We have a quilt upstairs in our guest bedroom. An authentic quilt; you know, one lovingly constructed by an important family member and then handed down as an heirloom.
My grandmother and great aunt were famous for their quilts. I don’t know how many they made but it was definitely hundreds, if not thousands. They made quilts for their friends’ babies, and then their friends’ grand-babies. They made quilts for themselves and for the rest of their family. They made quilts for school bazaars and church bazaars.
And the thing about these quilts is that each and every one of them was special. Carefully planned, carefully thought out, requiring and consuming their full concentration.
And to me, each of the quilts carried with it a special slip of a memory. A piece of Grandma’s housecoat fabric, a square of the fabric left over from that dress they made me.
Sure, quilts look nice, and cottagey and homey. They harken back to past times. They make you think of family. But when the quilt is actually a family heirloom, it intensifies these feelings.
Some of the quilts I inherited or received as gifts fell apart, or fell away during my moves, and some my mother is holding on to (I suspect, in part, to ensure the same fate doesn’t befall them as well).
But the one in our guest room is special. Well, more special.
It’s not actually made of strips of fabric left over from fondly remembered articles of clothing.
It’s white on both sides and instead of the familiar fabric swatches, it is adorned with birds. Birds that my great aunt lovingly and painstakingly cut from new rolls of cloth and stitched by hand, following stencils she made based on the pictures in her Birds of Canada book. I remember her making it and I remember the smile on her face the day it was finished.
Cardinals, waxwings, Baltimore orioles, woodpeckers, kingfishers, chickadees, loons, goldfinches. They were all her favourites.
In between the birds, quilted in white, are maple leaves. And there are colourful maple leaves at each of the four corners.
My great aunt loved both birds and Canada passionately. And this is her Canadian birds quilt. The depth of detail speaks to the love she poured into it.
As I stand looking at it, my eyes moving appreciatively from bird to bird, I think about how fascinating and strong a woman she was. And very definite. She would be the first to tell you how much she loved the things she loved (in addition to birds and Canada: flowers, children, camping, nature…and lots of sugar), and how much she hated the things she hated (fish, mostly).
I tried, last summer, to begin a novel about her. I wanted to recognize the person she was, and to somehow try to reconcile the woman I knew with the woman she was before I came along.
I wanted to tell the story of her coming to Canada from Plymouth at the age of three; she travelled by boat with her mother and sister to join her father who was already here.
I wanted to write about her childhood on a Niagara farm. About her responsibilities as the oldest of eight children. About how she travelled and worked as a nanny on the east coast and the west coast of Canada, which fuelled her love of nature and of the country. About the many years she spent as a Girl Guide, which brought together so many of her interests.
And I wanted to write about how she never married, how she spent her life caring for other people’s children, and how she loved them as though they were her own. Me included. And to explore the possibilities of why this was and how she felt about it.
But it’s a daunting task and each time I try to move past the first chapter, I’m overcome by how much this story means to me, and to the rest of the family, and how little I know about her early years.
We have a picture of her hanging in our hallway. She must have been in her early twenties. She’s crouching down with a child I don’t know, one of the children she took care of as a nanny. And she looks so different from the person I knew. Young, yes, but relaxed, almost mischievous. With all those years ahead of her.
In 1996, I gave her a notebook and asked her to write down all her stories for me. Even then, I knew she had a story worth telling. But she was too busy living to stop and write much. She started, but it’s not a lot to go on.
I have this notebook as a start, though, together with the stories I remember her telling me as I grew up, and I have her books, some of her flowers, and the pictures of her. And the quilt.
It’s not like the quilt has been relegated to an unused room. In fact, the guest room was supposed to become my writing room if I could just find a way to fit a table-type surface into it.
Right now, though, it’s sort of like the memory room in our house. Some people have memory boxes, we have a room.
I have a vision of myself sitting in that room, surrounded by her things, writing her story.
And what a story it will be.
She lived to be 97. And today would have been her 103rd birthday.
Inspired by today’s daily prompt: “If you could have a guarantee that one, specific person was reading your blog, who would you want that person to be? Why? What do you want to say to them?”