Stitching Cousins

“Cousins are connected, heart to heart.

Distance and time can’t break them apart.” –Anonymous

Most of my cousins live in Iowa where they farm, teach school, staff offices, and raise vegetables in gardens. But one of our riotous clan took root in Malawi, African soil. Time and distance separated us.

My older cousin, Byron Jeys, grew up in Le Mars, Iowa, graduated from Westmar College, served as a Ranger in the Army, then joined the Peace Crops. His assignment was to facilitate the creation of a vocational program for Malawi. “He helped people learn to live with their disabilities and find meaningful work,” according to Rosemary Radloff, his sister. “Polio seemed to be the biggest disability they had.”

After several hitches in the Peace Corps, Byron returned to Malawi and taught for 15 years at Phwezi Boys School. Educational opportunities were available for only a fraction of the children in this country. The schools had no desks, no chairs, few texts. The book-to-student ratio was 30:1. The students sat on piles of dirt and learned through auditory methods.


During this time, Byron built the Caleb Library and all the cousins sent books to fill the shelves. His students enjoyed the nature and science books as well as biographies. I sent copies of the books used for Black History Month here in the Chicago area. The Malawi students read them and commented:  “So that is what happened to those taken from our village.”

Byron engineered roads, bridges, and a pipeline to help the people of the village get fresh water. By planting 25,000 coffee and 200 macadamia trees, he is on a mission of reforestation and he has transformed a burnt-out area of his Mawingomara Farm. A former Boy Scout, Byron conducts his life on the laws of being trustworthy, helpful, cheerful, and brave. He has made a difference in the lives of the African people and was awarded the Nation Achiever Award from the government of Malawi.

As the country suffered economic hardship, the Aids crisis, flooding and famine, Byron’s letters bared his grieving soul. Our cousin arms longed to hug our distant relative and wrap him in the family’s love. “A cousin is a little bit of childhood that can never be lost,” according Marion Garretty. We wanted Byron to remember us and the good times at Grandma’s house.

That’s when we decided to make a quilt.

Each cousin chose her own fabric, and stitched a chain of eight squares measuring thirty-two inches. The variety of designs, including musical novelty cloth, created a statement of our family in woven messages. All of the strips were mailed to my house, and then the fun began.

Wil, the oldest of the cousins, and his quilter-wife, Lois, came to help with the design layout and the stitching.

Wil and Lois

My sewist daughter, Rene’, assisted in the process. Soon, the body of the quilt had been constructed with a sky blue band around the edge like a frame.


While going through her stash of fat quarters, my cousin, Janeen, came across yards of feed sack material that had been sewn into six inch wide strips and neatly folded. During the Great Depression, my mother and her sisters gathered postage stamp sized remnants from sewing projects and stitched them together over months, maybe even years. Putting those legacy pieces around the border symbolized a hug from one generation to the next. The quilt reflected the pride and love of so many for Byron.

We tied the quilt together with embroidery thread, working at the corners of each square. The comforter was delivered by a cousin, Maralyn, and her husband, Ed, when they trekked to Malawi to visit with Byron. The village people had never seen a “pieced-together blanket” for the chilly evenings. It became a real conversation starter and ice breaker for Maralyn and Ed.

Byron sitting on the quilt in Malawi

Cousins find the thread that binds, and pull it through the fabric of life. That thread connects the legacy of the family with all its scrappy pieces as well as the intricate embroidery. Its final knot captures all the loving memories.

“A real cousin is someone who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” –Proverb

Photo credits:


  1. Nicely told! I remember making the quilt. I was happy to donate the vintage postage- stamp border pieced by my mother and the Thompson sisters. I remember taking the quilt to Malawi in 2001 in a duffle bag full of gifts and donations for him. He was very pleased to have that touch of home in his little cottage. My students at Emerald High School in Greenwood, SC were instrumental in starting Caleb Library after our son Caleb Jeremiah died in 2002. There is more information on Byron’s life in Malawi and the library as well as my own life in Ukraine at my website. Thanks for the lovely walk down memory lane! – Ginn, In Sunny SC

  2. Beautiful story, Cleo. I love how the quilt turned out.

  3. Byron was a neighbor to my family in LeMars,Ia. I was a young bride and then a mother as the Jeys children became young adults. Wanda, the mother was the sweetest friend and counselor to me. I have maintained a facebook relationship with Virginia, who played with with my boys. Through her I have learned something of Byron’s work, but your story filled in so many things I did not know. May God continue to bless him and the work he is doing there. Each of those children have lived lives that deserve acknowledgment. Thank you for sharing this story. I am involved in making quilts for Lutheran World Relief. Not sure where they go, but perhaps some have made their way to Malawi.

  4. Wonderful!! Cleo what a sweet story!
    I am keeping this quilt as Byron gave it to me the time he left Malawi for the USA back in 2013. It is in safe hands and I believe that one day friends and family from abroad would come and look at it. It is a precious treasure for the Jeys family and I am keeping it for them.

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