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I remember the first time I saw the quilt

On a visit to Grandmother’s place

She kept it there in an old cedar chest

With sweet-smelling sachets of lace


I was six years old and visiting Grandmother alone for the whole weekend. No sisters and brothers, just Grandmother and me. “Let me show you something special,” she said. Grandmother took the quilt out of the chest, unfolded it and spread it out carefully across the bed. “This isn’t just any old blanket, you know. It’s a scrapbook of our family.” As if she were reading a book, her fingers traced the stitches and she told me the story of the quilt.


“Great Grandmother Elizabeth started this quilt in a wagon train crossing the plains. The red patch in the corner came from her dress. Next to it, the brown homespun is a piece of great Grandfather’s vest. They wore them for Sunday best.” She told me more, but I was fascinated by the quilt with its colorful patches of all shapes and sizes and I hardly listened to the words. When she finished talking, Grandmother took out a scrap of calico cloth, cut a small patch with her tiny silver scissors, and began to stitch it to the other pieces on the quilt. As she stitched, she sang. “Back stitch, feather stitch, together we sew, a patch of gingham and a piece of calico. Each piece a mem’ry of the life that we’ve built, all put together in a patchwork quilt.”


Over the years, I visited Grandmother once a year and it became our ritual to take the quilt out, recite the story and add a piece When her fingers stiffened from arthritis and her vision began to dim, she taught me to cut the pieces and sew the fancy stitches. We always sang the song. “Back stitch, feather stitch, together we sew, a patch of gingham and a piece of calico. Each piece a mem’ry of the life that we’ve built, all put together in a patchwork quilt.”


When I went to college, I lived closer to Grandmother’s place and I visited more often. She listened to my stories of college life and greeted the friends I sometimes brought with me. When we were alone, we would take the quilt out, recite the story and add another piece to the quilt. If Grandmother was tired, I would finish, then softly sing. “Back stitch, feather stitch, together we sew, a patch of gingham and a piece of calico. Each piece a mem’ry of the life that we’ve built, all put together in a patchwork quilt.”


After college, I moved far away and it was two years before I got back to visit her. I was shocked to see her in bed. She was wearing a pink flowered bed jacket. She greeted me warmly and squeezed my hand with her thin, frail hand. She leaned back on her pillow and seemed to sleep for a long time. “Get the quilt,” she whispered.


I took the quilt out of the cedar chest, unfolded it and spread it across the bed, tucking it in under Grandmother’s gnarled hands.


“This isn’t just any old quilt, you know. It’s a scrapbook of our family. Great Grandmother Elizabeth started this quilt in a wagon train crossing the plains. The red patch in the corner came from her dress. Next to it, the brown homespun, is a piece of Great Grandfather’s vest. They wore them for Sunday best. The green square came from a bandana worn by Great Uncle Jake when he drove cattle all the way from Texas to Montana. Aunt Sallie stitched a star to cover the bullet hole. Here in this corner, the blue and the grey were uniforms worn by brothers as they fought in the great war, one for the north and the other for the south.”


She stroked a soft lavender square and, for a moment, seemed lost in memory. “This was my flapper dress. Oh, I was the bee’s knees!” We laughed hard and Grandmother gasped for breath. “Let’s put the quilt away,” I suggested. “No child,” she said. “I have to finish.”


“The navy blue was from your Grandfather’s Merchant Marine uniform. Oh, he was handsome. The royal blue came from the cowl worn at the graduation of Doctor Mary Rainey. Here is your father’s Air Force uniform and a piece from your mother’s wedding dress.” Grandmother showed me pieces taken from something worn by each child and grandchild. I saw a piece of my brother’s cub scout uniform and a patch cut from my tie-died hippie skirt. “Get the scissors,” Grandmother said. “There’s one more piece that I’ve planned.”


I reached into her sewing box and took out the tiny silver scissors, then clipped a small square from the edge of Grandmother’s pink flowered bed jacket. She lay her head back on the pillow and closed her eyes while I stitched and sang. “Back stitch, feather stitch, together we sew, a patch of gingham and a piece of calico. Each piece a mem’ry of the life that we’ve built, all put together in a patchwork quilt.”


When I finished, Grandmother was asleep. I folded the quilt and put it away in the cedar chest. Then, I kissed Grandmother and tiptoed out.


Two weeks later, I got the call. Grandmother had passed away in her sleep. At her funeral, I saw aunts, uncles and cousins I hadn’t seen in years. We laughed and cried and told stories about Grandmother, each of us remembering her in a different way.


When I returned home and unpacked my car, I found a package in the back seat. There was a note: “Grandmother wanted you to have this. She said you’d know why.” It was Grandmother’s patchwork quilt and I could hear the echoes of her voice, “This isn’t just any old blanket, you know. . .”


Now I keep the quilt in an old cedar chest

With sweet-smelling sachets of lace

And I treasure it for the mem’ries it brings

Of my visits to Grandmother’s place.


Back stitch, feather stitch, together we sew,

A patch of gingham and a piece of calico.

Each piece a mem’ry of the life that we’ve built,

All put together in a patchwork quilt.”

May 26, 2020 15:29

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