When she first saw it, Patricia Dalton Muhlethaler had no idea an old quilt would lead her to a tiny town in Washington for a reunion with distant cousins she had never known.
“All these little magical things just seemed to happen that I didn’t expect,” Muhlethaler said while sitting in the dining room of her Arroyo Grande home, a family album splayed out in front of her. “It was great fun.”
It all started when Muhlethaler was going through her mother’s belongings after her death and found a quilt top (it lacks the backing necessary to call it a full quilt) with a hodgepodge of patches sewn across it.
Her grandmother, Ida Starkey, was among the carefully embroidered names dotting the piece.
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Another patch said 1894, the year the quilt was likely made. The final said “Pine City” — a small town in the Palouse region of Washington state where Starkey grew up after immigrating to the United States from Switzerland in 1888.
Though she was fascinated by the quilt and its history, Muhlethaler said she was unsure of what she wanted to do with it.
“I was interested, but my kids weren’t, and I didn’t know what to do with it,” Muhlethaler said. “I value it, but it wasn’t something I wanted to just keep wrapped up forever. And then years passed.”
Finally, she got a lucky break when, while at a former classmate’s memorial in Southern California, someone mentioned a relative who owned a quilt shop in Spokane, Washington, only an hour away from Pine City.
All these little magical things just seemed to happen that I didn’t expect.
Patricia Dalton Muhlethaler, Arroyo Grande
Muhlethaler called the quilt shop, and she was put in contact with a woman named Terri Johnson Brown, who hailed from the region and had even gone to school with Starkeys.
“Oh my gosh, this was just magical, that I happened to get her name,” Muhlethaler said. “We got all excited. And then I learned about cousins up there I was not aware of. They were on the family tree, but they were just names to me.”
From there, the family connections came pouring in, and soon Muhlethaler found herself traveling to Washington for a family reunion in August.
At the reunion, she was introduced to a handful of relatives she had never met before, as well as reuniting with some she hadn’t seen since she was younger. And everyone was fascinated by the story of the 123-year-old quilt that sparked their reunion.
“It brought these cousins together,” she said. “They enjoyed seeing each other; it was as much about them all seeing each other after many years of not seeing each other, as I was to see and meet all of them.”
Beside bringing the long-separated family together, Muhlethaler said it also renewed her interest in her family’s history, and she urged others to talk to their families for similar stories while they can.
“If you have any questions of your grandmother, start asking, because there were years I could have asked her,” she said. “I never thought to ask her about these things. I guess when you are young, you’re just a little more egocentric and you just don’t think about asking. But jeez, I could just kick myself.”