Saturday, July 16, 2016

Honoring a Life--One Stitch at a Time

My mother died in November, 2014 but I think of her every time I step into the guest room where I’ve displayed her “This is Your Life” quilt.  My sister and I made the quilt for my mother’s 70th birthday.  Each of the 30 blocks depict an important milestone, accomplishment or talent.

When my father turned 70, we gave him an album full of letters, cards, photos and small memorabilia from grade school classmates, former co-workers, friends and family.  My father was surprised and touched to hear from so many people that he had not seen in years.  We also prepared a similar book for my uncle for his 80th birthday.

As my mother’s 70th birthday was approaching, my sister Monica and I felt like we had “been there, done that” with the book of memories.  We wanted something that truly reflected our mother’s love of home and family.  Many long-distance calls later (Monica lives in Oklahoma), we had a brilliant idea—a quilt!  Ma Bell made a fortune (this was 1992, so no cell phones) as we discussed the important events in our mother’s life and how to represent them with fabric and thread. 

We mailed design ideas back and forth and decided how to get the job done in the nine months before our mother’s February birthday.  At the time, Monica’s triplet boys were three years old so she did more of the artistry and design while I made most of the squares.  I carried squares everywhere, stitching and embroidering at PTA meetings, gymnastics practices and meets, and summer swim meets (pausing only to cheer when Jillian and Brendan were swimming). 

By fall, we had 30 completed squares.  I felt entirely capable of sewing the squares together to create the quilt top.  And I even added a layer of batting and sewed the top and the back fabric together.  But the thought of the hours and hours and thousands of tiny stitches needed to do the actual quilting was daunting.  I found a shop in Ellicott City, Maryland that did machine quilting and with a huge sigh of relief, gave them the “raw” quilt and $300 (money well spent, I might add). 

A month later, I picked up a beautifully stitched finished quilt.  We threw a big 70th birthday party and presented our gift made with so much love.  Mom was thrilled!  Her life was simple—focused on home and family--but seeing all her talents and accomplishments reflected in the quilt gave her such a sense of pride. 

So without further ado, let me take you on a tour of Hattie Evelyn Longen’s life starting at the top left and proceeding (somewhat) chronologically. 

            My mother was born on February 5, 1922 in Churchland, North Carolina. She was named after her father’s youngest sister, Hattie, who had died 14 years earlier at age 12 from peritonitis.


      Hugh Leroy and Minnie Lassiter Greene were my mother’s parents.  Their oldest child, Bernice  Nadine was born on November 27, 1920.  My mother followed two years later.  Her sister, Alma Leigh was born January 29, 1925 and the only boy, Hugh Elzie arrived on August 7, 1928.

My mother was raised on a small farm.  Her father was a no-nonsense man who didn’t “cotton” to leisure or laziness.  The children were expected to rise early and do their farm chores, including slopping the hogs, milking the cow, tending the garden or my mother’s least favorite task, killing a chicken for dinner.  My mother flatly refused to continue doing that chore after she swung the ax at a chicken and only partially severed the neck.  The chicken apparently continued to run around the yard with its head at a sickening angle.  Chicken killing was henceforth done by one of her siblings or my grandfather.  (We opted not to remind my mother of her failure as executioner by putting a cow and milking stool on the square rather than a chicken!)  


In 1943, at the age of 21, my mother joined the Army.  She saw it as her ticket out of rural life and working at the textile mills in Yadkin, North Carolina.  She completed her basic training in Florida (all our lives we heard how much she hated Florida because of the temperatures and large and very persistent mosquito population).  


Following basic training, my mother was selected for a special assignment.  She spent nine weeks at Camp Crowder, Missouri, for training in cryptography and then was sent to the Pentagon.  She was a Signal Corp cryptographer, encoding and decoding top secret messages during World War II.  Post-war she was transferred to the State Department. When my father was discharged from the Army, he also worked as a decoder at the State Department.  I’ll take a moment away from my mother’s story to tell you about my father’s brush with history.  My father was working at the State Department as a cryptographer in 1941.  On December 7, my father received a fateful message.  “Of all things,” he said, “It came from London.”  The message said that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese.  His supervisor grabbed the message out of my father’s hand and ran with it to the Secretary of State who was minutes away from meeting with the Japanese ambassador.  The Secretary called the ambassador and his entourage some unprintable names and kicked them out of his office.  According to David Brinkley in Washington Goes to War, “They ran awkwardly down the corridors trying to escape the press and the photographers.”  It’s a good thing for history that my dad was an efficient cryptographer and his boss could run fast. 

So now back to my mother’s life.   In 1946, my mother was working as a cryptographer at the State Department.  She worked days and my father worked nights.   One day, however, my father and a friend took the night off to attend a ballgame.  He jumped on the streetcar and there was a beautiful and stylish woman who would one day be my mother.  As kids, we always jokingly referred to their meeting on the “Streetcar Named Desire." 

 Hattie Evelyn Greene and Edmund Herman Longen were married in a small Catholic ceremony on November 13, 1947.  Because my mother had not yet converted to Catholicism, they were only allowed to be married in the rectory at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, DC.   

After their marriage, my parents lived in an apartment on P Street NW.  They saved diligently and were able to build their dream home in Takoma Park, MD.  They lived there for 45 years and it was their pride and joy.  

One year after their move to Takoma Park, their first child was born—a 7 lb. 14 oz. baby girl!   Monica Louise Longen was born on May 8, 1952. 

Three years after Monica’s birth, another baby girl.  I was born December 28, 1955. 

When I was five years old, a neighbor brought home two mixed Chihuahua puppies.  We took one and named him Little Bub after a famous racehorse (yes, my sister and I were very into horses at a young age).  Bub adored my mother.  In the rare moments when my mother sat down to rest or watch TV, Bub was always in her arms.

My mother had many talents.  She was a very accomplished seamstress who spent hours hunched over her Singer.  She loved stylish clothes and made most of her own clothes, adjusting patterns here and there to make outfits that fit her perfectly. 

Every year, Mom made Monica and I matching dresses for Christmas, Easter or other special occasions.  We went to church or family events beautifully attired in our matching homemade dresses and patent leather shoes.

Monica and I took several years of ballet and my mother made beautiful tutus for us, as well as our recital costumes.  We treated our parents to a number of special ballet performances in the basement.  One Christmas, my mother made us “evening dresses.”  They were long satiny gowns with plenty of sequins.  We were the belles of many a fictitious ball. 

In addition to her talents as a seamstress, my mother was a fabulous cook.  One Easter we rushed to find our baskets and there on the table was a large rabbit.  Even better, it was a coconut cake made to look like a rabbit.  My mother was creating fancy cakes long before all those baking shows elevated cake decorating to an art.

 Mmmm.  We all loved “Mamo cookies.”  At Christmas, Mom would bake a dozen different kinds.  We all had our favorites— Monica was partial to the date nut cookies and I loved the Mexican wedding cookies (the local organic food store carries a gluten-free version and I’m helpless to resist.)   My poor Dad watched as we savored each kind of cookie.  He was a diabetic and couldn’t enjoy the holiday treats.  And pies!!  My mother made the most amazing strawberry pie.  I couldn’t wait for strawberry season every year.  Of course, her pie dough was made from scratch.  She patiently taught me all the secrets to great pie crust, but I confess I look to Pillsbury on those rare occasions when I make a pie. 

My mother’s love of her home was reflected in her beautiful gardens.  She worked nonstop from spring to fall to plant, prune and fertilize her flowers.  In the spring, the yard was a riot of color from azaleas, tulips, and other flowers.  She was never satisfied and was always moving plants to find just the right look and location.  I inherited her love of gardening though now I focus more on maintaining seven acres and slowly (emphasis on slowly) restoring the garden areas around the house.  

This poem by Vernon G. Baker felt like the perfect description of the safety and security we felt growing up.   

In 1972, my parents purchased a vacation home on the Outer Banks, North Carolina for the whopping price of $18,000!  Like their Takoma Park house, my parents loved house projects—improving the porch so the screens didn’t blow out as often in the heavy storms and building a workshop by closing in an area under the house (it was built on pilings).  We enjoyed many family vacations there and my children grew up loving time with “Mamo” and “Papo” at the beach. 

One summer when I was 15, a small black cat wandered into my friend Wendy’s yard.  The cat was living in the sewer and would come out whenever Wendy and I were outside.  I started leaving food outside for the cat.  When it was clear she was going to stick around, my father decided to build her a “cat house.”  In his usual thorough and patient manner, he included a window and insulated it to keep “Samantha” warm.  The cat went in it once and decided that she much preferred to live in our house.  She stayed with my parents until her death at the approximate age of 13. 

Among my mother’s many talents was furniture refinishing and finding a bargain.  She loved to go to yard sales and score the perfect find.  One of her favorites was a drop-leaf Queen Anne table for $10.  She refinished it into a stunning piece.


      My sister, Monica married George Knudsen on February 13, 1982.  They had a small wedding at the University of Maryland Chapel and were married by a family friend, Father Regis Ryan.

      My parents took up ballroom dancing in anticipation of my wedding in 1983.  They met new friends and continued to take classes for many years.  I always enjoyed watching them dance. 


      I married Doug Lipton on June 4, 1983.  My mother’s gift for creating beautiful garments was evident in the wedding dress she made for me.  She spent nine months designing and making the dress and sewing thousands of pearls on the gown. 

Grandchild #1—Jillian Bernice Lipton arrived on August 20, 1987.  Jillian’s middle name is in honor of my mother’s sister, Bernice who died in a car accident in 1984. 

My mother complained for years that Monica and her husband were never going to have children.  Imagine our surprise then, when Monica announced that she was pregnant—with triplets!!  My parents went from one grandchild to four on November 22, 1988, when we welcomed the Knudsen boys:

Thomas Edmund – Tom is named after John Thomas Knudsen, George’s oldest brother and Edmund for our father. He is much like our Dad in personality and outlook on life.


Eric Peder – Eric’s middle name is from Geor Eric Peder – Eric’s middle name is from George’s grandfather’s name, with the Danish’s grandfather’s name, with the Danish spelling.


Michael Don—Mike’s middle name is for George’s Uncle Don who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, January 1945 in World War II at age 28.

      In 1991, another grandson was born.  Brendan Avery Lipton arrived on June 24, 1991.   We had intended to name him Scott but when he arrived, we said, “he just doesn’t look like a Scott.”  We debated names for hours while I recovered in the hospital.  Finally, when he was three days old, we decided on his name.  Avery is in honor of my father-in-law, Alfred.  In the Jewish faith, you cannot name a baby after a living relative but you can use the first letter of their name. 


           Happy 70th birthday, Mom.  We love and miss you!


      Two years after we completed my mother’s 70th birthday quilt, Monica gave birth to Arla Elizabeth Knudsen on May 2, 1994.  Monica made a pillow with Arla’s name and birthdate to go with my mother’s quilt. Arla left Oklahoma behind to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology.  She graduated in May and will remain a “dyed-in-the-wool” New Yorker.  A photo of the pillow is forthcoming.  My sister is having her house painted and can’t get to the pillow in all the upheaval.