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Patchwork of memories

Jan Hearne • Mar 5, 2012 at 8:59 AM

Thirty years, thirty squares: The memories of Magdalene Story’s working life are stitched together in a quilt. From 1964 to 1994, she worked as a cook for Johnson City Medical Center, beginning in the days when it was known as Memorial Hospital.

She left with “big fanfare” in 1994, and wondered how she would fill her days.

“I had to have something to do after I got the house cleaned up,” she said. “There’s only so much cleaning you can do.”

Magdalene decided to make a memory quilt to honor the people she worked with and to commemorate key events of her working life. This wouldn’t be her first quilt; she had been doing needlework since she was a young girl.

“I learned to quilt from my mama, Mattie Preston. She used to have quilting parties with two or three ladies getting together to help each other quilt,” she said. Her mother taught her to embroider, too, a skill she would draw upon in designing and creating her quilt.

Dresden Plate was the pattern she chose for the quilt because she had made one before, and its center circle and radiating “blades” lent themselves to embroidery.

“If I made it and put white in there, I could put the names of the people who meant something to me, people who were close to me one way or the other,” she said.

She cut each of the pieces by hand using scraps of fabric from dresses, shirts and other pieces of clothing accumulated over the years. The only fabric she purchased was the unbleached muslin used for the backing.

“After I made all of the squares, I went back and embroidered the names on it,” she said.

Those names include friends like Marie Simmons, supervisors like Lee Miller and the “big shots” at the hospital during her time there.

Other pieces commemorate events like the move from Boone Street and Watauga Avenue to the hospital’s current location on State of Franklin.

“The day we moved in 1980, Miss Miller said, ‘Don’t even think about clocking out.’ We only had 200 trays (in the cafeteria) on moving day, so they were constantly washing trays and dishes. There was no cooked food that day, and we only had one register to catch the people who had to pay. The people who helped move weren’t charged for their food,” she said.

Another square remembers the blizzard of 1993, a day described on the quilt as “snow,” “ice” and “cold.”

“They sent for me and Marie,” Magdalene remembers. “We worked for 12 hours, and they put us up in a room upstairs. We spent the night. Nobody could get to work but the ones that were there had to do what they had to do.”

Marie Simmons has her own square. Embroidered on the blades are the words “cook,” “queen,” “banker,” “peace maker,” “friend” and “5 stars.”

Marie encouraged Magdalene to save money. When she got her first raise, Marie told her, “You’re going to pretend you didn’t get that,” and urged her to put aside the extra earnings.

“I learned how to live within my means,” Magdalene said, adding, “It’s not what you make, it’s what you do with it.”

One square, 1964, includes the names of the people she worked with when she started. “Some of them have gone on to glory now,” she said. And 1994, lists those working with her shortly before her retiremen. “In Memory” pays tribute to friends who’ve passed away.

The quilt took her two years off and on to make, but it took 30 years to create the memories she preserves.

“I have shown it to different people. They just think it’s a rag quilt,” she said. “I especially showed it to Marie. She thought it was sort of nice she had her own square.”

Magdalene also showed the quilt to her niece Christine Anderson, who immediately saw the value of it.

“Aunt Maggie, don’t you know that’s history?” Christine asked.

“No,” Magdalene said, “That’s my memory quilt.”

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