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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Conways, Winding Ways, and Saints in the Snow: A Reflection on Family

…. being a celebration of a lovely lady, my Aunt Nene, on the anniversary of her birth.

When I was a wee lass, writing letters (versus emails or texts) was still A Thing, and I loved to get letters but was not really an international peer pen-pal sort of girl.  Instead, I wrote letters to my mom's sister, Aunt Nene, and  every one started in the same imaginative way:
"Dear Aunt Nene:
How are you?  I am fine."
…after which I would blather on about whatever scintillating news an 8-year old might have, likely tales of sibling woe or an epic retelling of the appropriation of a paint-by-numbers kit (mostly unused!) from the neighbor's garage sale or some such.  

Nene, being a charitable sort and also spectacular with children, would obligingly reply:
"Dear Astrid:
How are you?  I am also fine."
Sometimes these would be handwritten notes in Nene's characteristic loopy, not quite cursive printing; and sometimes they would be manufactured on an old-school typewriter with many an exclamation point and lined- or X'd-out erratum, from a machine dating definitely back to pre-correction-tape days.  I think this may have been around the time Nene was writing for her local newspaper and so that was probably the tool of her trade, but whatever the source, I adored those letters, and the lady who sent them, and I still do.

Nene turned 80 last year - and a couple years before that she could be found showing a little leg before jumping off of her younger brother's boat into the Mighty Mississippi with her nieces' children:

Two too-canny Conways can can-can.  Can you?  Lookit those pointed toes!  Ha chachachacha!

Here is a woman who is always ready to
have a drink and a laugh, to lend a hand in her local food bank or flout conventional wisdom in order to jump off a boat, to entertain her grandkids for hours or lounge peaceably on a floatie noodle in the river, to puff away on a treadmill at the YMCA or to putter in her garden, and to always make sure her friend, St Francis of Assisi, is dressed appropriately for the weather.  
I mean, he's probably not used to this climate, being from Italy and all.
He provides a convenient barometer for the weather up where she lives, too.
…the St Francis Weather Report indicates continuing frigid temperatures throughout the week….

…and probably some snowbanks lasting well into June.

My mom had four sisters and three brothers, a whole cacophony of Conways, and in the way of big families they are a hilarious, loud, louche, argumentative, loyal, and fun-loving lot.  While this is true even of the generation of sibs and cousins that I come from, I very much wish I could teleport back to see the young Conway clan of mom's youth in action - I can imagine the hijinks these lovelies used to get up to, for instance:
Mom, on the bench, and Nene, enjoying a rousing game of Neck Twister.
As well as the rest of this bunch, who look very clean and pressed and spit-shined here but were by all accounts only that way for the time it took the shutter to snap:

Conways, original flavor, represent!  Ward and June….er, that is, Gramma and Grampa, surrounded by scamps and rapscallions. Mom on left couch arm, Nene 2nd from left in back, with the button-down cardigan.  Damn, I love this picture, from the saddle shoes to the floral lampshade matching the curtains.

Later, Nene and mom would move to Chicago and stay at a YWCA, where, I'm sure very much against the rules of such an august place, they would smoke and drink and party with Cubs players in a city that had only a decade or so before gotten rid of its patron saint and primary sinner, Al Capone, and was now being run by the relatively new Irish-Catholic kid on the block, Richard J. Daley.  Interesting times for these smaller town girls, fresh out of bobby-socks and looking for adventure!

For me, there was never a time without Conways.  Some of my earliest memories are Thanksgivings at my Aunt Barb's place (between Nene and mom in the family shot) with a host of cousins and beer and football and cigarette smoke and jokes of questionable taste; or visiting Aunt Nene's family downstate, stalking their long-suffering dog Mickey around the yard (whom I just wanted to love me, which only happened when Nene let me feed him his Gainseburger) or reading my cousins' Snoopy books or coveting their super-boss Hippity Hop, which was available for visitors' use in the garage.  And then, of course, there were summers at the Lake (Arbutus) or the River (Mississippi), first at Uncle Jim's (in back in the photo) place before a barge destroyed his beach, and then via the auspices of Uncle Jerry (in front next to gramma), who has a keen nose for a good sandbank on which to park the clan for a day of swimming, sunburn, and sand-laced sandwiches.  Weddings, holidays, vacations: sure, an individual Conway might opt out of the gatherings for awhile, due to relocation to distant parts or holding grudges from ancient feuds or being a sniffy college-age refusnik or what have you, but generally we all came wandering back to the fold, out of the wilderness; looking for a bottle opener, scratching new mosquito bites, and drawn to the heat and the company around the bonfire, which would surely be going late into the night.  I mean, it's family.  They have to take you back, right?
Apparently we take anyone. Nene front and center with the green t-shirt, a relic of an older Reunion (the shirt, not the lady.)
In any case, Nene has been a vocal fan of my quilting on Facebook, and the enthusiasm with which she has supported this, and so many of my miscellaneous hobbies in the past (starting with letter-writing) has always been a source of ear-reddening pride.  So when I stumbled across this traditional Winding Ways pattern, and registered how shamrock-esque it is, especially in greens, it seemed fitting that Nene should be my quilt-recipient muse for the attempt:
Just the top, before quilting.

Quilted, bound, washed, and draped over the settee.

The greens are a miscellany, but I tried to stick to more yellow greens rather than blue greens - it just seemed to suit the four-leaf clover theme better.  The solid is a nod to Nene's typewriter of old, a white-on-white print called, appropriately, "Text" by Alison Glass, which I think gives a little more depth to the white that just white would (and, because I know it will drive Nene nuts if she can't read that text, I should mention that it's just bits and pieces of nonsense, like "And you who are now feels like I'm moving forward" and "Jump as off a diving board what is there wouldn't keep from being happy" and so on.)  Here is an ad for the whole line, in which the various colors make the print a little easier to see:

The binding is a cheery green and pink candy stripe on the bias:

And I am not altogether sure that Nene is a fan of pink, or florals, but that's what on the back - if nothing else, perhaps receiving this spring-green-and-Easter-pink concoction for a November birthday will ward off some of the SAD labyrinthine blues of winter, and remind her that spring is just around the corner. 

Pink it is.
Towards that end, I also made a label that shows her St Francis gamely sticking out the inevitable upcoming cold in his hat and scarf….but the snowbanks are receding, the first bluebird of spring is hanging out with his animal-loving homie, and a few sprigs of green clover have popped up to say a cheery "F U!" to Old Man Winter.  (I tried to work out a way that Francis could be holding an Old Style instead of the Cross, but in the end stuck with the original.  Still, from what I know of the guy, I'm sure he'd be down for a party at the river.)

Alas, his hat looks less like a toque and more like a ghotra.  Whatevs. At least I got the year right this time.

I opted to hand-quilt this sucker - by which I mean just the quilting, because I still machine-pieced the top together.  But I am becoming a fan of hand-quilting and will likely do more of it, since I'll be traveling more for work and unable to bring my machine on the road! With this in mind, I sought out the best thimbles money can buy, from an earnest and crazily-skilled Chinese-Aussie entrepreneur known as The Thimble Lady.  It is worth every penny.  I've done a wee bit of hand quilting before, on Bean's and E's quilts, but I may have to ask for those quilts back and re-do them, now that I actually have an idea of what I was supposed to have been doing. Thanks, Thimble Lady! (Bawk bawk!) You've both advanced my handiwork, AND saved my fingerprints from untold damage.

Hand-quilting in the sunlight.
(This hand-quilting did take a lot longer than the usual binding only work, so I needed a show to watch that had like a billion seasons.  I'm still binge-watching TV shows that might be something my quilt-recipient muse might like, too, so as to infuse my stitches with even more personalized mojo: so in combination, then for this one I was watching Original Flavor NCIS which has like 12 seasons! Crikey.  Not sure why I thought Nene might like that, except that I think my mom probably would have, given that Mark Harmon is the poor-man's Kevin Costner and she did so love a police procedural.  If not, Nene, never mind! I'm sure you can wash the NCIS right out of this if you need to.) 

If you're sure you want to.  Though he doesn't look much like this anymore. Ted Bundy should be so lucky.

Anyway, there you have it - an Irish blessing to you, Nene, on your birthday and beyond, and I hope you are doing very well indeed!  (I am fine.)  Can't wait to see you floating on a noodle in the river again soon, but for now I hope you and Francis look out for each other until the shamrocks shake off the snow and start to feel the sun once again.

Much love, stay warm, and besos! always,

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