Soon after her parents passed away, Marlene Bennett Jones returned to Gee’s Bend and stuffed every piece of clothing the couple owned into 15 garbage bags.
They didn’t look like much, but all Jones needed were pieces of cloth. The moments she’d shared with her mother before her passing had sown a longing deep inside her, and it was time to purge.
Back home in Fairburn, she emptied those bags, ripped the clothing into pieces and began sewing them together again until finally she’d stitched together 21 quilts.
Jones, 69, had grown up watching her mother and the women of Gee’s Bend make quilts to keep themselves and their children warm in unheated houses. Sometimes, if she was lucky enough, she even got a chance to help.
All these years later, a patchwork of quilts hang from nearly every inch of wall in her modest home, reminders of those final days spent with her mother, Agatha Bennett.
Jones first noticed something different about her mother during visits to Gee’s Bend in the summer of 1997. Always a natty dresser, now she needed reminders to even change her clothes or comb her hair. And she rarely recognized any of her 14 children.
It fell to Jones, a former Lockheed Martin electrician, and an older brother to provide much of the care.
“It was almost like watching someone with a split personality,” she said. “Every afternoon, she’d pack her bag to go home. I didn’t argue with her. I’d put her in the car, drive around the circle and bring her back home and that would be it. When she needed to take a bath, to keep from arguing with her, I’d put a chair in the bathtub. She’d wash the baby doll and I’d bathe her. When all else failed, I’d ask if she wanted to go somewhere. She’d say yes and I’d tell her you gotta look pretty and she’d let me apply makeup.”
By 2002, Bennett was completely bedridden. That’s when Jones noticed her mother making sewing motions with her hands. Sensing she might be reliving her time making quilts, Jones started collecting quilting pieces for the two of them to sew.
“It was as if her whole life had been locked away somewhere, but when she saw me coming, her eyes lit up,” Jones said recently.
But Bennett’s condition continued to deteriorate, and the family made the hard decision to put her in a nursing home.
Jones was at home in Fairburn when one of her sisters called in the wee hours of Sept. 8, 2006.
“Mom is gone,” she told her.
“I said OK and hung up the phone,” Jones said. “I’d done my grieving, so it was OK. I didn’t want to talk anymore.”
They buried their mother soon thereafter, and less than a year later in 2007, their father, the Rev. Pernell Bennett Sr., passed.
Once a month, Jones returns to the family home.
“I let the windows up,” she said. “I sweep the floors. I dust. I turn the radio on. I go back and breathe in the house so it can live.”
It was the same way with the quilts when she was growing up, she said.
“After we used them in the winter, we washed them, folded them and put them between the mattresses and slept on them to keep them alive.”
If you’re wondering why she wanted to tell her story, the answer is simple. So it can live.