The younger sister of Mary Elizabeth Kennedy, Malissia Pettway, was a dedicated, pattern-oriented quiltmaker. Her work is in the permanent collection of The Phillips Collection.
Pettway's daughter, Tinnie Dell Pettway, discusses her parents and life in Gee's Bend.
My mother, Malissia, married Eddie Pettway Sr. When my father married my mother, he took her straight to the field. She was a very hard worker. She went to the fields and tried to prove herself to the family. Two years later, they had me. It was customary to give the woman six weeks after childbirth if she didn't have complications, to get back to the field.
About two years after I was born, my brother Irvin came along. He was born in December, so Mama had the winter off, and back to the field in the spring, for planting. It didn't help to have a baby in the winter because you going to be off anyway. Three years later, Minnie Mae; then Phillip; then Eddie Jr.
My daddy loved my mother when they married. He knew she would make a good wife, but, you see, she wasn't in his class. He worked hard, never had to borrow money.
My father's father was Roman Pettway Sr. He was the money man. He was the in-charge man. We all worked in his field, picking cotton, pulling the corn. My father's father bought land—most people didn't. He bought cars. My grandfather always loaned out money to the poorer people. He didn't ever get some of it back. They kind of looked down on my mother's family as poor, as beggars. Marrying up like she did alienated my mother from her own sisters. My mother was discriminated against in her own family for a while. As they got older, though, that passed. Her and her sister Mary Elizabeth eventually became the best of sisters and friends. There was some resentment against Daddy's family in the community, too, sometimes. People think 'cause we got more, maybe we think we're better than the others, or look down on them. But we wasn't like that.
At Christmastime back then, on the first day of December, Mama put a paper on the wall, like a chart, with her five children's name on it. Every day from December 1 to 24, she put a G if you were good and if you were bad she put a B. If the Bs outweighed the Gs you didn't get much for Christmas. So you swept the yard, hauled wood, mopped the floors, cleaned dishes, all that, without having to be told, to get a good rating. Even then, we didn't get too much. But we had plenty of food and plenty of fruit trees in the yard. We had pears, peaches, plums, figs, pomegranates; berries was everywhere wild—blackberries, mulberries during their season. She would can from the trees so we had everything year-round. We used to go to the fields and pick tubs of berries.
The kitchen was decorated with book and magazine pages. Mama would save everything from January to December. And in December every year, coming up to Christmas she would take the staples out of the books and magazines, and make that paste out of flour and water, and put it on the stove and cook the flour paste. And you would rub it on the back of the page and stick it on the wall. So at Christmas, the wall would be fresh and new. The Progressive Farmer magazine was the main one, the only one my father subscribed to.
We'd play games when we'd sit and eat, like trying to find a word or a picture, and our mama would have to make us quit playing: "You don't have time to play now; eat your food and go to work."