Memory Quilt

My mother loved fabric. Her basement held hundreds of bolts up to fifty yards each, which means she could have unfurled a textile train over fifteen miles long. Fabric sat in tall stacks on her sturdy sewing-room workbench. The bottom bolts were flush with the bench’s front, but the stacks gradually leaned back as they climbed, so that the top layers pressed into the corner where the rear wall met the ceiling. Head-on, the lean was unnoticeable. But the side view showed that the stacks arched back so sharply, they threatened to squeeze out a middle bolt and propel it forward so fast it might have knocked my mother out while she pedaled her machine.

Towels in soothing pastels (lavender, mint, aqua, pink) and in electric colors (neon orange, grape, fire engine red, shamrock green) became absorbent fronts of infant bibs. The towels’ cheery flannel counterparts: cats, dogs, bears, zebras, ducks, swans, frogs, whales, seals, caterpillars, butterflies, baseballs, footballs, cars, trains, sailboats, rocket ships, robots, cowboys, cowgirls, cows. Specialty flannels with logos of the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox, bought when on sale in case of a custom order, were rolled together. 

When she sewed together the towel and flannel bib cutouts, my mother found that the narrow neckpiece was quite thick. She hand-sewed the Velcro fastener to this section, because her machine was not up to the task. Each bib took only a few minutes to imagine, but over an hour to finish, and by the end, her arthritic hands were often rigid, like petrified spiders. But she loved to make bibs. “You have your therapy,” she would tell me. “Sewing is mine.”

My mother made hundreds of other items too. A favorite: tooth-fairy pillows. I saved four of them and, as of last night, got to use one. My eldest son lost his first tooth, chose the fire engine pillow, placed his tooth in the pocket, left it outside his door, and thanked his grandmother. He’s used to saying things to her as he glances at the ceiling.

Tweed, satin, sateen, cotton, brocade, jersey, velvet, lace… I never got into fabric. I couldn’t figure how it all comes together, becomes graceful and unified and three-dimensional. My sister Beth is the one who inherited our mother’s talent. She learned the personalities of different fabrics. Now, she can envision a fabricscape of color and pattern, shape and order on background, and bring it to life. She creates quilts that evoke neckties and high-school memories and the ocean. She’s turned her talent into a successful business, Beth Sullivan Designs, based in southeastern Massachusetts. Our mother, before her death, was filled up with pride for her eldest daughter, whose quilting studio is a fabric-lover’s fantasy. 

At our annual family Christmas, which we celebrate in January, Beth surprised my other two sisters and me with memory quilts. She cut squares from 452 of our mother’s fabrics, along with lace, trim, and ricrac. She selected backing for each quilt, then laid the samples in identical order, the way my mother would have.

I love this quilt. It’s my mother’s taste and my sister’s style and our family’s shared memory and a load of comfort. Even our calico, Sala, who’s never been a lap cat, has taken to settling on me when I’m under the quilt. My mom had a calico too. I like to think Sala knows this is the lap cover she was meant to warm.