Quilt No. 91
It’s been over fifty years since my grandmother died, and I’m not sure if I remember her face or if it’s just the photos of her that have planted themselves in my memories. I was six years old at the time. Some memories are clear – the green canvas hammock stretched between the poplar trees in the “park” at the side of her house. There was an old enamel stove abandoned on the walkway that led to the outhouse, a rock garden, a rain barrel, a pump house, and a hen house sheltering beady-eyed chickens who might peck me to death...or not. She always wore a dress. Probably what I remember the best is the fabric of those dresses.
I’ve thought about her a lot over the years. We shared, well almost shared, a lot of interests – things like playing the piano and quilting. A quilt top that she had completed but never had a chance to make into a finished quilt was eventually passed on to me, the only quilter in the family. Many years ago I sandwiched her quilt top with batting and backing and tried to quilt it. It was my very first attempt at finishing a large quilt and I didn’t get very far with it. I packed my botched attempt away in a box for over twenty years while I thought about what I should do with it.
I finally rescued it a few years ago...and I still didn’t know what to do with it. I had to be brutal with myself and admit that maybe, just maybe, there was the tiniest chance that I didn’t like it as a whole. Its rows of diamond blocks were separated by a pale green fabric and the two just weren’t happy together. But it contained so many pieces of fabric that I loved with fervent and rabid nostalgia that I did not want to do any harm. I removed my pitifully amateur quilting stitches – there weren’t too many. I tossed out and the batting and the backing. I even washed the quilt which had become a tad shop worn without having done a single day’s duty, kind of like Prince Charles passing into retirement while still waiting to start his first job.
I decided that the green fabric was the quilt’s nemesis, holding all the clambering 1940s and ‘50s fabrics at a metaphoric gunpoint. It took me another year to get up the courage to remove the green fabric, reducing the quilt to long strips of diamond blocks sewn together. Now I was free to create some smaller quilts that family members who were closest to Gramma could enjoy.
I started re-piecing portions of the strips together, repairing frayed fabrics, re-enforcing bits and pieces here and there. I purchased some new fabric that had a vintage look to it and used it as the backing. Each time I ran into a technical problem I would think about the question in my head at bedtime and wish I could “channel” my grandmother for an answer. And each morning I would have a solution to my problem.
Eventually I completed a small quilt for my cousin that could be used as a lap quilt, or a wall hanging, or perhaps as a decorative element on a table.
The best part of re-working this quilt was how I got to “know” my grandmother. I came to understand more fully what quilting was originally all about. As modern quilters we amass giant stashes of fabric, some of which it is altogether possible we will never use. As I became acquainted with each fabric in Gramma’s quilt, I recognized the leaner times of post World War II. Every kind of fabric had been used. I recognized the scrap pieces from her dresses and from my dresses, and some pieces from a covered cushion. Other pieces were probably from my grandfather’s shirts. A few pieces matched a doll blankets that been made for me. No doubt some larger, more important garment had been gracious enough to leave a few extra scraps for a blanket to keep a cherished doll warm. The best pieces of all were from a grey silky dress I wore at age three. There’s a studio photograph of me happily posing in that lovely dress. The fabric I remember most vividly is the one with the blue background covered in tiny red and yellow diamonds. This thin cotton fabric was left over from a homemade comforter. This was the blanket, filled with down and fine chicken feathers, that my mother would pull out when one of us was shaking with chills and fever. It made magical healing powers, which I suspect have been retained by the fabric bits in Gramma’s quilt.
Working on the quilt helped me think about my grandmother from an adult perspective, so different from that of a child. She was a cook at a Hydro power plant. She and my mother produced three substantial meals a day for the men who worked there – seven days a week, through war time and rationing. How privileged my life seems in comparison as I take twenty seconds to brew coffee in my Keurig and heat up my bagel in the microwave. And how warm and familiar it seems as I bend over Gramma’s fabric, using my modern electronic sewing machine, finally bringing to life what she never had the chance to finish.