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The Patchwork Quilt

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

After three decades of teaching, I thought I'd seen everything in the back row: students sleeping, doing their nails, reading mail, even taking tests for another class. I thought I'd seen it all until, last year, Alice Moltzen and her crazy quilt walked into my writing class.That was how I got to know Alice and her stories. "I want to write a crazy quilt for my children," she said. Alice explained that all crazy quilts were collections of stories: that black velvet patch is from Grandmother’s Sunday dress. Here's a piece of Uncle Lars's suit. Each piece in a crazy quilt recalls some family event. Alice wanted to skip the cloth and stitching part and go right to the stories. Which is why she was in my class.

And what stories Alice had. She had grown up in New Boston on the Mississippi river during the Depression—doubly hard for a single parent family. Alice had worked in a variety of jobs from factory to secretary. Stories seemed to find her everywhere.

Over the course of the term, Alice's crazy quilt took shape, eight and a half by eleven inches at a time. There was the small piece about the town bully whose aunt took him to a revival and dunked him in the baptism tank, another piece about church ladies. Pieces about going to school for the first time, pieces about giving a musical performance in the yard for fourteen paying customers.

There were larger pieces, too. Alice wrote one called December 7th, 1941. In that piece, Alice and her high school friends are hanging out Sunday afternoon at the local cafe. Two of them are dancing to music on the radio, others are sitting around a large table making plans for their lives. Then that awful interruption on the radio. Three kids at the table will not survive World War II. All frozen in that patchwork piece.

It is not likely that Alice will ever finish her patchwork quilt. The act of writing itself creates new pieces. But enough of the quilt is done to keep Alice and her children—and me, too—warm even on the coldest nights.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.