African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams, African American, Eli Leon.
African-American Quilts
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Meeting Mrs Murphy

Early in 1986, quiltmaker Bettie Phillips (1916--) told me about a ninety-two year old friend of hers, a Mrs Mable Murphy (1894--1996), who lived in the little town of Dos Palos, California and had a house full of quilts, many of which were for sale.  Bettie estimated there to be at least fifty and raved about their great beauty.  I wanted to meet Mrs Murphy (as she preferred to be called) right away, of course, but there turned out to be obstacles.  Mrs Murphy was hard-of-hearing, for one.  Unable to understand me when I telephoned, she had her son, a smoker, handle the call.  When I mentioned that I had a cigarette-smoke allergy, he got enraged and hung up.  On top of that, my car became mysteriously unreliable.  The meeting with Mrs Murphy, it seemed, would have to wait for more favorable conditions.

Then Bettie informed me that Mrs Murphy was giving up her house for smaller quarters.  In all probability some of her quilts would be inaccessible after the move.  For them, it was now or never.  I had, meanwhile, learned that Mrs Murphy's son didn't actually live with her, although he was often around.  I'd also changed cars.  So I tried to get Bettie to make the trip with me, imagining that having her along would smooth the way, but she showed no interest in the project.  Resolving to take my chances and
just go didn't work either; it only led to my feeling guilty whenever Mrs Murphy came to mind, which was often, since my strategically placed to-do list was headlined "INTERVIEW MRS MURPHY."

When I asked quiltmaker Willia Ette Graham (1903-1997), however, if she'd like to visit an elderly quilter in the San Joaquin valley, she jumped at the chance.  Suddenly everything was looking up.  Graham was warm, friendly and generally relaxed.  The thought of her supportive presence was all I needed to lend courage to my convictions.  I called Bettie to tell her that Willia Ette and I were hoping to give it a go that Monday, which happened to be a holiday, and Bettie did an abrupt turnabout; she would accompany me after all. Springing into action, she straightaway called Mrs Murphy, ascertained that the son wouldn't be around that day, and made all the arrangements--even deciding to fix a bring-along lunch featuring fried chicken and homemade cake.

Why the sudden change?  It baffled me for a moment, then I got it.  Bettie was as eager to meet Willia Ette as Willia Ette was to meet Mrs Murphy!  This expedition was taking on a new character.  For some years I'd been listening to my informants' lamentations on the scarcity of quiltmakers in the California cities they'd found themselves in after their westward migrations.  They were longing to meet one another!  And witnessing these meetings might very well be as informative for me as interviewing Mrs Murphy.

I now wanted to include Gussie Wells and Arbie Williams, two of my closest quiltmaker contacts, in what was promising to be a memorable get-together, but there wasn't room for five in my car.  When I floated the idea past Bettie, though, she immediately latched on to it.  Again, I was taken by surprise.  Why the rush of enthusiasm?  But we needed a few more participants, I finally realized, for a critical mass.  Wells and Williams were best buddies, however; we couldn't invite one without the other.  After mulling the thing over, Bettie and I decided to go ahead with the invitations.  If both of them accepted, we'd devise a new plan.
African_American, Quilts, Eli Leon, Improvisational, Afro-American, Quilts,  Rosie Lee Tompkins, Arbie Williams,
African American, Eli Leon.