By Wayman Smith
August 5, 2016
Anyone who knows Shirley Tillman knows she likes to stay close to her family. One of her children, grandchildren, or cousins always seem to be stopping by her house. Shirley often reaches out to her extended family and supports their activities. You can count on her to call and ask "will I see you at the reunion this year?" She worked with other family members in the area to host the first New York Head family reunion in 1988. Ever since then she has participated in almost all of the family reunions in one way or another, including as the New York district chairperson for many years.
Shirley is dedicated to keeping the family connected. She said that especially now that she is getting older, she wants to keep people interested in persevering family memories. So during the 1994 reunion in Madison, Shirley, along with her cousin Cassandra Sykes and a few others, came up with the idea for a family quilt. Their goal with the quilt was to get family members involved with something that would last and that had a personal meaning. They felt working on the quilt was a project that could go on for years. They decided to have family members contribute pieces of cloth to commemorate loved ones and to sew all the pieces together into a quilt. During each reunion people could bring another patch with someone's name they wanted to remember.
The next year, at the 1995 reunion in New York, Shirley presented the idea of the family quilt project and explained how it might work. The idea was well-received and Shirley requested quilt contributions from the family members who were in attendance. Many of them promised they would participate. Shirley said she received contributions in the form of cloth panels for the quilt for several years. People wrote the names of family members on the panels or sewed in the names on the pieces they contributed. It became a tradition every year that people who attended the reunion shared information about their loved ones who had passed during the previous years. It was a way of keeping their memories alive. The names and pictures of loved ones who had passed away were also recorded in the family reunion booklets that Judy Morgan faithfully put together most years.
Shirley said family members started sending cloth patches with the names and dates of their deceased loved ones all during the year, not just at reunion time. For several years she received patch pieces contributed by many different family members from all over the country. They came from Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Some people mailed pieces, others brought pieces to reunions. Sometimes the pieces were also adorned with the names of the people who submitted patches for the quilt. In 2007, after years of collecting pieces for the quilt, Shirley took them all to her cousin Geraldine Allen Chew in New York. Geraldine had also attended reunions regularly and she understood the importance of establishing and maintaining family traditions. She was also an expert and experienced seamstress. She had learned to sew in school and had hand-made custom sewn items for years. She took the contributed pieces and without any help, designed the arrangement, sewed the pieces together, added borders and the backing, created the beautiful family heirloom we have today.
Shirley received the finished quilt from Geraldine in 2007. Sadly, Geraldine's name has been added to the quilt. She died in 2010. Shortly after finishing the quilt. Geraldine's daughter, Stacy Barnes is helping to keep our family traditions alive. Stacy is working with Cassandra's sister, Judy Walker, to host the 39th reunion in North Carolina this year. The quilt will be on display and available for adding more names.
The finished quilt is very large. It measures 74 inches long and 75 inches wide – more than six feet in each dimension! It is too large to add more panels, but there is still plenty of space to add more names. So each year the names of more loved ones who have passed away can be added to the quilt. Shirley and Cassandra have added more than forty names of Phillips family members to the quilt this year. Their hope is that other family members will add the names of other loved ones to the quilt this year at the reunion.
Shirley and Cassandra say it is very important to maintain the tradition of bringing the quilt to all reunions. They agreed everyone should focus on using the quilt at each reunion to maintain family ties and memories.
The photo above shows the center section of the quilt, featuring a picture of Tinah and Wyatt Head in the very middle. A close look reveals some of the many names and life span dates of loved ones that have been written on the various cloth panels.
The entire quilt is more than six feet long and six feet wide. The picture of Wyatt and Tinah Head is the centerpiece of the quilt around which individual panels of cloth with the names of loved ones are woven. No more panels will be added, but there is still plenty of space to add more names and dates.
The backside of the quilt shows the craftsmanship and the attention to detail that Geraldine Chew used in creating the quilt. Historically quilts were designed to be comfortable and warm, but also so that they would be durable and long-lasting. (All photos courtesy of Raymond Davis).
Shirley and Cassandra also insist that it is important to remember the quilt is not the property of any one person. A lot of people contributed to the quilt and it belongs to the whole family. In fact they say it is more than just a quilt. To them and to many of us it represents our family culture of craftsmanship, the benefits of shared work and responsibility, and the memories of all our family. Everyone can still participate because everyone has lost someone and writing their names on the quilt is a tangible way to commemorate them. The quilt also helps us remember we are woven together in love as one family.
With God All Things Are Possible.