Local Lifestyle

Saturday, Jul 13 2013 12:00 PM

HERB BENHAM: Quilter covers tornado victims with warmth

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Pauline Best uses a quilting machine to sew all the pieces of a quilt together. She started quilting when she was 11 years old by helping her mother.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Char Hill, left, Pauline Best's daughter, shows one of the quilts that will be donated to tornado victims. The quilt depicts the animals of Noah's Ark as they walk a trail to the ark.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Pauline Best works on a quilt for tornado victims.

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    "Lord, I can't build them a house but I can make them a quilt," said Pauline Best after hearing about the devastation from the tornados in Oklahoma. Best has been sewing and will donate 50 quilts for victims of the Oklahoma tornados.

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

They don't make them like Pauline Best anymore. Not without a Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the death of your husband when your children are 10, 6, 3 and 4 months old.

Best -- Cherokee, Choctaw and Irish -- is 80 but you wouldn't know it if you watched her in her 24- foot-by-24-foot sewing room built on the back of her house. She spends her days quilting. If you visit, and Best is open-armed about company, don't fall in love with one of her quilts and try to sweet talk her into giving or selling you one.

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"One woman walked into her trailer and saw the quilts on the bed, started crying and said, 'Somebody loved me enough to make me a quilt.'"

-- Pauline Best

She won't. That's not the way she grew up in Arkansas or later in Buttonwillow, where her family moved to escape hard times (she sat on an apple crate in the Studebaker on the drive west). She's lived off a dirt road in Rosedale for 50 years.

"God created everybody with two hands and a head -- they can use them," Best said. "I make quilts for people in need rather than those with their hands out."

Best, with some help from her daughter, Char, is on the backside of sewing 50 quilts for the victims of the recent tornado in Moore, Okla. She's not making quilts because she has to or been told to but because she has a heart for people who are going through hard times. She's seen hard times herself.

"My husband died when he was 36," she said. "We got help from neighbors with raising the kids, from farmers who let us scrap their fields and allowed us to take some of the broken hay bales for our livestock."

Best is a quilt-making machine. A quilt-making machine with a beating heart. When she is in gear, and the ladies from church haven't come by to visit, she can turn out seven quilts a day.

"These are not heirloom quality," she said, "but when it gets cold, these quilts will keep you warm."

She knows this because her security blankets or "binkies" have wrapped sick children at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis (Best's niece had cancer and was a patient there).

Best made 246 quilts for the residents of Biloxi, Miss., after Hurricane Katrina and another 80 for people in Joplin, Mo., after the tornado in 2011.

"I can't build them a house, but I can make them a bed," she said.

Best wanted to meet the people in Joplin to whom she was giving blankets so she loaded up a trailer and drove them cross-country herself.

"I wanted to hand them to people," she said. "One teenage boy squeezed me so hard it hurt. I didn't dare holler because I knew he was expressing his gratitude.

"One woman walked into her trailer and saw the quilts on the bed, started crying and said, 'Somebody loved me enough to make me a quilt.'"

Family lived lean

Best is retired from the post office. She was a clerk and the postmaster in Tupman (think Taft). With the $5,000 she received from New York Life after her husband's death, she paid off her house, her '63 GMC truck and the grocery bills. Best's job at the post office paid the bills after that.

Her family lived lean, but not hungry. They raised a garden and had pigs, chickens and cows. Best made clothes for her children. These weren't made from gunnysacks either.

"When styles changed and colors got brighter, Pauline made more stylish clothes," said her daughter, Char. "I don't think I had store-bought clothes until I was married and it wasn't as if I missed them."

Best taught her children to sew. Sew and quilt.

"I told them they'd never get rich doing it," Best said, "but if they were willing to work, they wouldn't starve either."

After Best retired in 1990, she traveled to Arkansas to buy a used quilting machine for $900.

With help from Brother Shipley, the pastor at her church, family and friends, she built the cozy sewing room in the back of her house. Best poured the cement, wired the room and made some of the cabinets herself. There is little she can't do, hasn't done or won't tackle.

Best has a quilter, two sergers, two Singer sewing machines and an enormous six-foot-by-12-foot table. Shelves are filled with bolts of cloth -- solid colors, prints, checks, stripes and every color in the rainbow. Verses from Proverbs 31 (10 through 31), handwritten on newsprint, are pasted to the north wall.

These proverbs detail the attributes of a virtuous wife or ideal woman. Next to God, Best may be the best person to ask about this subject. She's never stolen anything (except one banana as a child) and never tasted a drop of liquor.

If producing a mountain of quilts for those in need isn't enough to prove her virtue, Best donates platelets, judges the food and home arts categories at the Kern County Fair and plays her Gibson Hummingbird guitar in two different retirement homes on Sunday afternoons.

If you visit, don't bother knocking at her front door. Best's in the back doing what she calls "practicing." Working, creating, quilting and using the gift she was given -- her own two capable hands.

Monday, Best sent 45 quilts to Moore, Okla. Anybody interested in donating new sheets, quilt tops, quilt linings, quilt blocks, quilts that Aunt Sarah or Grandma started but didn't finish or maybe the "uglies" you made yourself but don't like, contact Pauline at 589- 3768.

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