By Cassandra Lane
The single syllable stretches itself from Avis’ mouth in one long breath, lands on the air and just sits there, as though it has been trapped for years at the bottom of a well, covered over and forgotten, and desires nothing more than to be suspended like dust particles in sunlight. Visible and material in a way darkness denies.
The sound stops Pam, who is passing through her mother’s room to get to the bathroom.
“Now?” Pam asks, turning to her mother. A chill shimmies down her spine.
“Yes—Now,” Avis says. “That was the last stitch on the last quilt.” She puts down her needle and thread, folds her arms in her lap.
“Now, I am finished.”
For two years, Avis has been cutting geometric patterns out of old bed sheets, housecoats, dresses and aprons, straining her 83-, then 84-year-old eyes as her fingers pinched the Singer needle and sewed the scraps together, attempting to line the red, white and blue stitches in perfect formation. The finished products: seven quilt tops, gifts her seven daughters-in-law. These wives, in turn, will have to add the padding and backing to complete the quilts.
Avis begins to instruct Pam on how to designate each quilt.
“This one goes to Mae Helen…I want you to give this one to Dot…This one here goes to Adeline…Pam, are you listening?”
But Pam is still consumed with her mother’s sigh. Her father, Houston, died a year before, and she has watched her mother closely for signs of depression and failing health since losing her partner of 63 years.
“Mama, stop talking like that. You’re gonna give those quilts to them yourself as soon as you see them.”
Avis smiles and resumes her instructions.
A few nights later, as the house sleeps, a heavy thud in the bathroom jolts Pam, whose bedroom is on the south side of the bathroom. She jumps up and runs to the bathroom, where her mother, who has already pulled herself up from her fall, is muttering Lord, Lord, Lord, shaking her head in self-admonition.
She brushes away her daughter’s worries. “I’m fine, child. Go on back to bed.”
While Pam is at work and Avis sits in her living room talking to a visitor, the stroke that had caused her to fall that morning slows her tongue. Her words transform into garbled sounds, and the woman visiting her dials 911. Paramedics rush Avis to the emergency room. She never returns home, yet hangs on for two years as a series of strokes hit her in the hospital, then later at a nursing home.
Pam, who is my mother, did not give the quilts away until months after her mother’s death. Her sisters-in-law gathered in the long-cold room to sort through Grandmama Avis’ things. I wonder if they could feel the weight of the word my grandmother echoed in the moments before her demise, if it still clung to the air, commanding them, consoling them:
The women held Grandmama’s belongings—her favorite housecoats, church hats, the quilts—to their bosoms but could not hold back their tears over this woman who had been like a mother to them. They had married her sons when they were just girls, really, and had called her “Mother.” She had called each of them “Daught,” as her mother-in-law had called her, and in these intimate exchanges, the women had sewn something between them that was indestructible, even when their marriages were going through hell, even when marriages ended.
When the daughters-in-law cleared out of my grandmother’s room that day, one quilt top remained. It was the piece that would have gone to Margaret Ann, the eldest son’s wife, but Margaret Ann had died while my grandmother’s grave was still fresh.
When I graduated from journalism school in 1993 and found myself without the career I thought would magically appear, I returned to my grandmother’s house, where my mother still lived with my siblings and her grief. Even in the midst of my little brothers’ laughter and romping, the house seemed empty. I was used to hearing the floor boards creak with my grandmother’s footsteps at 4 in the morning as she busied herself around the house— cleaning, cooking. Wherever she was, there was a prayer or a hymn inside her. I missed hearing her prayers and her humming of old spirituals and Blackfoot Indian chants.
As I took my own journey through my grandmother’s things, I laid claim to the quilt that was left behind. My mother didn’t mind. As the only girl of eight, she had grown up fascinated by cars and sports, but completely uninterested in her mother’s quilting and sewing. “Grandmama would love for you to have it,” she told me, for she knew how fond I was of my grandmother, and she also knew that I had deemed myself family historian, collecting pictures, recording by hand some of the tidbits of my family’s oral tradition. “That girl will write about you more than she’ll talk to you,” my mother would laugh, though my introversion had always disturbed her.
Nowadays, I keep my quilt in a wooden chest next to my desk, vowing year in and year out to finish it, to take a class so that I can learn to complete the project myself. It is a poor woman’s quilt, made for “everyday use”—nothing like the lush works of quilt art that hang from museum and gallery walls. It is threadbare and unfinished, smells like old rain collected in a rusted tin bucket. Still, I see the art in my grandmother’s patchwork, in its marriage of masculine and feminine colors and shapes – long black and white stripes border blood-orange rectangles; mustard-colored triangles boast brown cameos of elegant ladies, whose necks are long and slender and whose coifs are arranged in a variety of up-dos; squares, in a swirl of turquoise, white, navy and yellow, provide a farm scene, replete with trees, a barn, two-story house, horse and cow.
When I am at a loss on how to find harmony, structure, and peace in my life, I take the quilt out and spread it across my living room floor. Smoothing and smelling the fabric, I attempt to trace the secrets embedded in the wisdom of my grandmother’s soul, and encoded in the patterns and threads that run through this cloth.