A Stitch in Time

Image courtesy of the Putnam County Record
This is a story that started over 60 years ago in the tiny town of Hennepin. It began before the steel mill came to town. It began before there was a grocery store and four taverns. It began before the firehouse and the new bank.

Newlyweds Rosemary and Frank Biagi bought a little house on the west end of High Street before there was a street sign to indicate their address. When their daughter, Rosalie, was small, Rosemary would take her next door to Bessie Hollumbach’s house to visit, as neighbors did often during those times.

“She had a tiny little rocking chair for Rosalie, along with a small box containing sewing supplies,” Rosemary recalled.

During these visits, the three of them began to piece together a quilt topper, made from the scraps of various projects that Rosemary had sewn for Rosalie and then her younger daughter, Chris. Over time, the quilt grew larger and larger, but before it could be completed, Hollumbach became ill, and so the project was put aside.

It was packed away in a box, and on the rare occasion it was seen, Rosemary indicated her desire to finish it, but the demands of being a mother and wife left it as a low priority.

Decades passed and eventually Frank grew ill and died. Rosemary was left to live alone in their home. The kids had grown and married and moved on. Though they visited often, it eventually became apparent that Rosemary would no longer be comfortable living by herself, so Rosalie and her husband, Bill Calbow, offered to let her move in with them to their condo in Henry, a short distance away.

Fifty years of memories and belongings had accumulated in the house and the thought of moving it was overwhelming. Rosalie, who battles her own health issues, was unable to do it without help, so she hired a helper to help them sort through and move everything.

Throughout the next few months, the women would all gather at the house and take down boxes and sort through them in an attempt to downsize. Rosemary would sit on her bed as each box came down and would laugh and reminisce and tell stories of the dolls with the ratty hair, and the knick-knacks that were given to her by this person, or that person.

They even found her original wedding gown, complete with a long yellowed veil and her wedding shoes, with her silk stockings tucked neatly inside. There was bittersweet laughter and tears as she made decisions about what could go with her and what had to be discarded or donated.

When they came to the box with the quilt topper, it was decided that since it was unfinished, it wouldn’t be included in the move. The woman helping Rosemary asked if she could take it and see if one of her friends might be willing to finish it for Rosemary. Rosemary agreed.

The helper had no luck finding someone to finish the quilt but felt it had significance and much sentimentality. She attends Willow Springs Mennonite Church and had recently become more active in their Women’s Group, so she decided to approach the ladies and see if they would be willing to tackle the project.

Isabel Bitting, a longtime leader in the group, enthusiastically agreed to help.

She said, “It is so nice to have a project that means something. The quilts we make and donate to the Mennonite Relief Sale are beautiful, but this quilt will have meaning.”

As the women sorted through the various materials that could be used as a backing, Beth Gerig came across an ample piece, which by luck or fate contained the exact colors needed to compliment the hodgepodge, mismatched pattern on the front.

As a bonus, it also contained hearts and small roses to compliment Rosemary’s name and the love that was being put into the quilt. Bitting’s enthusiasm infected the entire church.

She announced one Sunday that the quilt was in the quilting room, and she would love for anyone to come down and put a few knots in the quilt. The list of contributors was long, and included young and old, women and even men. Visitors that Sunday made their way down so they could participate in this labor of love. As they knotted, there was conversation, laughter and much fellowship.

It didn’t take long for the quilt to be completed. Bitting gave the quilt to the helper with a tag reading, “Pieced by Rosemary Biagi in the early 1950s. Knotted and finished in 2016 by her friends at Willow Springs Mennonite Church.”

During this whole process, Rosemary had no idea what was going on. The helper and Rosalie conspired to present it to her when the family was gathering for their Christmas meal. The bag was given to her and her face lit up.

The children, grandchildren and great grandchildren gathered around as she pointed to the different fabrics and told their stories.

“Remember this one Rosalie? I made those Raggedy Ann dolls for you and your sister with this red striped material,” she said.

“And how about this one? I made you that winter coat out of this black and white checked fabric,” she recalled.

Chris said later, “The quilt is stories and memories of life. Each small square has a story. From her favorite dress, to toys she made us. Mom sewed a lot. All of our dance dresses, graduation, etc. I feel the quilt is a memory of life.”

Rosalie said she sat with it on her lap for the rest of the day, remembering and passing on stories.

“I have rarely seen Mom speechless. She was so touched,” Rosalie said.

So a little church in Tiskilwa with a big heart, made a big difference to a happy little old lady they have never met, thanks to a vision, love, dedication, some giving hearts and a stitch — or hundreds — in time.

Source: Putnam County Record