Celebration of Life — Dottie McGee

Dottie McGee & Lisa Witzenburg USP Walk of Fame

Surprisingly, unexpectedly, my friend Dottie died on May 13th. Last fall, she introduced me for my induction into the USP Walk of Fame and her portrayal of me was so honoring I was humbled and misty-eyed. That night, she doted on me, was my personal paparazzi and let me be a diva.  And when I showed her how I created a shrug out of a pair of glittery pants I bought for $3 at the thrift store, we both laughed so hard we cried and…well…it’s a good thing the pants were across my shoulders.  She loved the out-of-the ordinary and egged me on the rest of the evening to show people my dazzling, ‘designer shrug’–each time laughing more heartily.  For me, she had made it a grand and special evening. 

So, when I was asked to speak at Dottie’s Celebration of Life service I readily agreed, but didn’t know how I could honor a woman who had sown into my life and so many others…I only knew a piece of her.  Finally, the words, stories and images came together, and this is what I shared:

One cold November, decades ago, I was in the McGee kitchen, talking with Dottie—oh the talking that went on in that kitchen. Maggie had gotten home from school and was still in the pilgrim costume that Dottie had made for her. In the midst of our conversation, Maggie put some bubble wrap on the floor and started jumping on it popping it loudly. Dottie just threw back her head and laughed. And I thought…I like this family.

There was a lot of laughter in that kitchen—and contemplation—and of course cooking. The food she made and served with a loving je ne sais quoi, always warmed and filled you. She also served up heaping amounts of encouragement that had a way of warming you, filling you up–heart and soul. Sage advice and wisdom–Dottie had a way of instilling in you her depth of knowledge–without you even knowing it.

Around the corner from the McGee kitchen is the den–intimate and cozy. On the wall over the desk is a framed quilt and without prompting, Dottie would tell you the story of the quilt from Mike’s great, great, great…grandmother, wistfully but with a twinkle in her eye, because that’s how you share about a quilt.

Quilts and costumes; fabric and food were a constant in Dottie’s life and we were all recipients of these creative passions. When I contemplate the amount of thread that traversed between those skilled hands I’m dumfounded in wondering how many times it would encircle the earth. She was capable of mentally cataloging thousands (tens of thousands) of costumes, props and accessories for the greater Pella area…I call it: The Dottie Decimal System. She could tell you who donated it, who wore it and who stunk it up the most–and she would throw her had back and laugh.

She had a passion for the past–loved genealogy–and the stories that went along with it. Dottie had a way of incorporating the past into the present, whether it was by using authentic 1950s clothes for a Shakespearean play performed in the 21st Century or allowing an actress to use her grandmother’s unfinished needlework as a prop. Thoroughly thrilled that the past, and the accompanying story, was used and active in the present.

In Dottie’s sewing room, there’s another quilt. Many years ago in the midst of cancer, her children surprised her with a healing quilt made up of blocks designed by family and friends. A few months ago, I was in the sewing room and Dottie was eager to show me how she had embellished the quilt with her own special touches. She deftly traced the blocks with her finger (it seemed as if she were actually touching the person)…telling me their story, the fabric, the life behind the block–wistfully and with a twinkle in her eye. A quilt, like life, isn’t static–it’s dynamic, with its purpose evolving over time.

In the musical Quilters, the matriarch is much like our Dottie–seen as an anchor a woman who can make beauty out of creative chaos. At the end of the show, this matriarch bequeaths her life quilt, instructing, “I leave this, the work of my hands to you, with all my love and blessings. May it bring as much joy and comfort in the using of it, as it brought me in the making of it. I want you to take it and keep it, and pass it along…show it to your friends and family…and tell them the stories that are in it.”

Dottie’s life quilt was a series of interrelated events and people–beautiful, harsh, challenging, tender and abiding. Through her creativity and perseverance, she pieced those events and relationships together with love and stitched them with care…making her life a colorful mosaic of comfort and joy. Dottie is a piece of our lives, a block in our life quilt with stories that must be passed along and told.

In a little while, we’ll be going over to Kruidenier to continue to celebrate the life of Dottie McGee with food! There will be an opportunity for you to write the story of how Dottie is part of the fabric of your life. In closing, I’d like to read the instructions that I received years ago for the healing quilt–with a few changes in wording it can be used as a guide for the story block that you write to provide a healing quilt for Dottie’s family.

     As you all know, our mom is going through some tough times right now. We (kids) have been talking about how to give her a little lift when she’s most down, and this is our plan: We would like to make a healing quilt for Dottie, with quilt squares from everyone who loves her; we will piece them all together as a quilt and give it to her. This will be very meaningful to her and she will probably use it everyday.
     For the fabric of the squares, please choose one that is meaningful to you or Dottie. It could be fabric from something that Dottie made for you, that was special to you, or from something in your home, or just something that inspires you. Just make sure that you sign the square so that Dottie knows who made it.
     Mom has touched so many people with her generosity and love that we are sure we kids won’t know all of you!!

Pieces of Lives…

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