300 Words about Quilting: Quilting and Grief
Quilting and Grief
QN invites you to share your quilt stories with other QN readers–in 300 words or less. If you have a quilt story that fits the topics listed at below–be it funny, sad, poignant, or anything in between–we want to hear from you. Send your story, its title, and your complete contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write “300 Words” in the subject line.
Upcoming topics and deadlines are:
Quilts and military service–July 15, 2011
Quilts and family–September 15, 2011
How I got hooked on quilting–November 15, 2011
It seemed like a good idea at the time: January 15, 2012
Why I love my quilt guild: March 15, 2012
Quilting Reminds Me of Mom in Earlier Days
About 10 years ago, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age 60. She retired from her job at a local non-profit organization where she had worked for more than 30 years. The tables were turned; she would need the services she once worked so hard to support.
I won’t forget when her neurologist asked her to draw the face of a clock and she couldn’t. For the next 10 minutes, she was given simple tasks to complete with similar results. The look on my mother’s face was heartbreaking. Every time she looked pleadingly at me for help, I felt lost.
The years are passing and my mother has been robbed of many things; her memory, her speech, her mobility, her life. Alzheimer’s has been such a big part of our lives for so long now it often takes pictures to remind me who my mother was. I am spending a great deal of time helping with my mother's care. To pass time and to keep her love of quilting alive I try to quilt every time I am with her. She seems to enjoy watching me work, and quilting reminds me of who she used to be, what she has taught me, and how lucky I am for the time I have with her. Last summer I completed, Visiting Mom, a hand appliqued wool quilt. I entered it into a local quilt show. I couldn't believe the reactions it received. Not only did it win first place, it also prompted people to share their similar stories with me.
A Journey Made Easier
My life changed in October 2008. As my husband and I were preparing for our first overseas trip to celebrate retirement, a phone call came from our youngest son, Stephen, in California. A CAT scan had revealed tumors on his liver. Fourteen years previous, he had been diagnosed and treated for ocular melanoma. Instead of flying to Spain the next day, I flew to Los Angeles. I didn’t come home to Maryland for five months.
The quilters in my life rallied around. They sent me quilted postcards. They gathered quilts from my house and sent them to California for my comfort. My return to California was to the community where I had raised my children. Friends from my small quilt group there, the Monday Night Quilt and Therapy Group, poured out love and took me right back into their group.
Stephen passed away in February 2009. He slept each night with several quilts I had made for him over the years and a baby quilt my friends had made for him when he was born in 1976. It was tattered, worn and faded. He kept it under his pillow.
In March 2009, we returned to Maryland to pack to move to California to be near our oldest son and his family. My Maryland quilt group, the LooseEnds, embraced me with their love, wrapping me up with a friendship quilt they had made for me while I was gone. Another longtime quilter friend asked for Stephen’s shirts. Last year, she presented me with a quilt made from those shirts.
Grief is a journey that has been made a little softer and a little warmer by the quilts and quilters in my life.
Loving Hands of a Quilt
Before my first child was born, my mother gave me a cornflower-blue baby quilt with scalloped edges and hand embroidery, including flowers made from hundreds, if not thousands, of solid french knots, tiny and perfect. I was married, living away from my family and homesick, so I put the quilt on my daughter Stephanie's bed, took photos of her with the quilt, and covered her with it at night. I always felt my mother's hands on Stephanie and me.
Stephanie grew up, married and moved away. When she called to tell me she was going to have a daughter, I found the baby quilt, washed it and sent it to her for her little girl. On one of my visits, Stephanie asked me if we could make a pillow cover out of it as it was her favorite color and she wanted to 'feel' grandma's hands like she did when she was little. We took a standard-size bed pillow and folded the quilt over it. We sewed buttons around the outside edge then sewed it together. We didn't have to cut into it, and she could take it apart to wash it. She used the pillow every day, slept with it at night, and put it between herself and the steering wheel when she drove home to visit.
When her daughter Ainsley was born, Stephanie laid her on the pillow and told her the story of how it came to be and about having two generations of grandmas' hands holding her.
Sadly, four years later my daughter was killed. I took the quilt pillow and put it under her head in her casket so that she will forever be able to feel mom and grandma's hands on her.
In 2001 my husband retired at the age of 62 because of problems we thought were related to stress at work but turned out to be Alzheimer’s. I retired from teaching in 2005 and went home to be with him for as long as I could. In October 2008, we moved back to our hometown to be near our family, and in March 2009, he entered the local veterans' home for care. He thought he was “being thrown away.” I assured him he was not and that I would come every day to sit and visit with him.
I cut pieces of fabric to make quilt blocks for a full-size quilt. I hand pieced the blocks while we sat on a love seat in the small television room. We talked and held hands, and I caressed his face and hair and told him how much I loved him. He would fall asleep with his head on my shoulder. While he slept, I sewed.
March 21, 2010, he passed away. By this time, I had finished the blocks and was hand quilting them in the “quilt-as-you-go” manner. The name of the quilt is Memories for the quiet memories of our love in the last days of his life.
I could not bring myself to get rid of his plaid flannel work shirts. I cut them into squares and made lap quilts for each of our three adult children. The label reads, “When you feel sad and discouraged, wrap the quilt around your shoulders, and you will feel your daddy’s arms around you giving you love and comfort.”
Something to Hold On To
Most quilters don’t expect their quilts to turn out perfect, especially when they are queen size with lots of small pieces and are finished in only two weeks. But I made one that was just perfect. Let me explain.
One afternoon my friend brought her sister, Trish, for a visit. Trish was a sweet, shy girl, autistic and mentally challenged. During the visit, they were admiring a quilt that I was working on when Trish asked, “Marilyn, would you make me a quilt, sometime?” I was surprised, but of course I said “yes” and put it on my to-do list.
A month later, I learned that Trish had been diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer. Her prognosis was just six months. I decided to make her a quilt–fast–one that she could wrap up in. I went fabric shopping for bright batiks, then added more from my stash. I cut and stitched, and stitched some more, almost around the clock until it was finished, in time for her 35th birthday.
She loved the quilt so much she cried. Later I made a matching pillow she could take to her chemotherapy treatments. I visited as often as I could. Trish passed away four months later at home, in her bed, wrapped in her quilt.
I made a lot of mistakes making that quilt, but to Trish, it was beautiful, and that made it “perfect.”
A Quilt For Reneé
When I heard that my sister-in-law Reneé's cancer had spread to her brain, I knew what I had to do. I made Amtrak reservations, called Reneé and told her I could bring my Featherweight and 2" strip collection, and we could make a quilt together. She told me I should just use her machine, she was already too weak to sit up for long periods of time.
I cut, sewed and pressed at her dining-room table while she lay on the couch. We talked, we laughed, we cried. I collected memories. I made half-log-cabin blocks with strips I had cut from my stash. When I had enough blocks made, we laid them out on the floor in different patterns. She chose the streak-of-lightning setting. We went to the local quilt shop where she chose border fabrics.
Seven days after I arrived, I left with the quilt blocks, the border fabrics and a heavy heart. Two weeks after arriving home, I packaged the completed quilt and mailed it. I had quilted her name, my brother's name, hearts, and love all through the blocks and borders. When she received it, she called. A couple days later she called again, having found the words and names.
Five months later at her memorial service, everyone my brother introduced me to asked, "Are you the sister-in-law who made the quilt?" Each told me a story about how important the quilt had become to Reneé. She wanted to add as many memories to it as she could, for my brother when he wraps up in it now.
Quilting toward Healing
I will never forget 1999. Even though I am a physician, I had ignored feeling sick for close to a year. I was tired all the time, could not breathe and had lost a fair amount of weight. I was diagnosed with a debilitating illness that attacked my lung after undergoing a lung biopsy. I had to take a leave of absence from work.
Not accustomed to being idle, I took a quilting class at a local adult-education center and another world opened for me. The first day of the class, the instructor told us to keep realistic goals. “This is a class for beginners,” she said. “No one can make a large quilt.” Being competitive–one reason I chose medicine as a profession–I made a large quilt. I found I was not motivated to make traditional quilts, which is what the instructor taught us. Around that time, an exhibit called “Oxymoron” at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, opened my eyes to the world of contemporary art quilts. I was hooked.
Quilting helped me heal. I wanted to do handwork because I couldn’t think, I couldn’t concentrate. The quilt-making process helped my brain heal. Within two years, I was able to go back to being a physician. I returned to full-time medical work but never stopped quilting. My quilts have been exhibited in more than 30 shows locally and nationally.
A Labor of Love
Mag was dressed in his Santa suit. From his shiny black boots to the tip of his red hat–and all the stuffing between–he looked every inch a Santa. He drove away on his Harley surrounded by toys that he, along with other members of his Harley Club, planned to distribute to underprivileged kids. It was two days before Christmas.
An hour later he lay in the intensive-care unit in a coma. Life changes in a heartbeat. It did for Mag and his fiancé who was a friend of mine. Mag died a few days later without ever regaining consciousness.
Months later, when my friend asked me to make a memory quilt from his Harley T-shirts, I was torn with not wanting to do it, yet knowing that this would be a healing quilt for my friend. It would be something of his that would make her laugh and cry. Something she could hold onto until time helped her heal and life took her down another road.
It took me well over a year to decide what I wanted to do. Then it took weeks before I could bring myself to start selecting the shirts and cutting the graphics. Cutting those shirts felt like cutting him from our hearts. The quilt was finally finished in 2010. I sent it to Texas where my friend still lives. As I folded the quilt and wrapped it in tissue, my tears fell because I knew that as hard as the project was for me, it truly was a labor of love.
Memories for Eternity
My husband of 50 years is now deceased. A man's man, he was somehow aware of the complexities involved in quilting. Perhaps the geometry, symmetry or order appealed to this math major. He encouraged my interest in all fabric art, particularly quilting. He insisted I needed a "better" sewing machine with embroidery and quilting capabilities. He drove me to night classes and spent his time waiting and reading. With enthusiasm, we navigated to quilt exhibits admiring the talent and creativity of others. Viewing someone else's log-cabin Christmas-themed tree prompted construction of our own Christmas tree wall hanging.
To expedite my work, he became quite expert in sewing straight ¼" seams. In between televised football plays, he was equally adept at deconstruction–that is "ripping out." In one of our forays, he discovered repurposed T-shirts and sweatshirts trimmed into quilt blocks–memories of someone else's "been there, done that" experiences. Our accumulated tees from Alaska, Italy, Mexico, Japan, Greece and the United States became an oversized cover for snoozing on the family-room couch.
Time and illness limited then curtailed traveling. His quilt became a conversation starter in the coronary-care unit–a warm refuge and a calm space following chemotherapy treatments. Finally, it was a worn but familiar reminder of home at the hospice center. One brilliant summer day, it became the shroud he wore into eternity. His children and I are at peace, knowing it is there.
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