I quilt but I haven’t always done this. The cutting and piecing, stitching and embellishing started about the time my marriage was unraveling as fast as a hem on a cheap dress. I tried to calm a frantic anxiety with simple pleasures: baking bread, planting gardens, making jam and quilting. My first quilt was crib-size and made entirely by hand. It is a homely thing with a top made of nine simple blocks, each a traditional pattern with names such as Wild Goose Chase, joined by sashing and bordered all the way around. Inside, there is a thin layer of batting and a backing of solid green cotton. The actual quilting, the stitches that bind the fabric sandwich, are uncertain; they are too long and uneven and meander wildly along cross-hatched lines of indelible ink. The rosy pink fabric has faded to fleshly beige and the mossy green has the scruffy faded look of tundra lichen. A quilter whose work I admire–even stitches, sharp points, good color–called it the ugliest quilt she had ever seen and said if it were hers she’d throw it away or put it in the dog’s basket I laughed because she was right Still, when I tacked the last thread, I felt a flush of comfort as visceral as the first mouthful of aged amber scotch.
There was a year of talking and searching before we found the courage and the words to end our relationship. Married life is intimate but divorces are spectacles and people I hardly knew called to ask: why? It was as if knowing the reasons for our failure could inoculate them from a similar fate. We offered pat explanations meant to soothe rather than illuminate. We grew apart We didn’t love each other anymore. We told the children that there should be as many words for love as the Inuit have for snow. You can’t fall out of love with your children, we explained, but I don’t think they bought it. I had been with my husband for almost 19 years. My mother was afraid the children would grow up to rob convenience stores. “The first 20 years are the hardest,” she added. There were no scenes or lawyers since we both wanted to parent; we shared our belongings and filed the papers ourselves. Within months, my ex-husband had a girlfriend. I made applique quilts with traditional patterns. In good applique, the stitches are hidden.
It wasn’t difficult moving out of the matrimonial home; the change heralded what I hoped would be exciting new beginnings. I left most of the furniture behind so the children would feel comfortable in their old home but dismantled all the shelving and tables for quilting and installed them in my new house. I followed the advice of expert quilters and bought hundreds of yards of expensive cotton in a full palette, organized the material by color, hue and value–light or dark–and folded it into neat bundles that sat side by side in baskets. At least there was order and harmony in my quilting room.
There were no regrets about getting a divorce but I had an unexpected unrelenting grieving for the family life that would never be. I abandoned a quilt that I’d been making for a nephew’s wedding when I realized I wouldn’t get an invitation and sent them wineglasses instead. I worded about being a bag lady. I didn’t know what to do with family pictures … does one white out the ex-husband? I felt like I was drowning; I drank too much and wept in public for no reason at all. I channeled the worry about my children, my finances, the damned aloneness of being the only one who walks the dog at night into making quilts. The rhythm soothed me. I’d make them and give them away. I chose the fabric carefully and combined it according to established rules; the finished quilts were pleasing and predictable like married sex and as dull as my single life. Friends invite the newly divorced for lunch, but rarely for dinner and nobody ever asks you to dance. Other divorced women became soul mates. “Don’t worry,” they promised. “It gets better.” I joined squares of cloth, manipulated them, managed them, controlled them and created something whole and new. The tips of my fingers became calloused and pocked with so many tiny holes that they looked like weathered river rock. I stitched and mended.
A year passed before I was ready to go to the cottage alone. For many summers I had woken before the family, made coffee, sat in the same rocker that I had used while nursing my babies and looked over Rustico Bay in Prince Edward Island. I treasured the quiet time but it was different being there by myself. So I started a simple quilt of repeated traditional blocks, Storm at Sea. The metaphor was so apt; my new life was progressing uneasily. But as I worked on the quilt, the rows of stormy blocks changed. The work demanded something different. Two birds, looking forward, planted themselves near the top of the work, the blacks and greys gave way to gentle mauves and sea greens. The optimism of the quilt surprised me. It had taken me by the hand and showed that I wasn’t drowning after all. I was getting to shore, stroke by stroke.
On a whim, soon after that quilt was finished and hanging, I went into a dressmaking store, rather than a quilt shop, and I was seduced by velvets and silks, satins and organzas, wool suiting and upholstery, lace and linen. Until then, I had worked with sensible cottons but these fabrics hinted at a pleasure forbidden but tantalizing. An affair. I bought yards and yards of fabric that I longed to touch. The silks–luxurious, slippery, sensual–clung to the stiff scratchy wool. The organza played with light and shadow in a tease, obscuring pattern while revealing. I pieced a restrained indigo blue shibori to exuberant African tribal cloth. Velvet and silk spilled like stockings from an underwear drawer. The colors I liked pushed their way boldly to the front of the shelves, while a sickly green and beige cotton and all of the gold retreated to dark recesses.
My quilts were evolving from the traditional patterns passed on from one generation to another. Instead of making blocks such as Drunkard’s Path, Forbidden Fruit and Ohio Star, I cut wild curved pieces and embellished them with bold random stitching. Suddenly, my quilts were less controlled and spilling with textures and image. I found myself remembering past boyfriends–the ones with motorcycles–and I told my friends that finally, I was ready to date. There is no other way to say this: dating is a hellish thing. On my first date in 20 years a man I had just been introduced to leaned over the dinner table and said, “I think your breasts are magnificent.” I was wearing a heavy fisherman knit sweater. There was nothing to say. Still, I was lonely enough that I might have gone out with him again if he hadn’t told me that I should keep my quilting a secret. “It gives the wrong impression,” he said. If a man couldn’t understand my obsession for cloth, then he would never understand me.
And what exactly is the impression that people have of quilters? Old women in bonnets around a frame? Hardly. Most of us are middle-aged with middles and the quilts we make are, for the most part, soothing to the eye and the spirit. We wear white gloves at shows to protect fabrics. But there’s an earthier side to quilters; we tell ribald jokes–frequently. Perhaps it’s because we make covers for beds and beds are for sex. But most quilts are not sensuous and I’ve never seen one that invited a little romp. So I have decided to make quilts ripe with innuendo: white satin and black lace. Maybe sometime I’ll throw in some appliqued nudes.
Recently, there was a picture of a divorce quilt in one of my magazines: an appliqued story quilt made by a sad angry woman. Apparently, the quilter’s psychotherapist bought the piece and the quilter moved on with her life. I won’t be making a quilt like that.
There’s really no need; I baked my bread, cried, drank too much and stitched the bits and pieces of my fragmented life into whole cloth. I’ve met a man who loves me and my quilts; the children are wonderful teenagers; my ex is married and starting another family. My next quilt is for his new baby. It will be crib-size and covered with hearts and ducks and good wishes.
Every so often, I take my first little quilt out of the blanket box in the basement. It has faded from the sun and water and frayed with handling but the stitches have held. So have I.