Home: May Kelman, A Wonderful Life One Stitch at a Time

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May Kelman. Ann Chwatsky photo

By Nancy Remkus

“Our lives are like quilts – bits and pieces, joy and sorrow, stitched with love.” — Unknown

At 103, I am going to venture a guess, May Kelman is the most senior member of the Sag Harbor community. And at 75, when some folks might contemplate abandoning their hobbies, May began a new one and has created an amazing legacy, one stitch at a time.

Quilting, many would contend, is much more than putting needle to fabric; it is not only an art form but also a testament to one’s personal life journey. Linking creative vision with love and purpose, each quilt tells a story of faith, hope and history.

May has created dozens of beautiful quilts that will be celebrated at the Temple Adas Israel, the oldest synagogue on Long Island, and May is its eldest member. The Temple will host an opening event for this exhibit on Sunday, December 10, from 2 until 4 p.m. “I hope everyone in Sag Harbor comes,” mused May’s daughter Edi. This show will feature stunning and original pieces such as “Menorahs in the Windows.” Celebrating the Festival of Lights, this special blue and gold Hanukkah quilt is octagonal in shape. Starting on the upper right, each day is symbolized by a corresponding number of gold lame flames. The candle theme is repeated around the quilt. Mrs. Kelman gifted “Menorahs in the Windows” to Temple Adas Israel in 1995. Some of the quilts will be on display from December 10 to January 15, but many more will be shown at the opening event on December 10. Some of the larger quilts will be draped over the pews in the historic sanctuary. The Eastern Long Island Quilters Guild, of which May has been a very active member, will also be helping with the show. Ann Chwatsky, curator of the Temple Adas Israel Gallery Space, is excited to share the “fineness of May’s unique and beautiful quilts,” she said, with the community. The Temple is located on 30 Atlantic Avenue in Sag Harbor.

May and Irving Kelman moved to Sag Harbor from Brooklyn in 1946. Irving, a dentist, was able to purchase a practice on Washington Street. The Kelmans raised their four children, Michael, Bob, Edi and Peter, in Sag Harbor, and each graduated from Pierson High School. “Mom and Dad had a really special relationship. Most importantly they were committed to each other. Between the two of them, they covered all the bases,” said May.

I have wanted to write about May Kelman for some time now, but she said she felt that there was nothing remarkable about her life, and she declined. I asked her to consider the fact that she has lived to be 103 as being remarkable, but she insisted that plainly living a long life was not at all noteworthy. I wanted a chance to sit down with her and listen to her stories, but I respected her privacy and I moved on. Then hearing about her quilt show, I imagined this might be a perfect time to highlight this wonderful life, and her daughter Edi helped bring this to fruition.

There is amazing energy when Edi speaks of her mother — there are so many feelings and memories, thoughts and ideas, affection and admiration that each sentence overflows with abundance and love. It isn’t just May’s perfect award-winning stitches or gourmet cooking or the fact that she completed the New York Times crossword puzzle every day “in ink;” it is also that she has brought her very best to each endeavor, whether it was knitting, quilting, cooking or her most treasured vocation — parenting. “My mother has always been the core, the cement, the lens that keeps the family cohesive and caring,” remarked Edi.

“Menorahs in the Windows,” a quilt by May Kelman celebrating the Festival of Lights. Courtesy photo

I for one seem to always want to know the secret formula, or the key, or just some unsolicited advice to centenarian’s longevity, and so I asked…. Edi laughed and said that her mother doesn’t like that question, but May credits much of it to “Sag Harbor’s water and air.” She went on to say that her mother learned to be an extraordinary cook and used all local ingredients: “everything fresh from the sea and from the land. She has always been very active physically as well and taught us all to swim at Long Beach at a very early age.” May has stayed very engaged in life; reading the New York Times every day, she’s never stopped learning and has always been well informed.

When asked what brought May to quilting, Edi shared that her mother was always knitting and sewing. “When we were growing up here, we had more severe winters. It was very exciting to us. We skated all the time on the local ponds, and my mom would knit us the most intricate skating sweaters. Each year she’d sew our Halloween costumes. She made curtains, tablecloths and cushions for the house. She had very high standards. Then her friend ‘Boots’ Benfield invited her to join a weekly quilting group. Quilting appealed to her sensibilities and her attraction to precision and patterns, good design and color. She loves color.” The meticulousness of the hand stitching and the imaginative choice of color and pattern make May’s quilts masterpieces. In fact, May has completed two Master quilts.

I had an opportunity to speak with May’s son, Bob, a recently retired lawyer who lives in Chicago. He, too, speaks straight from his heart when talking about his mother. “She’s such a wonderful woman. Everyone that’s ever met her thinks so. Everyone wants her opinion, which is always either right, more right or really right. She is spot-on, beautiful inside and out.” When reflecting on the way his mom has handled tough times such as the loss of her husband and her eldest son, Bob reflects, “Mom has an amazing ability to adapt. She doesn’t set her jaw when something challenging happens. It’s like she goes into her phone booth and comes back out knowing exactly how to handle the situation in a tactful way. My father was a wonderful, smart and ethical man, considerate and gentle. My father was special, but my mother is unique. They raised us in an atmosphere in which learning was special and with the expectation that we do well in school. And we all did.”

I visited the music store the other day to check the action on my guitar and to get a new set of strings. I laughed with the technician wondering how long I would continue to play the guitar; is there a time you just put it down and never pick it up again? But what an inspiration it is to know that at the age of 75 or 80 or beyond, we don’t need to put our interests and our hobbies to rest. If we are able, we can look to the sunrise and not spend our time anticipating the sunset. Out there lies the opportunity to begin something new and wonderful, just like May did.

At 103 she likes to sit in her bay window overlooking Sag Harbor Cove. This is the place she reads the Times, finishes her crossword puzzle and sews her intricate stitches. This is the place she calls “Shangri-La.” This is the place she calls “home.” And on December 10, our community is invited to celebrate May Kelman’s legacy: the beautiful quilts she has stitched with love. L’Chaim May Kelman; we are grateful that you call Sag Harbor HOME.

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