I wrote a poem a couple years ago when I had been thinking about my mother-in-law, whom I never got to meet, and listening to my husband and his sister talk about some of the difficulties of her life. I have become the happy heiress of her inability to sit still without making something. If she wasn’t tatting lace, she was crocheting borders on linens; if not crocheting, then embroidering; if she wasn’t doing that, she was mending; if not mending, then quilting. She almost always had a project going. I have dresser scarves, sheets, towels, pillowcases, tablecloths, bedspreads, and quilts, all enhanced by the gorgeous work of Ruth Wahlquist. Lucky me.
Quilts and quilts and still more quilts fill
the trunks and boxes and bags in the storeroom
sit soberly stacked on the closet shelves
lie waiting to enfold someone—waiting
through decade after decade
until somebody takes them out for show
unfolds the splendid colors intricate patterns and tiny stitch work
and hangs the green one over an easel in the cultural hall
the blue one across a table artistically draped
representing Women’s Arts of long ago
still seeming newly finished, a gorgeous expanse
of pastels and soft spring green borders shimmering like water
or the borders of blue as the deepest skies along the mountain ridges at noon.
giggling under the quilt frame
crouched stifling their laughter into wheezy silence
as the women returned to the room from refreshments
resumed their places in the heavy oak chairs around the frame
picked up their needles and stretched: poke-2-3-draw poke-2-3-draw
chattering happily of husbands, hopes, children, jobs, gentle jokes,
church suppers, sports, and polite politics—all topics refined
secure in their society, inclusive in their inclinations
working in well-ordered rhythms
as they stitched steadily closer to the center
rolling the edges every hour
ignoring the little boys who thought they were hidden.
Sometimes the quilt was on the frame for weeks
when the weary mother had too many papers to grade
too many bills past due too many demands on her energy.
Oft times she stitched alone
remembering with regret how quickly the time had gone
piling up into days, weeks, then months, years, a decade then two:
a mountain of memories between herself and her husband’s
sudden slip into eternity.
Sometimes she put a quilt up for comfort
expecting and anticipating hours of quiet time, reflective time,
But the next afternoon as the spring-loaded door slammed
behind her from the back door into the kitchen
she could hear her mother’s voice, and her aunts, and her cousins, and their friends—
and the quilt was nearly done;
her mother was happy at the success of her scheme
helping her too-busy burdened daughter
who really couldn’t have time for a quilt, now could she?
She sighed. And the mannerly expressions of gratitude flowed forth as expected
stitching the words into formulaic patterns, embroidering the minimal truth
until the beauty of well-crafted phrases created the truth of appreciation
for the swirling patterns of stitches anchoring all the bright patchwork
to the puffy filling and another clear blue backing.
she sewed all the pieces together, preparing the top
fluffed the cotton batting into place
tacked down the layers on the long thin frames to await the next time
Mother and aunts and cousins came to quilt
but when they’d gone she looked at the stitching
and a sick dread filled her heart
for unmistakably her mother’s work was not what it once was.
Always it had been perfect.
Always she had demanded perfection of her only child,
her beautiful, talented, clever, and surely-destined-for-greatness only daughter
Time was betraying the established patterns
like a crazy quilt.
The new pattern was hard to discern at that time in its developing
but pieces had to be unpicked and resewn
stitches had to be taken out and stitched anew
and all must agree with the earlier patterns so that
next time under the gaze of Mother in new glasses
successfully she’d hidden her help—
Though should not Mother know, on some level, her powers were changing?
She would fight it vocally and with violence in her feelings
she would stitch to the very end blind to the very needle’s direction
let alone to the threads’ wandering steps all over the patches.
Quilt making dropped off.
Her daughter did not long follow.
Boxes of quilt pieces sorted for color, size, shape
sit silent on the granddaughter’s closet shelves—and
she sometimes tries to get sisters-in-law or nieces
interested in the quilt pieces—
inevitably they opt for the simplicity and speed
of printed patterns and yarn ties—
though when the trunks and bags and boxes are opened and the quilts come out
looking still new with their old-fashioned exquisite handiwork
they all exclaim and wish they had the skill and time
of the mother and grandmother and aunts and cousins
of that older time of quilting.
Now the old boxes of old scraps
sit collecting dust.
May 25, 2012