Quilts in Life


Summer had drawn to an end. The day’s sunlight shifted and appeared more umber as it cast its glow across fields of pumpkins, squash, peppers, and the last of the season’s melons. The patchwork colors in nature made me long for days when I could gather with women friends to quilt. It wasn’t about just sewing; don’t go imagining a group of old women sitting around a table doing needlework. These ladies were longtime friends and I felt honored to have been accepted into their group, being a relatively new transplant from Los Angeles to the country. These seven women were artists; their quilts were works of art in design and color combinations.

I was not new to sewing. Growing up, it seemed my mother was always sewing something. She even created her own patterns, and for a while, to make extra money in the 1950s, became a seamstress for I. Magnin, a luxury department store long defunct. Watching my mother was how I learned to pay attention to details like making sure stripes lined up and corners didn’t bunch. Quilting is all about detail work so whenever I sewed, inevitably I’d think of Mother. She had recently passed away and I wanted to create a quilt that represented her, that honored who she was to me.

Mother had been cremated; her ashes rested in a Greek-style urn, selected by my sister and placed on Mother’s antique upright piano, flanked by a stuffed Christmas moose and a white teddy bear. It bothered me. It was like she was stuck there with the rest of my sister’s clutter. But Mother wasn’t really in the urn. More than once she’d said, “If you can’t visit me when I’m alive, don’t bother when I’m dead. I won’t be in that dust.” She was like that, a realist, blunt, with an edge of sarcasm that cut like a dagger.

 

After visiting the family in Los Angeles, I took home several bags of her clothes and scraps of material. Mother recycled all her materials as long as they were not threadbare, so the outfits I brought home had a history.

“These are some really old prints,” Alice said as I brought Mother’s fabrics out and placed them on the table on quilting day.

Carol and Pat fingered through them. “What’s your pattern going to be?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Braids? Logs? Simple squares? How about bricks?”

“Bricks! I like that idea,” I said.

Ann squished up her nose. “That’s a lot of work. How big a brick?”

“Three inches?”

“That is a lot of work.” Carol and Pat said in unison.

“How big of a quilt?” Ann asked.

“Not too big.”

“I like the idea,” Alice said. She was native Karuk and felt each little piece would be like a prayer for my mother.

Alice’s prayer idea resonated with me.

And so Pat put on the coffee and everyone else pulled out cutting boards, irons, materials, cutting and measuring tools, power surge protectors, and finally their sewing machines. And I’m not talking about Singer sewing machines like my mother worked on, a tiny little black and gold one that sewed forward and backward. These ladies sewed with Bernina, Husqvarna, and Baby Lock – high-powered machines that did everything from sewing to quilting to embroidering, to telling you which foot to use, and beeped if you did something wrong.

Pretty soon the hum of sewing machines and the steady chatter and laughter of women filled the room. I fell into a trance while cutting rectangles of greens, pinks, blacks, yellows and shades in between. Mother was wearing this pale blue when I saw her in the kitchen the night before her surgery. She’d offered me coffee; when I said yes, but I’d make it, she waved me off saying, “I can do this. I’m not dead yet.” Scared as she was she still had bite. My dad just laughed and brought out some cookies to have with our coffee. He had no idea of the life-threatening surgery Mother was about to undergo. She had a huge cancerous tumor in her abdomen, and a growing aortic aneurism, which made surgery a high risk. My mother used to say Dad was like a water spider, always floating and never really engaging life. Now I understood what she meant.

I cut several different fabrics. “What do you think, ladies? Should I do rows of colors? Light to dark blue, then to greens? Or?

“I say be random,” said Pat.

The others agreed, and scattered the couple dozen rectangles I’d cut into haphazard rows.

I had to agree. Random looked better. Everything about being in the country taught me how to be less controlling. Certainly I couldn’t control weather or the speed with which the grass overgrew the meadow, or the food I attempted to grow in my garden; I was learning to dance with uncertainty and my quilt pattern was an example of my progress.

“Well, you better keep cutting then,” Carol said. “You have a long way to go. Let me see. For  not too big a quilt, say sixty-by-seventy or something, one-by-three inch square, with what? One-by-one inch squares to separate? You’ll need at least four hundred three inch squares and the same of the smaller squares.”

“Don’t sew late at night or after you’ve had a couple glasses of wine,” Pat said. “This is the kind of quilt that makes you go dizzy.”

“I say have the wine,” Ann said. “It’ll help you forget how slow going it is.”

We all laughed. I only had a little over three hundred rectangles to go, and four hundred connecting squares, but monotonous work is surprisingly therapeutic. It allows your mind to forget any worries and lets you wander down paths that will astonish you.

I found a piece of red polka dots on white – a scrap from a flamenco  dance costume Mother had made me for Halloween when I was ten. I loved that little dress and wore it with black tap shoes. Little wooden castanets completed my costume. Could fifty years really have passed since then? Then I found a red hibiscus print from a costume I needed for a Hawaiian dance show. There was even a purple and gold print used for a Balinese dance. Piece by piece I placed these memories in rows.

I floated along in my color thoughts, the energy of happy women around me. I cut a peachy-pink from the dress Mother wore at my wedding. I cut black and gold from a cotton evening dress she wore to a PTA dinner, purple from a formal sarong she wore to an Indonesian embassy dinner, and pale orange from the blouse she wore to the hospital that day, less than four months ago.

 

I awoke before dawn on the morning of Mother’s surgery. I had spent a restless night in my older sister’s study. The small room was cluttered; the windows were closed tight with the curtains pulled. At home I didn’t have curtains, and the windows were usually open until frosty nights forced them closed. I loved hearing the trees rustle in the wind and foxes barking, or watching daylight stretch across my bed. My sister’s study was dark and stuffy with the faint odor of litter boxes and dog fur.

I got up when I heard Mother come in through the back door. She hurried to me and pressed a small package into my hands. “Take this and keep it in your purse. The bracelets are for Jasmine and so is the money. It’s not much, a couple hundred dollars, but I never get to give her anything. The rings are for you. They’re my wedding rings.” Then she slipped off the one ring she always wore and handed it to me. “If I don’t make it out of surgery this is for you too.” It was my grandmother’s thin gold wedding band that she’d given my mother before she had passed.

I put it on, where it’s been ever since.

 

The next few prints I pulled from mother’s bag were batik. Not in the same fashion as batik today, the lovely swirling muted style of dye. These were traditional Indonesian style batik, a Lereng pattern of Central Java, images of shadow puppets, and floral patterns of East Java. They were Mother’s favorites from her youth and had they been original batik, I would not have cut them, but these were block dyed copies. Mother had given me the original antique dyed batiks a long time ago. They were in my cedar chest for safekeeping. To cut one of those would have been to cut a prayer.

 

The brown, black and white batik copies brought memories of Mother’s last stories. For three nights, while she recovered from surgery, I slept at the foot of her bed on a hospital cot. We talked about Indonesia, the war and her father dying as a POW. We talked about the past and about life’s hurts. We talked about broken dreams and destiny. We talked about promises and secrets.

 

“You made it through,” I said, handing her back grandmother’s wedding ring.

“You keep it,” she insisted. The look in her eyes was unsettling. “Please.”

“Mom, if you need me here, I can stay.”

“What can you do now? Either I get better or I don’t. You go home where you’re needed too.”

But the look in her eyes kept me holding her hand.

“I love you, kid.” She whispered, and her lower lip trembled ever so slightly

“I love you too, Mom.”

And that was the last time I saw her. The phone call came two months after her surgery. “Mother is gone,” my sister cried. “One minute she was in the kitchen taking her morning pills, the next minute the dog was barking and she was on the floor, dead.”

She must have lived her life right, I thought. She died the way she wanted to, of sound mind and quick.

 

“I hope you don’t plan to wash it,” Carol said. “All those old fabrics …”

 

She was right. I didn’t care. It was going to be more of a display quilt rather than one I used.

 

I was so pleased with the quilt that six months later, after I’d added a three inch trim of soft mauve flowers, a six-inch boarder of muted green paisley, backed it with a soft pink-leaf flannel, and finished hand quilting it, I thought it would be a special gesture if I made a memory for my two sisters. Nothing quite as elaborate as mine; some quilts are a beautiful adventure, but they are a personal adventure.

But the quilt and the scraps of mother’s clothes had left me feeling so close to my mother that I wanted to share that joy with my sisters. I decided to make table runners. Using fabric I knew my sisters would recognize as mother’s favorite outfits, I created my own patterns. I used identical materials, but different designs. For my younger sister who liked things Pollyanna perfect I made strips of fabric, sewing them into braids that pointed arrow-like in both directions. This I bordered with strips of traditional brown batik and backed the whole thing with batik of purple shadow-puppets. For my older sister who lived a lifestyle of champagne while on a beer budget, I made a design of crazy blocks. This, too, I trimmed with traditional batik and backed with the shadow-puppets. For my runner I made a combination of the two styles because as much as I would like to think of myself as vastly different from my sisters I have similar qualities. When I finished, I sent each sister her table runner with a picture I took of all three. And to be especially sentimental, I sent the runners to arrive on our mother’s birthday. I was excited!

Well so much for expectation. I didn’t get much of a response.

“Oh yes, we got them. Nice. Thanks. They’re made from mom’s old clothes? Glad you got some use out of them.”

 

 

Mediha F. Saliba has published two nonfiction books and one book of poetry, Holding Up the Moon. She has published poetry in Aurorean, Main Channel Voice, Seven Circle Press and Long Island Review as well as in magazines in Australia and Israel. She lives in Northern California with her husband.

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6 thoughts on “Quilts in Life

  1. Carole

    As a fellow quilter, I found your story to be a warm tribute to your mom. My mother who is 85 still occasionally quilts on a small stand-alone frame. I remember as a child playing under the quilting frame while my mom and aunts and their friends quilted over my head. That frame hung from the ceiling. Quilting is my joy and a passion which I do alone now. Since my retirement I try to rush through my chores so I can have more time to quilt. My sewing machine is much like your mothers – a really old Singer which only goes two directions. It makes a beautiful stitch and gets the job done.

  2. Dorothy Conlon

    Beautiful writing. Brave story.
    My own mother’s creativity resided primarily in knitting and quilting–machine made. Each quilt was a memory trip, as are the two that I grew brave enough to make myself, long after leaving home.
    The Indonesian facets of your story speak to me, as I have a chest full of Asian fabrics, including Indonesian batiks much too beautiful to carve up. Secret treasures I don’t know how to share.
    Thanks.

  3. Janet Barry

    Thank you for this well written memory. My mother passed a year ago, and my two sisters and I spent much time clearing out the house and all its memories. Mother was an artist, a quilter, a gem collector, and had many other creative skills. The house was full of her collections and works. It was interesting to me to see how each of us focused on different items which most resonated with our grief and memories. My older sister has some beautiful mineral specimens that remind her of the many “rockhunting” trips we took together as a family, and she made sure that the rest of the large collection went to someone who would appreciate it. I homed in on the art, and have original works that she did hanging in my home, which are not only excellent work but remind me of playing by the ocean as a child while Mother set up paints and easel. My younger sister has a collection of Pysanki, Ukrainian style decorated eggs, which she and Mother would spend time doing together.

    The length of my going on about this indicates the richness of thought which your fine essay triggered in me! Thank you.

  4. Lois Roelofs

    Lovely story. Helped me understand friends of mine for whom quilting is dear. I have quilts my mother-in-law machine sewed, one with fabrics I used in my sewing days years ago. I love the memories they evoke.

  5. nancy

    Pleasing and disturbing all at once. I feel it deeply. It is not something I want to venture in too deeply for it is hangs for me close to the heart.

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