I’m Upstairs Quilting

January 25, 2013 |
In 2012, the Traveling 219 Project featured a story about beloved Hillsboro resident, Norma Mikesell, and the inspiration she gave to those around her. In January, 2013, Norma Mikesell passed away at the age of 92. To honor Norma, who meant so much to so many, here is Emma’s story about Norma, as well as a story Norma wrote about learning to fly.

Photo of Norma Mikesell. Martinsburg, W. Va. 1941.

“I’m Upstairs Quilting”, by Emma Eisenberg.
          More than a year after leaving Pocahontas County, I still sleep every night under a Norma Mikesell quilt.  It’s a maple leaf pattern quilt, consisting primarily of a deep red fabric, though there’s a mushroom pattern that runs around the border of my quilt, and many detailed patterns in reds, oranges, browns and golds make up the leaves.
         I chose this quilt from the dozen or so that Norma unearthed from her cedar chest and spread out over her bed because of how much I love the West Virginia fall.  Norma seemed to know this intuitively without me having to say it, in the same way she seemed to understand many other things about me.
         Over evening drinks on her porch swing, Norma said to me one day:
         “You’re a pretty independent young lady, aren’t you? You don’t really give a fig what people think.”
         “I’d like to think so,” I said, rubbing Norma’s dog Molly behind the ears.   Norma smiled and adjusted her sunglasses against the dying summer sunset.
         “Me too,” she said, conspiratorially.  “I like people as much as the next person, but when I quilt, the only company I like is my own.”
         But to my great honor, Norma led me upstairs to her workroom.  She showed me all the fabrics she chooses from every time she makes a new quilt.  She told me how, in quilting as in life, you have to make tough choices.  “There’s no science in what’s going to look beautiful next to each other,” she said, “you just have to follow your gut. And if it doesn’t look good, you take it apart and re-arrange the pieces.”

Photo of Norma by Emma Eisenberg.

As I travel through the world, make difficult decisions in my life, and miss West Virginia fall with my whole heart, Norma’s quilt gives me strength.  It helps me to remember that there are no regrets, no wrong choices, just colors and patterns that either look beautiful next to each other or don’t and so must be re-arranged.  It helps me to remember my friendship with Norma; a woman whose remarkable life has had so many chapters full of bold adventures, clear insights, and a strong sense of West Virginia home.
         Each time I left Norma’s house, I looked at the small sign she posted on her door:  “I am upstairs sewing,” the sign said.  “Ring bell once and wait for me to get down here.” We all have our secret room of projects and schemes that keeps us going and makes the long days worth living.  But Norma’s beautiful, secret room full of quilts, has also touched my life – inspiring me to create, to dream, and make my home ever more beautiful.

This story is dedicated to the memory of Norma Mikesell, who, like each of her quilts was truly one of a kind.

Interview with Norma Mikesell in 2011:

Norma: I was born Oct. 19, 1920 on Beaver Creek, Pocahontas County. Beaver Creek is just outside of Watoga Park. I was a kid when they put the park in and when the CCC boys came. We had a well and the CCC boys used to come to our house for good drinking water. They’d come down and lie around in the grass and visit. My one sister made pies and sold them for a quarter a pie. I’ve seen those kids sit there and eat a whole pie!

I learned to row a boat over there in the Watoga lake when it got water in it. You could rent a boat for 25 cents an hour. And us kids would pool our nickels and walk over to the park and row the boat.

Dad was like most people in those days, he did everything. You know, if you needed something, you just did it. Dad built the house we lived in. He made furniture. He made coffins. He was a blacksmith and shooed horses.

Dad loved to visit. He loved people. They had no car and everywhere he went he either walked or went in the wagon. He never had to say “whoa,” to the horse. If that horse met somebody on the road, it just automatically stopped because it knew Dad was going to stop and talk.

I skipped a few years in grade school. I was only 12 when I finished 8th grade.

Two of my brothers and my sister had gone to school here at Hillsboro, and they had boarded with people.

So Principal Johnston knew there was another one still there at my home, so he came to recruit me. School had already been in session two weeks. See, they were about to close the Hillsboro High School because enrollment was down. It was during the Depression, 1933, and the teachers had taken a cut in salary to keep the school open. And they were recruiting people to keep the school from closing.

And I wondered why my mother cried when I left. Can you imagine sending a twelve year old kid to stay with people you didn’t know and you weren’t going to see her till Easter or Christmas!

I stayed with Joel Beard that first year. They lived there where Joel Callison lives now. They had two daughters, Virginia Callison was their youngest.

Anyhow, that first year I was homesick. I would stand in their yard and look over toward the mountains and stand there and bawl. And I couldn’t let anybody know I was homesick because mother and dad would send for me to come home. I wanted to go to school. And after that first year, I was never, ever, as homesick like that in my life.

After highschool, I worked in Lewisburg at the soda fountain one summer, making sundaes and milkshakes. I tell my nieces and nephews, every job you have, no matter how menial it seems, learn from it, learn everything. There’s always things to learn. And if people you work with know you want to learn they help you. I learned a lot working at the soda fountain, it was kind of fun. I don’t fret about a durn thing that’s coming, because I know I can handle it. And if I can’t I know someone else can. It takes a few years to come to that conclusion, but you just learn from all your experiences.
“First Solo Flight”

by Norma Mikesell, first published in the Elderberry Journal:

I need to give some background before we get to the solo. This was the fall of 1946. My husband, Mike, and I decided to take some flying lessons under the G.I. Bill. Our costs would be paid.

We were both working at the Pocahontas Memorial Hospital in Marlinton – he as an X-ray technician and general nurses aide and I as a nurse. The airfield was located atop a hill 3 or 4 miles out of town. It was a sod field with a fence and a deep gulley at the end of the field where we came in for landings. You had to come in high enough to miss the fence and low enough to have plenty of field to slow down and stop. There were trees and a fence at the other end too. The gully was a problem. It only took 10 minutes or so to fly the pattern around the field and come in for a landing. In that short time you never knew if there would be an updraft, downdraft, headwind, tailwind or crosswind above that gulley. That was good training, learning to expect the unexpected and compensating for it.

My flight instructor Hy Howard had been a pilot in WWI – had flown the old Jennies Biplanes. He was a chauvinist of the highest order – didn’t hold with women flying at all. The plane I was using had side x side seating, steered with a wheel instead of a stick and had such high cowling in front that I never could see over it to do a smooth landing. After Hy got bounced around a few times he was agin me more than ever. All the other students had been taught to do spins & come out of it – not me. Mike told the boss I was thinking of quitting, that I hadn’t been taught as the other students were. Well, the next day Hy says “I hear you want to do spins.” We climbed to 3,000 feet & he did the spin – he thought I would chicken out. He said “Now you do it” I did. He was white knuckled & saying “You can pull out now.” I gave it an extra turn just for fun. But I made a bumpy landing again.

The plane Mike was using had a stick control & tandem seating. He had already soloed several times. His plane was taken for servicing so he was flying mine. He hit a crosswind over thegulley and wasn’t used to the wheel control, so he flew it into the pine trees beside field. I knew he was in trouble and ran out of the hangar. As he hit the trees, I started running, climbed a chain link fence & ran to the plane. I couldn’t see him & was looking up in the trees. He had laid over on the seat & put his arms over his face. I could see him; he wasn’t moving. I got the door open, his seat belt unbuckled & dragged him up the hill away from the plane. Everything was soaked with gasoline and I was afraid of fire. He was starting to move & I was examning him for broken bones by the time Hy showed up. I looked at him and said “Where have you been?”

All that Mike got out of it was a broken wrist. They sold the plane for salvage.

When the tandem plane came back I was flying it. The first we went up I made a perfect landing. I taxied to the hangar, Hy got out and said “It’s all yours.” I flew the pattern, not anxious to land but knew I had to. When I came over the gulley there was an updraft and I was way too high. I crabbed into the wind & lost altitude a bit too fast, hit the ground and bounced thirty feet into the air. I gave it full throttle & took off, cleared the trees at the end of the field & flew over the river. I flew the pattern twice to settle my nerves, then brought it in for a good landing, left it sitting in the middle of the filed and walked back to the hangar.

Yes, I did fly solo several times after that, without the thrilling landing the first time.

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Category: Art & Music, Blog, Family & Community, Marlinton to Lewisburg

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