August 1, 2007

I AM CLEANING OUT THE GUEST ROOM closet in my dad’s house when I find a quilt wrapped in plastic with only its backside showing. I call to my brother Matt. He has lived here the longest and seems to know the most about the closets and their contents. He’s been married only a few weeks and is still moving things from the house to his apartment.

“Have you ever seen this quilt?”

“No.” He tugs at the plastic.

Our father comes into the room just as we unfurl it. Wild deer and elk stare up at us from moss-colored squares. It is hand-stitched with dark brown thread. I look at Matt, my brother who loves hunting best.

“Mom must have made it for you, for when you got married.”

I remember that my mother had thought it necessary for me to have a trousseau before I married. She’d had one. Hers had consisted of dozens of dishcloths embroidered with things like “Monday: Wash Day” and towels with crocheted halves that would button over the handle of your oven door. Since I had never been interested in domestic skills, my mother took it upon herself to ensure I had a trousseau. She bought me china that I have never used. She made dishcloths and dishtowels and embroidered the edges of pillowcases. I already had two afghans; I was given a handmade doily from my fiancé’s grandmother. I found it more than sufficient, but my mother insisted that I have a quilt.

For my mother, a quilt did not mean tying yarn into square knots; it meant something hand-stitched. She didn’t have time to piece one, but found a fabric that looked pieced. It had a French country look, with navy and rust squares of farm animals to remind me where I’d come from. She stretched it across our living room and tacked it to boards that she clamped together.

To her, every stitch in the quilt was an expression of love. For that reason my mom wanted the quilt to be from everyone: a gift from my family to me. She insisted that everyone put at least one stitch in it. She gathered them all—my older sister, my three younger brothers, and my dad—and gave them a lesson in hand quilting. Each of them put a few stitches in my quilt. I have pictures of my father—in from the quiet farm fields, bent close, his thick stubby fingers squeezing a needle between his thumb and middle finger.

There are no photos of my mother at the quilt, but I can see her in my mind. She licks a navy strand before she threads the needle. She wears a rubber thimble on her finger. White batting peeks out from the quilt’s edges. I see her reach under the quilt, her hands searching for the needle. I sometimes struggle to remember the sound of her voice. I need photos to help me see her face. Her hands, though, are always there in my mind. They are kneading bread, playing the piano, feeding fabric through the foot of her sewing machine. I’m sure she said she loved us thousands of times, but we felt it through her hands.

My mother thought I would treasure my quilt because everyone had contributed to it. After ten years, I treasure it for a different reason. As I lay under it, I run my fingers over its hills and valleys. I slide my fingers along threads of neat, even stitches. The quilt is priceless to me because I know, with few exceptions, that all the stitches are hers. I bury my head in the quilt to see if her scent is still there. It’s not. She died more than four years ago.

We stand around my brother’s quilt, quiet.

After a few moments, Dad claps Matt on his shoulder and says, “There you go, a wedding gift from your mother.”

I watch my brother’s hands move reverently along the quilt—smoothing it. His fingers run along the threads, stroking the stitches our mother made. Even now, the threads still whisper her love.