Willie "Ma Willie" Abrams
Estelle Witherspoon managed the Freedom Quilting Bee from 1967 until the early 1990s. Her mother, "Ma Willie" Abrams, was instrumental in keeping the bee afloat in its formative years and was known for sharing pattern blocks and designs with curious quilters, such as neighborhood girl Flora Moore. Estelle's daughter, Louise Williams, recalls Ma Willie.
One of the things I remember most fondly about my grandmother is that she loved children. She loved all people, but children, especially infants, seemed to hold a special place in her heart. I remember when we had visitors that had a baby, she would just light up. Ma Willie was a very quiet person, and at times you would not even know she was in the room, but when we had babies in the house, that would change. She would hold them and sing to them a little ditty she would just make up on the spot, and they would just coo and laugh and listen to her sing, all the while gazing steadfastly into her eyes. I believe the song she sang was catered to the baby she was singing to. I think something about the baby dictated the song she would make up and sing. Most of her songs would include the words "Mama's little precious thing" and would then go on to talk about the child—color of their eyes, hair, facial expressions, etc. After she sang the song, she could never repeat it, because, as I said, she made it up on the spot—another aspect of her creativity. I have many pictures of her holding babies and singing to them, and the expressions on everyone's faces are priceless. The parents would enjoy it as much as the babies, and I think they all got a kick out of hearing her songs. Before leaving they would always ask her to sing the baby another song. Although my mom only had one child, she loved all children and had a hand in rearing many. I believe that her love of children was passed on to her from my grandmother. Mama was always trying to nurture, guide, and help children, and I believe that came from the love she saw her mother give to children. I remember bringing my infant daughters home for their first visit, and Ma Willie just had the time of her life singing to those babies. After all, she had two babies to sing to at once, and she would place one on each knee and sing them 'their' song. They seemed to have an instant connection or bond, and they loved to have her sing to them. Once she would lay them down, their little heads would just turn, looking for her.
Even though Ma Willie was a very quiet person, there was strength in her quietness. I remember events from my childhood that sometimes made me want to change her demeanor, bring her up to the twentieth century, as I called it, but I had to realize that she was born in 1897 in a small country town in Alabama, where, even though slavery had officially been over for many years, many were still living in the aftermath of it. I believe she was quiet not because she didn't have anything to say, but because she came from a world where you did not speak until you were spoken to. I think this is also how she was able to create many beautiful quilts, aprons, hats, and so forth, because in her moments of quietness she would think of things to do and visualize it and just make it. Even though my mom was a bit more vocal than my grandmother, they exhibited many similarities, one of which was they both knew how to get their point over without really raising their voice. And sometimes it would sound louder than it would with someone who was actually raising his or her voice. I also believe the quietness of both my mother and grandmother was strongly rooted in their religion. "The meek shall inherit the earth."