Kindred spirits share happiness, heartache

Photo Special to the Sentinel: Cynthia McLelland is shown in March at a Texas quilt retreat, one of her favorite getaways. She was working on a quilt kit that she had recently purchased at the Dallas Quilt Show.

Photo Special to the Sentinel: Tonya Ratcliff of Combine, Texas, was Cynthia McLelland’s best friend and a fellow quilter. She spoke at the early April memorial services for Cynthia and her husband, Mike McLelland, who were gunned down in their home on Easter weekend. He was the Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney. Ratcliff, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy, serves as the Kaufman County Tax Assessor/Collector.

Photo Special to the Sentinel: A quilt made by Cynthia McLelland is displayed next to a flag-draped casket that held her ashes and the body of her husband, Mike, at their April 5 funeral in Wortham, Texas. The family wanted the quilt at the service to commemorate Cynthia’s favorite hobby.

As quilters, we share a common language. You’ll often hear us chatting about fat quarters, freezer paper and feed dogs — all part of the vernacular.

But more important than those items integral to our hobby are the friendships we forge.

Never was there a more touching example of that than the relationship between two Texas quilters, Cynthia McLelland and Tonya Ratcliff.

Tragically, McLelland, 65, and her husband, Mike, 63, the district attorney for Kaufman County, were shot and killed in their home, 20 miles east of Dallas, on Easter weekend.

Ratcliff considered Cynthia McLelland her best friend.

“I’m just now getting so I can talk about Cynthia without crying,” says Ratcliff, who met her quilting buddy nine years ago during a quilt retreat.

At an April 4 memorial service for the McLellands, Ratcliff spoke about her friend and their shared enjoyment of patchwork. A quilt made by Cynthia was displayed next to a flag-draped coffin in the First Baptist Church, where the couple smiled lovingly from a large portrait on an easel.

Striking in its deep green and burgundy colors, the quilt’s white squares highlighted the pieced design. It commemorated Cynthia’s favorite pastime. The casket beside it held her ashes and Mike’s body, ensuring the two would be together forever. A family funeral and burial followed the next day in Wortham, his hometown.

Sadly, Cynthia McLelland had been scheduled to teach the second half of a class on “Log Cabin Hearts” at the 2 Sisters Quilt Shoppe in Kaufman the day after that, April 6. Exactly a week before the shooting, she led the first class on March 23.

I spoke a few days later with Bonnie Delay, who works at the shop, where Cynthia spent a good deal of her time. Delay says the original quilt of log cabin hearts still hangs right where it had been, on the wall directly behind the shop’s cash register. The shop owner hopes eventually another quilter might offer to teach the final portion of Cynthia’s class.

“If there was ever anything that symbolized Cynthia, it was heart,” says Cathy Spurlock, owner of 2 Sisters. “And she had a huge one.”

Ratcliff describes her friend as an “encourager, helping people who were hesitant, helping them see that they could do whatever they aspired to do.”

She and McLelland were active in the Kaufman Quilt Guild, as are two of McLelland’s sisters, Ratcliff says. The membership numbers about 65.

According to guild President Billie Mohr, Ratcliff and McLelland spent a good deal of time together.

“Where you saw one of them, you saw the other as well,” she says.

The pair just “clicked” when they met, Ratcliff says, and they often tried new quilting techniques together.

“Most recently, she was at my house and we were learning how to do English paper piecing,” Ratcliff recalls.

McLelland primarily preferred piecing her quilts and often chose batik fabrics and “lots of reds,” Ratcliff recounts. Many of her creations were given to others, although Ratcliff remembers one in particular, with many cloth houses on it that decorated the couple’s dining room.

Committed to her home and family, McLelland also worked as a psychiatric nurse at Teller State Hospital. Both she and her husband started their careers as clinical psychologists.

The McLellands were known for their close relationship, as if their emotions were in constant sync. They always held hands when they were together, Ratcliff says, and Cynthia never said a negative word about her husband.

“They were a joy to watch,” Ratcliff says, telling of a joint vacation with the couple to Virginia Beach and Colonial Williamsburg. “A real love story.”

As the metro Dallas area grieves for the McLellands, another husband-wife duo has been arrested in their murders. Eric and Kim Williams are accused of the McLellands’ deaths, and that of Mark Hasse, one of Mike McLelland’s prosecutors, two months earlier. The motive appears to have been revenge against the two prosecutors for aggressively securing a theft conviction against Eric Williams, who then lost his law license and his elected position as justice of the peace.

Cynthia McLelland’s daughter, Christina Foreman, said at the memorial service that the couple “loved every minute” of their public service. She challenged members of the audience to stand up for their beliefs and not to let fear “stop us from doing the right thing.”

Her brave words hearten those across Texas, as well as the entire nation, as we falter under the spate of senseless death and devastation.

For Ratcliff and others who loved quilter Cynthia McLelland, her memory lives on in her fabric and patterns. Her family has asked members of the Kaufman Quilt Guild to finish the stitching projects McLelland had started.

“We are happy to do that,” says Ratcliff, sharing one more sentimental vignette.

“Cynthia quilted in her living room, about 2 feet from her husband, and she had a little table set up with her iron nearby.

“When Mike thought she’d done enough for one evening, he’d say, ‘Cynthia, it’s time to put the scissors down.’”

Now in death, it’s like she’s “put the scissors down for the last time,” says her best quilting friend.

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