This is a true account of an 84-year-old woman who achieved a degree of notoriety after age 80. This achievement was unplanned and resulted from her engaging in an activity purely for the pleasure of doing something to benefit another person. Doing for others is second nature to Lori and has been a defining characteristic throughout her adult life.
Physiological and Safety Needs
Born in 1923 to parents from the first generation of African Americans not born into slavery, Lori grew up on a farm in the rural eastern Piedmont area of North Carolina. She was fortunate in that her parents encouraged their children to pursue an education. Lori completed high school and received further training at the local National Youth Administration, a New Deal program, which was one of President Roosevelt’s initiatives to rebuild the nation’s economy after the Great Depression.
Lori married and settled into the life of a farmer’s wife. (Sixty-four years later, she continues to live with her husband.) She worked on the farm and supplemented the family income with earnings she received from sewing for others. After raising four children, she became a certified nursing assistant at age 50. This enabled Lori to work outside of the home for the first time in her married life and was the fulfillment of her lifetime dream of becoming a nurse. She retired at age 62, having undergone multiple surgeries for joint replacements, spinal fusions, and other arthritis-related conditions.
When her life became sedentary as a result of mobility problems, her need for esteem building became evident. Always frugal, Lori had saved leftover fabric (“scraps”) from the many years of sewing. When physical deterioration forced her to give up most of her social activities, she saw an opportunity to do something with the accumulated scraps: She began making simple quilts for family and friends. Gradually, Lori began tackling more complex patterns, and the quilts became eagerly expected gifts to each family member.
In 2002, Lori was introduced to Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Revolution (Tobin & Dobard, 1999), a book about the efforts to learn the secret code of quilt patterns used as a means of communication for the Underground Railroad. The quilt patterns that made up the code were included in the book. Lori decided to make a wall hanging that included these patterns as a gift to her daughter, who introduced her to the book. Each pattern made a square, and 12 squares completed the wall hanging. When the project was completed, each of her other children insisted on having a wall hanging. Each grandchild then had to have his or her own, and so did nieces, nephews, brothers, and friends. The demand for wall hangings increased as each recipient displayed the project. Because the quilt code consisted of 11 squares and the wall hanging required 12 squares, Lori revealed a long-hidden creativity by personalizing the 12th square for the intended recipient. A married couple may find interlocking rings with their names embroidered in the 12th square. One can only imagine the delight of an attorney when he saw the scale of justice embroidered in the 12th square or a physician seeing the medical caduceus.
Eventually, the editor of a regional monthly magazine featured Lori in an article about the story of the Underground Railroad quilt code in the February 2003 issue for Black History Month (Gery, 2003). As soon as the magazine reached subscribers, Lori was flooded with telephone calls, letters, and requests for wall hangings. Letters came from the North Carolina towns of Murphy to Manteo, the Midwest, most of the states along the eastern seaboard, and throughout the United States. Many letters came from older women who told of their widowhood, loss of ability to engage in activities, and their joy in seeing an older adult featured in a magazine. They identified with Lori’s discussion of her arthritis and praised her for her fortitude, despite her age and age-related problems. The outpouring from the elderly population emphasized the reality that older adults are rarely featured in the media today.
Lori was in no way prepared for the continuing effects of her story. Invitations to speak and make presentations at Black History Month events were too numerous to even consider accepting, but she accepted those she could. This launched her into a new endeavor: public speaking. Lori had always been a “behind-the-scenes” person because of minor difficulty she has pronouncing some words. But with much encouragement from her family, she presented the story of the Underground Railroad quilt codes and displayed her wall hanging with full explanations of each square. Initially, Lori was reluctant to walk on stage with her quad cane and assistance from another person; she feared this would be a turn-off to the audience. In reality, audience members who, like her, relied on assistive devices for mobility, were greatly inspired by the sight. Older adults marveled over familiar quilt patterns holding such historic significance. Young people listened intently to the story and asked how they could learn to quilt.
In the following months, evidence of the effects of Lori’s story grew. She received a large manila envelope from a fifth-grade teacher containing letters from each student in the class sharing with Lori which square was his or her favorite and why. The students had crafted their favorite squares, and the teacher had sewn all of the squares together to form a quilt. A photograph of the class holding the quilt was also included. A middle school teacher shared that she had incorporated the story and the quilt patterns into a geometry lesson with her class.
The President of the Eta Phi Beta Sorority Commends Lori for Her Work Crafting Underground Railroad Quilts.Photo Credit: Charlena Garrison.
Significant recognition has come to this octogenarian. A national business organization presented her with an Unsung Hero Award. Requests from local, regional, and state home extension groups have brought her into contact with many state officials across North Carolina. One of her wall hangings was donated to the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum and was presented personally to President Carter during a Black History Month celebration. It still hangs in the library.
Not anticipating the many requests for her wall hangings, Lori’s only regret related to this project is that she did not keep track of how many hangings she made from the beginning. She estimates that she has made more than 200. Perhaps the greatest gift to Lori has been a renewed spirit, a new lease on life. Coming at a time when arthritis pain ravaged her body and giving up was constantly on her mind, the realization that she had something to offer has been an incentive to keep pushing. In addition, concentrating on each project serves as a diversion from the constant discomfort that is a major part of her life.
Maslow (1954) described self-actualized individuals such as Lori as reality centered, or having the ability to differentiate what is fake and dishonest from what is real and genuine. Another term Maslow used was problem centered, meaning the individual treats life’s difficulties as problems demanding solutions, as opposed to personal troubles to be railed at or surrendered to. He also used the phrase unhostile sense of humor—preferring joking at one’s own expense or about the human condition, rather than directing humor at others. As Lori discussed the journey of her life, she shared humorous incidents with which her audience could identify, prompting them to laugh at themselves.
Another quality of a self-actualized person is acceptance of self and others. When Lori’s story was published, it included a statement that incorrectly named a university where author Jacqueline Tobin had spoken. One subscriber wrote an unusually inflammatory letter to the editor, suggesting that the validity of the story was questionable because of this error. Initially, Lori was disturbed by the criticism, but after considering her life experiences with people of all personalities, she was able to accept the criticism and move on. There were occasional efforts from audience members to discredit her message of the Underground Railroad quilt codes, but she always responded with grace and ease, sharing that this was just “[her] story as [she] had come to understand it.”
Self-actualized individuals have a sense of humility and respect toward others, human kinship, and a freshness of appreciation. These experiences enable individuals to be creative, inventive, and original. These individuals tend to have more peak experiences than the average person does (Maslow, 1954). As Lori shared her story, she spoke of her humble life, giving credit to her creator, family, and friends. She frequently expressed her awareness that she is not unique in the human race and that her talents and abilities fall short of greatness. Yet, she has been willing to tell “her story” simply for the pleasure and inspiration it may give to others. The experiences she had learning about the Underground Railroad and the related history of her race and her country are precious memories to her. They continue to inspire her to seek an understanding of the unique character of those for whom she makes wall hangings and enable her to personalize each piece.
Lori epitomizes the self-actualized person as described by Maslow. Having satisfied her basic human needs, Lori has been able to progress in her personal growth to the point that she continues to fulfill her potential, inspiring other older adults with her strength, commitment, and vitality.