Claire Weidemier McKarns
They didn’t welcome me like they welcomed their loyal quilt members. Maybe it was because I had surfed that morning, consequently exhibiting sandy hair and effusing the lingering stench of a California burrito; or it was because I brought the average age of the group slightly down. Claire came up to me at Yardage Town.
I’ve never been sadder when a local store closed. Angelos Burgers was the last OG spot to leave Encinitas, but when Yardage Town put a 70% off sale on the window, my and Claire’s heart broke.
I was checking out with a set of bobbins and off-white embroidery thread, and she asked me what I would use that for, in disbelief as she said “What’s a good-looking boy like you doing in a sewing store?”; as quoted by Guy Trebay in February 2021’s NYTimes Fashion Review, Men's Wear Is on a Quilt Trip. Without shame, rather, with a poised 5 or 6 curated quilts in my collection and little pertinent vernacular on the subject, I told her I cut up old quilts. In retrospect, you’d think a lifelong quilting blue hair and president of the American quilting society would shiver at the thought, but she invited me to her see her collection at her ranch; just up the street from my parents house. Claire made it clear that she’s never let anyone see her collection before they’ve been friends for 10 years. She made an unfeigned exception that day.
Mennonite Log Cabins backed in purple floral dating older than anyone I’ve ever known, Turkey red and white 9-Patch and 16-Patch and 1-Patch tops, an 1884 navy overshot coverlet hand woven with the makers monogram in the bottom corner, friendship quilts signed with dozens of members of this church congregation that used to be in the center of historic Olivenhain, yellowing scraps and thread bare remnants, books on hand darning and bibles of quilting.
Claire’s an archivist. With the slightest markings of ownership on a found quilt she will travel through millennia to excavate the veracity about the maker. She invited me to meet the Bumann Quilters of Olivenhain meeting on the first Tuesday of the month. Twink, Jan, Flora, Gretchen, Faith, and of course Claire; a spread of shrimp cocktail and the monthly quilting project laid out prepared on the kitchen table. We resonated on the importance of family and the memories that live on and into generations.
Flora told me that when she was a little girl she would watch her mom’s mom sitting and hand quilting, telling stories of her pioneer upbringing. Traveling in a covered wagon to North Dakota and homesteading on a wheat farm. She gave Flora some scraps that she had held onto for decades; that initiated her praxis of quilting.
Jan told me that her earliest memory is that of her grandmother, Sebaya, sewing every day. She said she could watch her all day long. She made WWII uniforms, mended her families clothing, and every scrap. Jan found a stack of her oddities and made them into a quilt in 1962, when she was 10. She had brought in some show-and-tell that day. To commemorate her lineage, she restored historical family photographs that were once her grandmothers to insert them into what she called a “memory quilt”. She pointed assuredly that it was for the generations to come, so that they would never forget their roots.
Claire was gifted a little doll quilt by her mother for a Christmas present when money was scarce. Her mother and grandmother made quilts for the family beds. In 1970 she found a quilt top in her Mom’s linen closet which was made in about 1915 by her Great Grandmother Mary Ellen Brant Spangenberg Fairfield Jenkins. She finished the quilt, and there was the start. She’s collected and made hundreds of quilts in the next 50 years.
Twink’s husband, Richard, showed me around their acreage of thriving 100 year old produce trees, the 150 square foot barn that his grandfather built before he was married, an off kilter wooden bachelor pad that he lived in for 6 years before he married and raised 7 kids in a 600 square foot ply abode. The wartime herringbone overcoats in the closet and a 5-foot long spring-bed with these triangle quilts which must have pre-dated the development of Olivenhain, are stuck in this moment of time. The Model T and Model A in the garage, where the kids slept above. The superannuated objects in the fossilized kitchen, the antediluvian tide box in the wash room that pre dates the Flood. The menagerie of old things couldn’t be better reproduced for cinema or detailed more effectively than a description in a Nabakov novel.
In the last wooden structure, across from the chicken coop and next to the barn with the semi-operational grain reaper, which I happened to notice was stacked with used and mended grain harvest sacks of which I needed to own, was where he told me,
I belong to the last generation to remember the ranch when it was 480 acres. When it was farmed by horses, and I helped with the last grain harvest. I have been the recipient of stories passed down by generations, and now I have become the storyteller to the next. If I am not successful, much of what happened will be lost.
A soft pause emulated outwardly in this hardened rancher. His eyes watered even though I know he’s recited this reflection dozens of times when he gives tours of the “Historic Bumann Ranch”. But he must have observed a discernment in me; that I wanted to be a conduit like him. To spill the frequencies of a generation long gone with a vibration that ruminates forever. Because I want legacy. Because my lamented grandfather is still a huge part of my life. Because I was told the foundation of my family, culminating in my generation, is story that could easily be lost; but I want it to be known. I think other people want this too, for them. The Bumann Quilters, Claire, all the women, and Richard, want this.