The Goodbye Quilt
Mira (October 2011)
Originally published 2011
How do you say goodbye to a piece of your heart? If you’re a quilter, you have a time-honored way to express yourself.
A quilt is an object of peculiar intimacy. By virtue of the way it is created, every inch of the fabric is touched. Each scrap absorbs the quilter’s scent and the invisible oils of her skin, the smell of her household and, thanks to the constant pinning and stitching, her blood in the tiniest of quantities. And tears, though she might be loath to admit it.
My adult life has been a patchwork of projects, most of which were fleeting fancies of overreaching vision. I tend to seize on things, only to abandon them due to lack of time, talent or inclination. There are a few things I’m truly good at â€“ Jeopardy, riding a bike, balancing a checkbook, orienteering, making balloon animalsâ€¦and quilting.
I’m good at pulling together little bits and pieces of disparate objects. The process suits me. Each square captures my attention like a new landscape. Everything about quilting suits me, an occupation for hands and heart and imagination.
Other things didn’t work out so wellâ€”Szechuan cooking, topiary gardening, video games and philately come to mind.
My main project, my ultimate work-in-progress, is Molly, of course. And today she’s going away to college, clear across the country. Correctionâ€”I’m taking her away, delivering her like an insured parcel to a new life.
Hence the quilt. What better memento to give my daughter than a handmade quilt to keep in her dorm room, a comforter stitched with all the memories of her childhood? It’ll be a tangible reminder of who she is, where she comes fromâ€¦and maybe, if I’m lucky, it will offer a glimpse of her dreams.
All my quilting supplies come from a shop in town called Pins & Needles. The place occupies a vintage building on the main street. It’s been in continuous operation for more than five decades. As a child, I passed its redbrick and figured concrete storefront on my way to school each day, and I still remember the kaleidoscope of fabrics in the window, flyers announcing classes and raffles, the rainbow array of rich-colored thread, the treasure trove of glittering notions. My first job as a teenager was at the shop, cutting fabric and ringing up purchases.
When Molly started school, I worked there part time, as much for the extra money as for the company of women who frequented Pins & Needles. Fall is wonderful at the fabric shop, a nesting time, when people are making Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving centerpieces and Christmas decorations. People are never in a hurry in a fabric shop. They browse. They talk about their projects, giving you a glimpse of their lives.
The shop is a natural gathering place for women. The people I’ve met there through the years have become my friends. Customers and staff members stand around the cutting tables to discuss projects, give demonstrations and workshops, offer advice on everything from quilting techniques to child rearing to marriage. The ladies there all know about my idea to make a quilt as a going-away gift for Molly. Some of them even created pieces for me to add, embroidered with messages of â€œGood Luckâ€ and â€œCongratulations.â€
You can always tell what’s going on in a woman’s life based on the quilt she is working on. The newbaby quilts are always light and soft, the wedding quilts pure and clean, filled with tradition, as though a beautiful design might be an inoculation against future strife. Housewarming quilts tend to be artistic, suitable for hanging on an undecorated wall. The most lovingly created quilts of all are the memory quilts, often created as a group project to commemorate a significant event, help with healing or to celebrate a life.
I’ve always thought a quilt held together with a woman’s tears to be the strongest of all.
Nonquilters have a hard time getting their heads around the time and trouble of a project like this. My friend Cherisse, who has three kids, said, â€œLinda, honey, I’m just glad to get them out of the houseâ€”up and running, with no criminal record.â€ Another friend confessed, â€œMy daughter would only ruin it. She’s so careless with her things.â€ My neighbor Erin, who started law school when her son entered first grade, now works long hours and makes a ton of money. â€œI wish I had the time,â€ she said wistfully when I showed her my project.
What I’ve found is that you make time for the things that matter to you. Everyone has the time. It’s just a question of deciding what to do with that time. For some people, it’s providing for their family. For others, it’s finding that precarious balance between taking care of business and the soul-work of being there for husband, children, friends and neighbors.
I’m supposed to be making the last-minute preparations before our departure on the epic road trip, but instead I find myself dithering over the quilt, contemplating sashing and borders and whether my color palette is strong and balanced. Although the top is pieced, the backing and batting in place, there is still much work to be done. Embellishments to add. It might not be proper quilting technique, but quilting is an art, not a science. My crafter’s bag is filled with snippets of fabric culled from old, familiar clothes, fabric toys and textiles that have been outgrown, but were too dear or too damaged to take the Goodwill bin. I’m a big believer in charity bins. Just because a garment is no longer suitable doesn’t mean it couldn’t be right for someone else. On the other hand, some things are not meant to be parted with.