Donna Rae Gislason and Cliffored Eugene Biel
This year Memorial Day weekend was a special time indeed. My parents celebrated their 50th anniversary in Wisconsin. There was a big party organized by my brother and sister-and-law at a hotel, my sister had worked on invitations, sang at the reception, put party favors together, and I offered to make a memory quilt for my parents. Ha! I knew that it couldn't be big as their wall space is already loaded with the memories 50 years can accumulate. And, as my mother told me many Christmases ago, "Please! No more art!" She just didn't know where to put it all and it ended up in drawers.
So, the challenge was to come up with something that they would want to display, that would not be too intrusive and that could reflect my genius. Heh, heh. I chewed and chewed and chewed on ideas. The celebration was getting closer and closer. (I had had TWO years to get this together, but of course.... procrastination is queen.) I toyed with an idea of creating something that could be hung on the wall or folded into a box. As my parents have had Christ and the church as the anchor of their lives, I was trying to figure out how to make a cross shape work in that way. If you flatten out a box, it will look like a cross... Well, I gave up. I ended up making a "book" with memory pockets.
"50 Years", Memory Quilt by Rachel Biel, front
I transferred four of their wedding photos on to fabric and stuffed the inside with cardboard to stiffen the panels. The panels are held together with vintage sari fabric and decorated with vintage lace and fresh water pearls. The whole thing can be folded up and stored as a book. One structural headache was figuring out how to make the piece stable enough to stand upright an yet have enough room to fold it up. This was resolved by crimping the sari fabric at the top with decorative clamps, not pictured here.
"50 Years", Memory Quilt by Rachel Biel, back
The back of each panel has a pocket for memories. I used vintage crocheted doilies to make the pockets. Then, I sewed little sachets out of old photos, also transferred on to fabric, and stuffed them with lavender. A friend from Brazil made a booklet for them which fits in the pockets and an aunt also came up with a little collage. The pockets also hold all the cards they got at the reception.
Each panel was machine quilted, front and back, before I assembled them together. The tricky part was flipping the panels once the sari borders were added. I closed the tops with a fiery red trim that also has some symbolism, at least for me. Flames often adorn the tops of Mexican religious popular art. In this piece, these are the flames of love.
"50 Years", Memory Quilt by Rachel Biel, detail, cake
Cliff and Donna Biel, September 2010
Fifty years is a long time to be married, especially nowadays when 25% of couples in the United States choose to live together in partnership rather than being married. My own marriage only lasted for four years. Are my parents soul mates? Their personalities are very different from each other, as are their interests and hobbies. I'm sure that this has been a source of frustration from time to time, but I cannot imagine one without the other. All of us are rather eccentric, difficult people in our own way, but at the core of their marriage is the belief that their union is holy, set apart to do God's work. Within that framework, they bend and accept and work towards becoming a better partner for the other. It is not a perfect marriage, but one that I tried to emulate.
"50 Years", Memory Quilt, detail, Hope Lutheran Church
A year after they were married, I was born. Six months later, they took off to Brazil for 18 years of service as Lutheran missionaries. They were 24 and 26 years old. Babies, it seems now. They went through language school, immersed themselves in a culture that experienced profound transformations while they were there, and gave each of us a childhood we will never forget. I have started to document some of this in my blog, Biels in Brazil.
Relatives whom I had not seen for years and years came to the reception, a wonderful reunion! One of my aunts brought a gift which was very exciting for me and this blog that I am working on. She had saved the letters my mother had written during their early years in Brazil. Loads of them, packed with interesting information of life in Brazil during that time. I will slowly transcribe these letters to that blog.
Another highlight at the reception was a viewing of the dress my mother wore for her wedding. The dress had originally been made for my aunt LaVonne, who married my Dad's oldest brother the year before. Stan and LaVonne are my godparents. Many years later, Laurie, their daughter, also wore the dress in her wedding. My sweet niece, only 11 yeas old, modeled the dress and all former brides posed with her.
Wedding dress with former brides.
Fifty years points to one undeniable and inescapable truth: we are all aging. My parents are now in their 70's, I am approaching 50 and my brother and sister agree, "Yes, my hips hurt, too." We have almost lost my father twice now, once to a diabetic coma and once to heart disease. We came together to celebrate a life well lived, while lurking behind that joy is the certainty that we will also come together to bury one another. Who will be around ten years from now? We don't know. What we do know is that their love for each other and for each of us empowered us to come into our own selves fully and with courage. Within our flaws, weaknesses and failures, there is also the certainty that we have been loved, accepted, forgiven and blessed.
Was my gift a success? My father wrote me in a thank you note:
The celebration of our golden was golden indeed. Thanks for being a part of it. We appreciate all of the hours of work and creative effort it cost to make the quilted family panel you made. We will always cherish it. Donna is already making plans of where she wants to take it and who to show it to.
You children are all so special to us! Each is so different from the other. Each is gifted in a different way, yet the bonds of love and faith hold us powerfully together.
Again, thank you!
Yes, it seems that they liked it. However, I am the one who is filled with gratitude. Mom and Dad, I thank you for those fifty years of love and example that the two of you have given us.
"50 Years", Memory Quilt by Rachel Biel, detail, Kiss