By Galen Holley
Northeast Miss. Daily Journal
On Tuesday afternoons in Oxford, across the street from William Faulkner’s grave, the air sings with laughter and the whispering sound of sewing needles and thread.
The St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church quilting circle, a group of 12 merry-making souls, has been sewing here since 1992.
“We all look forward to this,” said Bunny Williams, drawing her needle up through a cream-white top with colorful star designs, dating to 1870.
They’d promised this quilt to the daughter of another member, Kathryn Plants. “I’ve already given a donation for it,” said Plants. “This is a $500 quilt.” The money, like the money from every quilt, was marked for a general fund the ladies keep for charitable outreach.
Tuesday morning, as a light snow dusted the pines in Union County, another group of women worked diligently, their hands bobbing like machinery. The members, who call themselves “Second Half,” recalled how their quilting circle got started.
“Nineteen ninety-four, or thereabouts,” said Lula Heaton, the group’s reluctant president. Like the St. Andrew’s group, the Second Halfers were comprised of women from several denominations.
Heaton cut her eyes mischievously at the women around the fringe of the quilt. “We’re called Second Halfers because we’re enjoying the second half of our lives,” she said.
At St. Andrew’s, Jean Shaw added numbers in her head while her fingers continued working. “I’d guess the group has raised around $20,000,” she said.
Sixteen years ago, each St. Andrew’s family got a packet containing nine squares to sew together. A group of ladies then took the finished top and made a quilt. The church accepted sealed bids for the quilt and wound up with about $400. It used that money for charity.
“The ladies enjoyed working together and socializing, and they made money, so the idea just took off,” said Juanita Pumphrey.
The Second Half group grew out of an annual fall festival.
We’d make arts and crafts, cakes, cookies, all kind of things to auction off for fund-raisers,” said Mary Yates.
The groups’ reputations and charitable ambitions grew in direct proportion. Before long the St. Andrew’s group learned of a local boy who’d been killed in a car accident. His parents couldn’t afford the funeral so the ladies donated the money from a few quilts to help out.
In 1997 the ladies used quilt money to purchase 40 Spanish song books for a new Hispanic ministry at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Oxford. Penny Sisson, now a deacon at St. Peter’s, said she was overwhelmed.
“They understood that one always prays in one’s first language, and they knew how important music is to Hispanic worship, so they just stepped in to help,” said Sisson.
Since then the St. Andrew’s quilters have donated money to everything from food pantries to the Boys and Girls Club of Northeast Mississippi L.O.U. Clubhouse. They’ve consistently supported Interfaith Compassion Ministries, an Oxford non-profit that helps people in times of crisis. Director Lena Wiley said with the current state of the economy the quilters’ donations have been especially helpful.
“Manufacturers are laying off and utilities are very high,” said Wiley. “The money the ladies give continues to do a lot of good.”
The Second Halfers started by purchasing luminaries for the Relay For Life, an annual cancer benefit. Then they donated to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital as well as to LeBohner Children’s Hospital. They donated quilts to Myrtle High School for its annual spring fundraiser. Principal Vince Jordan estimated the Second Halfers have donated over $5,000 which the PTO has used to purchase computers and other needed items.
“They’re just a great example of Christian generosity, of how people can be productive in their golden years,” said Jordan.
The Second Halfers are always on the lookout for needy people in the community. They’ve given away more quilts than they can remember to people whose homes have burned.
Make no mistake, the ladies work hard. The St. Andrew’s group has a two-year waiting list, but they have fun, too. Dimitra Kakaleus of the St. Andrew’s quilters, also a member of a Greek Orthodox Church in Memphis, said the fellowship is what’s kept her coming back for 10 years.
“These ladies are wonderful. We’re like a social club, or a support group,” she said. At the other end of the quilt, Pumphrey and Sammy Jean Davis jostled each other good-naturedly about proper needle technique.
“We may have to separate them,” said Fleda Stanford, laughing.
Irene Harris, at 93 the eldest of the Second Halfers, said the ladies try to keep the gossip to a minimum. “We keep an eye out to see when the preacher is coming,” she said.
They’ve certainly become each other’s confidants. Jimmie Franklin of the St. Andrew’s group said her husband has recently been in poor health.“Without the support of my friends, I wouldn’t have known what to do,” she said.
Jeanie Crumpton, 56, the youngest of the Second Halfers, joined the group after the ladies started raising money for her ongoing medical troubles. “The bills were really overwhelming, and, having moved here from Tennessee, I was having a very hard time,” she said. “I didn’t know how to repay these ladies, so I just joined them.”
Keeping the faith
Both groups have seen changes to their lineups over the years. The St. Andrew’s group recalled a member named Irene who died five years ago.
“She was buried on Tuesday morning,” said Franklin. “We said to ourselves, ‘Well, she wouldn’t want us to skip.’ So we met that afternoon and quilted.” The ladies pointed across the street to the cemetery where Irene is buried.
“Whenever one passes, God sends us another one,” said Franklin.
Dale Wood of the Second Halfers said they’ve lost 12 members over the years. They always remember them in prayer.
The ladies are anxious for young folks to take interest in the art of quilting.
“Many of us learned as young girls,” said Pumphery of St. Andrew’s.
Both groups have the occasional visitor and they’re eager for anybody, male or female, young or old, to sit in and take part.
“You can be Baptist, Methodist, Orthodox, or no religion at all,” said Faye Walker, 59, the youngest of the St. Andrew’s group. “We take all comers. You don’t even have to quilt.”
Ruby Tyer, whose diminishing eyesight prevents her from quilting with the Second Halfers, still likes to sit and chat. As her friend, Maryloyce Purvis, thumbed through photographs of the quilts they’d made, Tyer looked aside. “These women are my friends,” she said, squeezing Purvis’ hand. “ I just love to be here.”