My mother was steeped in anger as long as I knew her. Satisfied with her two sons, she did not anticipate having a daughter later in life. A daughter who was not content to sit on her mother’s lap, but wriggled off and ran off to explore. A daughter who was not servile and obedient, did not like to iron, and would spend days sitting in a tree, reading, instead of knitting socks for her brothers. No, this little girl was not anything my mother imagined as a good daughter.
Life did not improve as I grew older. I was smart, but too shy, didn’t make friends fast, cried at sleepovers, couldn’t understand why I couldn’t bring books and read while the other girls painted their nails. I shamed my mother. And that was not a good thing to do to her. It made her angrier. The years rolled on, my shortcomings and faults piled up around me.
When I left her house, she began to concentrate on her needlework. A skilled knitter, crocheter, tatter, and sewer, my mother took up quilting. This was in the years of traditional quilts, and my mother attacked quilting with a fervor that was amazing. She made both of my much-older brothers and their families quilts. Log Cabin, Arkansas Traveler, Art Block, Flying Geese, Shoo Fly, Nine Block, Wedding Rings. The quilts grew under her fingers, were finished and were sent off to corners of the world where she had friends. I asked if she’d make me one. “You don’t deserve it.” she said. I asked again, every year.
Finally, she relented. But I could not choose the color or the pattern. Fine with me. She began a sampler quilt, a mix of patterns she liked. When she asked me to help her paint her house, as partial payment, she asked me to suggest colors. In the end, she chose the combination I liked the least–Williamsburg Blue and Milk Chocolate Brown. Remembering my complaints about the colors, she announced the quilt would be in those colors as well–her favorites. I didn’t argue.
Over the next dozen years, she would start and stop, according to her anger at me. Most of those years were in stop mode. She joined a Guild and made elaborate decorative cloths, wall hangings, bed covers for strangers. But not the quilt I wanted.
I was visiting her one year, when I noticed her memory gaps, her frequent stove accidents, her confusion in counting stitches. She had Alzheimer’s. Before it got too bad, we arranged a trip for her. To France, where she was born, to Germany, where she had lived with my father. Each stop was arranged so someone would pick her up and put her back on a train or plane. It was a long trip. When I went to pick her up at the airport in Washington, D.C. she looked at me with no recognition–she thought I was a Lufthansa flight attendant. She liked me more in that role, and I did not correct her.
The quilt was not finished. It was now beyond her skill. Finally, I could have my quilt. Unfinished as it was, and showing some odd stitches and mistakes, I loved it for what it was–a long-term story of my mother’s anger told in tight stitches. And the release of that anger, unwillingly. Long after she was in an Alzheimer’s facility and her house sold, she would remind me I was not to touch the quilt.
I’m not a quilter, so after I gathered it and its pieces up, I asked an excellent
quilter if she would finish it. She agreed, and asked as payment for some of my mother’s fabric. I delivered 30 pounds of fabric and the quilt. After tactful inquiries over three years, the woman said she simply didn’t have time. The quilt returned home, still unfinished.
This story repeated three more times. No one can finish the quilt. I’ve not asked to complete the patterns, simply use the fabric still available to complete the shape, bind it and machine stitch it. My mother is now nine years dead, and the quilt travels around the country with me, confusing quilters everywhere I live. I’m not sure if it is my mother’s anger that stalls them, or the mistakes that shape the unfinished quilt, or just that it’s a sad project, but no one can finish it.
This week, I will pick it up from another person who said, truthfully, “I don’t know what it was about the quilt. I’ve had it for four years, but I’ve never been able to really work on it.”
The quilt is having its own moment of retribution, and I imagine my mother smiling over this. I may find someone who will finish it, I may not. In any case, the quilt, in its refusal to be complete and to grow old on a bed, has done what I could not–fulfilled my mother’s wishes.
–Quinn McDonal is a writer. She is not a quilter.