When I heard our young neighbors had just had their first baby. I thought to myself, “Baby blanket.” I needed to make them a baby blanket.
My children were the first grandchildren on both sides of our family and were showered with gifts from their grandparents. But the gift that took on lasting meaning in our family was the flannel baby blankets my mom began making. I believe the first ones she made were for my son, her first grandchild.
Mom started sewing doll clothes for her own dolls when she was a child. I don’t know who taught her—Mom’s mother was not domestically inclined—my grandmother never even learned to cook! But Mom did a lot of sewing, and when I was growing up she made many of our clothes, and taught me the basics of machine sewing.
But it was after I left home that she began tackling sewing projects beyond clothing. She made cloth napkins by the score, stitching up the edges so they would not unravel, and giving them out as gifts, like candy. She also made baby blankets.
Her first blankets were doubled up flannel fabric, sewn inside out then turned right side out. She added decorative stitching along the seams to help the blanket hold its shape. The red polka dot on a white background blanket was edged with hand-sewn featherstitching. But my son had many blankets, and this blanket was soon tucked aside.
When my daughter was born there were, as always happens with a second born, fewer presents and more hand-me-downs. I pulled out Grannie’s flannel blankets, and soon the featherstitched flannel blanket became the favored snuggly for my girl. She called it “Polk-ups,” not quite being able to manage saying “polka dots.”
Seeing how fond she was of these flannel blankets, I offered her the other blankets Mom had made, and they too became snuggly blankets, but the hierarchy was clear. Polk-ups was the winner (or loser, since eventually it was loved to shreds.)
Polk-ups was the only flannel blanket with hand-sewn edging that Mom made. All her other blankets were edged with machine-sewn decorative stitching. After she died, we found a stash of these blankets in her house, still waiting in reserve for the next baby who needed one of her blankets. Mom shared them generously, and all her grandchildren received them. She also happily sent along to us blankets as gifts for people she might never meet.
I have made a number of this same style blanket over the years, and the process of making them always brings Mom to mind. From the moment I step out of the car to head into the fabric store, Mom is right beside me in my heart, ready to offer suggestions, but allowing me to decide for myself what this next blanket will be.
As I pull out the ironing board, I feel grateful Mom taught me to iron, so the newly washed fabric will look crisp and neat. The actual sewing task is measurably easier because the fabric is smooth and flat, so the edges easily line up.
I set up the sewing machine Mom gave me, and fill the bobbin with thread, just as she taught me. Once I start sewing, I get to thinking of this new life I am honoring with a gift of my time, my experience, and my prayers. Will the parents understand what this gift is? Perhaps not.
But what I know is that in the giving, in the making of this present, I’ve been given yet another gift as well, of thankfulness for what has been passed down to me, and what has been passed on.
May you be lucky enough to have a “polk-ups” tradition, or something akin to it, in your life. And may you be even luckier if you are able to be part of passing on that tradition, even if the passing on is simply in the telling of the story.
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and is the author of Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, More Easy Walks in Massachusetts, 2nd edition, and editor of Easy Walks and Paddles in the Ten Mile River Watershed. Just out is her latest book, Finding Easy Walks Wherever You Are.
She has been a freelance writer for numerous local, regional, and national publications for the past 20+ years, has helped numerous families to save their stories, and has recorded multiple veterans oral histories, now housed at the Library of Congress.