Make a Comforter. BE a Comforter. Comforters for Ukraine

My Grandma Sue Snyder Hershey, pictured on the left below, looked like this when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. My widowed great-grandmother, her mother, stands like the prow of a ship in front of her four adult children.

Grandma Hershey on left, Great Grandma Snyder in the center

L-R Grandma Hershey, Great Aunt Helen, Great Grandma Snyder, Great Aunt Edna, Great Uncle Abe

I thought a lot about my grandmothers and great-grandmother as I was writing The Mindful Grandparent. Here’s how I described Grandma Hershey in Chapter Three of the book:

“a kind, patient, loving woman of ample bosom and skillful hands. She made afghans for the grandchildren and comforters at the sewing circle. She was a comforter.”
Because of Grandma Hershey, and because I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine, I am trying to become a comforter too. But first I needed a catalyst. That’s where Phyllis Stuckey enters the story.
Phyllis Stuckey surrounded by the tools of her tradition

Phyllis Stuckey surrounded by the tools of her tradition, preparing to cut squares into triangles.

Phyllis is a former professor and computer consultant, a brilliant conceptualizer and leader who shares the “kind and patient” gift of my grandmother and combines it with the confidence and vision of a CEO. A month ago, while I was taking a vacation just before the final preparations for the book launch, Phyllis sent an email to twelve of us women who grew up Mennonite and now live in Moravian Manor. All of us had mothers or grandmothers who sewed together on behalf of those in need. Many Mennonite churches in this area have a room like this one:
The quilt room of Forrest Hills Mennonite Church

The quilt room of Forrest Hills Mennonite Church

Or else they take over another space like this one:

We spread out beyond the quilt room. We needed more space!

We spread out beyond the quilt room. We needed more space!

The reason Phyllis called us together was the war in Ukraine and the refugee crisis that has followed. She said, “I have been burdened by the events unfolding in Ukraine in the past weeks/months and feel so utterly helpless in terms of being able to do something constructive to help those in need.”
All of us getting that email felt the same way. As Norma Stauffer said,
I find that when I get overwhelmed with a situation that seems imaginably hopeless, the best thing for me is to DO SOMETHING!  This project provided the opportunity for me to DO that I so needed. Every initiative needs a good leader, and I very much appreciated how Phyllis had the idea and then followed through with it.
When Phyllis does anything, she does it carefully and accurately. Witness the amazing book of patterns she has compiled to guide her in how to construct quilts and comforters:
So many patterns. Each requires a different set of materials and construction strategies.

Phyllis’ pattern book.  Each pattern requires a different set of materials and construction strategies.

Gloria Rutt was by Phyllis’s side the whole way, and the rest of us came whenever we could. Sixteen people were involved so far, and the group may expand. When the project is finished, we will have completed seven comforters. These will be distributed by the Mennonite Central Committee — headquartered a few miles away —  trusted experts on international disaster and war relief.

In addition to the skill sets of finding fabric, cutting and sewing it accurately, assembling the patterns in the right order, and then knotting all the layers together, each woman cared about making something beautiful. All that a comforter needs in order to be warm is to stay together. But in order to warm the heart, it must be beautiful. We were very aware of trying to do our best work and trying to find the best colors for making an impact of hope. As we worked, we talked about our grandmothers often.

Phyllis and Jeanette Bontrager admire the purple backing for the yellow and purple comforter on the right.

Phyllis and Jeanette Bontrager admire the purple backing for the yellow and purple comforter on the right.

Carol Buchen brought her own sewing machine.

Carol Buchen brought her own sewing machine.

One of the members of The Mindful Grandparent launch team, Carolyn Dirksen, wrote these words on Facebook:

I can darn, patch, and mend. I can hem and do embroidery without knots so the back is as pretty as the front. I can stretch a food budget with healthy meatless meals, and lengthen a dress by adding hem tape so it will fit for one more season. I have good penmanship, I love to read, and I am endlessly engaged with the power of words. I learned all that from my grandmother who cared for me while my widowed mother worked to support the family.

I am ashamed to admit that even though I learned to darn, patch, mend, hem, etc., I never went to the monthly “sewing” at my church after going with my grandmother a few times. I focused instead on the power of words, my mother’s gift. As an adult, I was intent upon breaking into a new world of higher education and was less focused on the domestic skills my grandmother cherished.

As I zipped through the colorful seams during our “comforter blitz” a few weeks ago, I thought of Grandma Hershey often. How she expressed her love by working with her hands. How carefully she measured, straight pins in her mouth, as she pinned a skirt hem. How patient she was as she crocheted even stitches. How cheerfully she labored on behalf of others, whether it was her dreamy granddaughter with a book in her hand, or a refugee in a foreign land. She understood that love can be tangible, and she devoted her life to producing gifts — children, gardens, meals, quilts, clothing, comforters. All of these to her were all part of being connected to a Creator God.

We are the work of your hand.

While we made comforters, we could look up at this sign connecting the names of the children in a Sunday School class to Isaiah 64:8. It is good to know that the tradition of offering our hands in service continues to be taught to the next generation.

Grandma Hershey would understand what it means to be “the work of your hand.” She would care about suffering, whether in front of her or across the ocean, and she would spread comfort with beauty and love.

Have you found ways to contribute to the needs in Ukraine and other countries where refugees are fleeing? What gifts did your grandmother give you and how have you shared them?

Shirley Showalter

35 Comments

  1. Marlena Fiol on April 25, 2022 at 3:51 pm

    What a powerful call to action in this newsletter – thank you, Shirley!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 7:51 pm

      Thank you, Marlena, for responding. I feel sure that you have found your own.

  2. Sanna on April 25, 2022 at 6:40 pm

    Shirley, I love this call to action. Textiles to surround the vulnerable! When my late Dad was close to death (the first time), one of the prayer shawls from an unknown — to us — College Mennonite Church crocheter accompanied my Dad as he was wheeled out of his room to surgery. Today that shawl warms the foot of my bed most nights in winter. Because it reminds me that we are cared for … often by people we don’t even know. Thank you for quilting!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 7:58 pm

      Sanna, thanks for enlarging the vision to include other kinds of handmade textiles. I too have been given some prayer shawls and have been warmed to the core by the love such objects can transfer. I am glad you still have that shawl to warm your bed. Your point about anonymity is well taken. Phyllis, for example, would be happy to be anonymous, as most MCC quilters and knotters of comforters are. She allowed me to tell our story because she considers the group and the cause to be the most important things. Supposedly Harry Truman said something like this, “You can do a lot of good in the world if you don’t care who takes the credit.”

  3. Marian Beaman on April 25, 2022 at 7:36 pm

    While they were members of Bossler Mennonite Church, my Mother and Grandma Longenecker continued the tradition of making comforters and quilts for relief. While most of the work was done at sewing circle, my mother in her later years was able to knot comforters at home, which were sent through MCC to be distributed worldwide.

    Our friend Kathy Gould has a ministry to children and families in Ukraine which we have supported for nearly thirty years. She has assured me that all the people we met during our 2011 visit there are safe, but they are now refugees who have lost property and income. Many of their family members are still in danger in Kiev and surrounding towns. Kathy funnels donations directly to those she knows in dire straits. She does not take a salary and 100% of funds donated go directly to provide for urgent needs. If you wish to share in another way, here is the link: https://abclife.info/donations

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 8:03 pm

      Marian, thanks for letting us know about Kathy Gould’s project. As people try to assess how to help those who have lost their homes, it really helps to have personal connections to people who know what is happening on the ground and are devoting their own time, talent, and treasure to helping them. I hope people who have not given and are looking for a trustworthy source check out the link.

      And your dear Mother and Grandma. How many comforters and quilts must they have made over the years? Hundreds? More? Such an honorable tradition.

  4. Sarah Buller Fenton on April 25, 2022 at 7:41 pm

    I learned to piece and make comforters and quilts from my grandmothers and great-grandmothers. I attended “sewing” with my grandmother many times, as did my children when my mother kept them while I worked as a public health nurse. Each child developed an understanding of what goes on at “sewing” and why, and also developed special friendships with other women at sewing. I have pieced five comforter tops recently and this week on Thursday, three friends will join me to tie the comforters. These five comforters, along with two previously finished, will make their way to Mennonite Central Committee to be distributed to those who need them through MCC’s many partnerships and avenues. I have a personal goal to make two wall hangings for Mennonite Women’s House Warmer Project and Mennonite Disaster Service. I also have a goal to make two comforters each year for MCC. It looks like I need to step up my goal! I’m grateful to one of my quilting friends who has gifted me with three boxes of “ugly fabric” because she knows of my MCC projects. That not so ugly fabric makes a lot of comforter tops and backs.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 8:08 pm

      I love how you have kept the circle of love and tradition going, Sarah. Your mother took your children to “sewing” while you worked, and now you are sewing to help other mothers and grandmothers and children. Many of the people Phyllis pulled together were teachers, nurses, and other professionals. Some sewed throughout all their lives. Others, like me, don’t even own a sewing machine anymore and had to awaken old muscle memory. The variety was fun.

      I so admire your goals. I can’t think of a more gratifying way to spend retirement. Except, of course, playing with grandchildren! Do yours “help” you?

  5. Sherrey A Meyer on April 25, 2022 at 8:02 pm

    Shirley, thanks for sharing this lovely story of friends and daughters and granddaughters down the generations still making and giving beauty and warmth. We need more of this in our country’s culture and communities. I’ll cherish these words and the images shared.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 8:13 pm

      Thank you, Sherrey. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. Let me throw a warm virtual comforter all the way to the west coast and wrap it around your shoulders!

  6. Elfrieda Neufeld Schroeder on April 25, 2022 at 8:26 pm

    My sister just lost a beloved cat she has had for years. Whenever she came home her pet greeted her at the door until one day.. . . She didn’t. My daughter gave her a prayer shawl made by one of the women at her church. Although it couldn’t replace what she had lost, it comforted her. There is comfort in tangible things that show someone cares for and about you. I love that you and your friends are doing this for people who are displaced and distraught.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 25, 2022 at 8:30 pm

      Elfrieda, you know well the pain of the displaced, so I am sure you are finding your own ways to help the displaced and distraught now. The story about your sister and the prayer shawl is truly touching. I hope she has found comfort in touching the shawl and that she soon has another furry friend to welcome her home.

  7. Saloma Furlong on April 25, 2022 at 8:52 pm

    Shirley, this is a beautiful story of how to turn concern into a comforter. Thank you for writing it!

    I have been searching for a tangible way to counter Putin’s War, and the other night I finally found something that is finally in sync with my pacifist viewpoint. This gave me such hope: https://wagingnonviolence.org/2022/04/defections-russian-soldiers-crucial-to-end-putins-war-ukraine/.

    One has to grasp onto hope where we can find it. Your story of compassion, and the idea of giving asylum to Russian soldiers who defect give me hope. Thank you!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 8:12 am

      Saloma, the article you shared gives me hope as well. Sometimes it seems that evil is winning all around us. But the Gandhian principle that no ruler can ultimately force consent is one to hang on to and support in these perilous times. And I am sure you have made many a comforter!

  8. Ruth Jansen on April 25, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    A wonderful way of making a difference! These quilts will be so appreciated by many!!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 8:15 am

      Thank you, Ruth. I pray this is so.

  9. Linda Gartz on April 25, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    What a wonderful project to help Ukraine! I feel so helpless every day as I watch this murderer pound and kill, torture, maim the innocent people of Ukraine. I’ve donated to World Central Kitchen (one place that got bombed, but not destroyed in one of the cities). I’ll give to the UNHCR (refugee agency) too. I don’t have much sewing talent, but I admire those who do and place their skills at the disposal of those in need. Thank you!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 8:20 am

      Linda, good to see you here and to know how passionate you are in trying to help. Saloma’s comment above includes a link that may offer a bit of solace too. Even dictators over-estimate their power and under-estimate the collective will of the people. That’s why they try so hard to control all the information the people receive. And why they create fictions that eventually fail. I am so glad you are giving. Every kind of support adds up and makes a difference. At least to some.

  10. Melodie on April 26, 2022 at 6:13 am

    My mother, grandmother, and numerous aunts all labored over quilts and comforters sent around the world through MCC. I could share many stories but I’ll leave that for another time. I helped on some of them, and going with mother to the “sewing” as se called it, was always a fun thing to do if we were out of school and before I started school. I think Norma Stauffer’s quote above is memorable and probably fits many of us: overwhelmed with the heartache and sorrow of the warring factions, we pitch in where we can and pray. Our God is a comforter too.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 8:48 am

      Melodie, my grandmother called it “sewing” also. My mother sometimes attended and took me along, which I enjoyed. However, Mother would rather be reading, writing, or speaking than sewing, so I picked up on that way of giving more than sewing. I quite agree with you about Norma’s quote. And yes, God’s great love is the source of our own. And it will ultimately gather us up in the greatest Comfort of all.

  11. Maren C. Tirabassi on April 26, 2022 at 6:47 am

    What a wonderful mission and call. I felt this engagement when I put my (to be released today) mystery in an auction with 279 other cozy mystery writers for Ukraine. I honor Amy Meade who led us to share our cozy words and raise 20,000 dollars. But I also think of my lifetime of making comforters for every wedding, every baby born, every ill friend — all hand patched …and how love always goes into the fabric so deeply. I learned not from a grandparent but a friend though Grandma Snider surely made everything she and her family wore and every quilt in the house.

    And thank you so much for that photo and the chocolate with it!!!

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 9:01 am

      Maren, wow, that’s a new idea. Our local bookstore owner specializes in cozy mysteries. I wonder if she has heard of this project . . . Making comforters by hand is in fact a labor of love, especially when done alone and without a machine!! Glad you like the photo. I hope you have received your endorser’s copy of the book by now? Please let me know if you have not. I will pass along to the publisher.

  12. Jeanette Bontrager on April 26, 2022 at 9:48 am

    Thank you, Shirley, for highlighting this fun and meaningful project. I was happy to be a part of it. I also appreciate reading your loving words about your grandmother who was also my grandmother 🙂

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 1:56 pm

      One of the blessings of the return to Lititz has been to reconnect with family on a regular basis. So glad we are neighbors now and can compare our memories of our grandparents.

  13. Carol on April 26, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    Doing something is the best thing for me, too. In fact, I’m blogging about that tomorrow. In addition to doing something, the community of quilters is a great in-person support for all of you. A real spirit lifter. The colors in the quilts are beautiful.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 26, 2022 at 7:33 pm

      Isn’t it great to have a blog, Carol, even if you don’t post often? I am eager to visit and see what doing you are doing.

      • Jan Hershberger Stoltzfus on April 27, 2022 at 9:32 am

        My last living grandparent, my maternal grandmother died when I was three years old. My mother and her sister, my Aunt Eva, passed along sewing skills, family recipes, and vivid stories of life in Hesston Kansas in the early to mid 1900’s.

        Covenant Mennonite Fellowship, the only MCUSA congregation remaining in Sarasota, FL, has an active group of comforter makers for MCC. ( Peace by Piece). This year I spent time cutting my personal fabric stash into 6 inch squares. I do “production sewing” of comforter tops at home as well as binding the knotted comforters PxP creates. Before the war in Ukraine, I thought of Syrian refugees receiving these as I sewed. There is an MCC story of an old African man wanting to be buried in his “Mennonite”, a reference to his MCC comforter. Love and prayers for the world…..

        • Shirley Showalter on April 27, 2022 at 10:27 am

          Jan, I love knowing this story. I think maybe the fabric arts are being preserved in MCUSA circles by people like you and your group at Covenant and Phyllis and our group at Moravian Manor. I like your name and will pass it along to the women who come to Forrest Hills on Monday. Your grandmothers’ skills and values were passed along to you via your mother and then again to your daughter, if I recall correctly. We do indeed send love and prayers to the people of Syria and Ukraine who must now wander the earth.

  14. Vicky Kirkton on April 26, 2022 at 8:54 pm

    Such a beautiful story, Shirley and I always love your ability to use words! My grandparents lived five minutes away. I walked over there almost everyday. We played checkers on the front porch. I loved Grandma’s chocolate cookies that were frosted with cooked frosting. Grandma always let me eat the left over chocolate frosting on soda crackers. When Grandma is making cookies, it is comfort! She taught me to knit and my other Grandma taught me to sew.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 27, 2022 at 8:04 am

      Vicky, thank you for this response and for sharing the ways you are connecting to The Mindful Grandparent. Your childhood was graced with grandparent connections and love. I am sure you have some treasures of things they knitted and sewed. Another way to continue being a comforter, even after death!

  15. Rebekah Basinger on April 27, 2022 at 10:41 am

    This coming Sunday when Hyacinth Stevens, executive director of MCC East Coast, speaks at Grantham (BIC) Church, there will be a sampling of the more than 300 comforters cut, sewn, and knotted by a group of “everyday disciples” from our congregation and the community during the pandemic. The volunteers found comfort in being part of something bigger than the confines of their homes during a time of uncertainty and anxiety for the world.

    • Shirley Showalter on April 27, 2022 at 10:46 am

      Rebekah, thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Wow. Three hundred comforters from one congregation and community. Yes to “everyday disciples” finding a way to be part of a larger vision in a troubled time. These are the stories we need to hear.

  16. Laurie Buchanan on April 28, 2022 at 3:33 pm

    Shirley — Thank you for responding to the call for action. Thank you for making a difference. I am proud to know you and to call you my friend.

    • Shirley on April 28, 2022 at 3:43 pm

      Thank you, Laurie. The feeling is mutual! Happy pub day on Tuesday. I posted a link to your book on FB some days ago.

      • Laurie Buchanan on April 28, 2022 at 4:58 pm

        Shirley — Happy Pub Day to you, too. I pre-ordered THE MINDFUL GRANDPARENT, so it will load on my Kindle the morning of the 3rd. Yaaay!

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