle spirit of love and conviction that could reach to the younger generation without seeming stuffy or too old fashioned.

As we looked through the genealogy we found that the woman who made the quilt, married my great great grandfather, John W. Martin--but she had no children of her own. So the quilt was handed down to her step children, and the siblings of the woman who made it lived far away from her. So she wouldn't have given it to her nieces or nephews. We see her in the 1900 Indiana Census, with eight children still living at home, now ages 8 to 20. I wonder who slept beneath this quilt?

I wonder about the woman who quilted it, and how it would have been to not have children of her own, yet become the step mother to John's nine children, ages 1 to 15. They married in 1893--the same year his first wife, Susannah, died. And though it's wonderful to have this piece of history, it's more wonderful to remember this gentle loving spirit that I see in Rufus, I knew in Jason and in my Grandpa John. If my Great Great Grandfather John W. Martin was anything like them, I can see why Catherine L. Weaver married him and became the mother of his nine children. And I can imagine that the love they shared beneath this quilt was one that God Himself breathed his grace upon. They were married until her death in 1916, twenty-three years. Certainly she found a way to let God's love and grace flow to these motherless children, or I'm certain the generations that followed would have held bitterness closer than love, and brokenness closer than healing.

I labor over my fiction, much like Catherine labored over the tiny stitches of her quilt. I don't want my stories to be locked in a hope chest somewhere, never pulled out or cherished, or passed on. I want to find the truth behind the history, the story behind the symbols left behind--that show us how God works in the lives of those He loves.

I wonder how she would have told her true story?
What symbols of God's faithfulness will you leave behind for the coming generations?
Will they know your story?
Will they know the Truth behind it?


  1. Wow - wonderful thoughts, Anne! And pics! The quilt is simply stunning. I'm such a quilt lover and have them hanging on the walls of my house though my husband reminds me they belong on beds;) Love your questions. I think the turning point for me in my writing was coming to the place where you said, "I don't want my stories to be locked in a hope chest somewhere." Amen.

  2. Thanks for stopping by Laura. I really had fun with this post. I need a quilt rack for my quilts. I think quilts are so much like books.... :o)

  3. I believe the quilt pattern is actually a variation of the Double T pattern and not the Monkey Wrench as we first thought.

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  5. Dear Anne, I will weigh in on your blog even though I live next door! I enjoyed your last quilt story---and you may have the quilt! I will tell Aunt Emma (whose daughter Edna sent it to me before she died on September 6, 2011 of a brain tumor) and she will be very happy that you will cherish it.

    I think that we could visit Thelma and Rufus (Martin) for inspiration regarding genealogy, history, woodworking, story-telling....I have forgotten how many people are in her Family Tree Maker data base...they are both so interesting one can hardly get away. Emily even loved the German script in some books we looked at.

    An admirer, MOM

  6. A lovely and touching story, Anne. I also love quilts. My mother loves to piece & quilts. As I get older I cherish them more and more. They are such a labor of love. I think they know many stories(if only they could speak!).

  7. Yes Loretta! I think the same thing about our kitchen tables, if only they could talk! Thanks for stopping by and making a comment.