How To Quilt Memories: Instructions For My Mother

by Iris Graville


Step 1:

Cut as many large sections as you can from my six nursing school uniforms, blue-and-white seersucker dresses with white cotton aprons buttoned to the waistband.

Step 2:

Iron the cut fabric to remove wrinkles. Ignore faded stains from the many times I changed dressings, inserted catheters, and cleaned up stool. Although the tears I shed when patients died left no mark, the blood and urine shadows never disappeared, even after hundreds of washings.

Step 3:

Choose a nine-patch pattern and join the memory quilt tradition that dates to the mid-1800s. Your mother and her elderly friends will help you calculate how many blocks you’ll need to make a queen-size quilt. You won’t know it now, but it will lead to stories I’ll tell your grandchildren about my nursing career as well as the push and pull of our relationship.

Step 4:

Cut a three-inch square of the seersucker and a three-inch square from the white cotton. Repeat this process until you have 810 squares.

Step 5:

Lay out quilt squares on a large tabletop at my grandmother’s senior center. As you move the squares like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, you’ll remember my stories of triumphs and disappointments, of bumbling and mastery. You’ll recall my choked accounts of the newlywed paralyzed from the neck down when he dived into a shallow pool, and the young boy with cystic fibrosis who returned to the hospital repeatedly during my pediatric rotation.

Step 6:

Line up the edges of two squares and sew them together along one edge. Pick up a third square and sew it to the second. Repeat until you have three strips with three squares each. As you add squares, you’ll pray that I’m spared the row upon row of your losses and fears. First, widowed at 26; next, a miscarriage when you and my stepfather tried for a baby; at the height of your journalism career, a benign brain tumor that nearly took your life; and at 48, widowhood again.

Step 7:

Align the first strip with the second strip and sew together. Then stitch the third strip to the second, forming a block of nine squares. Continue until all rows and blocks are sewn together.

Dot the center of the quilt with my school’s logo patches. Border them with my embroidered nametags. Someday, I’ll take a new last name, just as you did when, a widow with a five-year-old, you married a man so different from my father. This new husband, not sickened by alcohol, adopted me, gave me this name on the quilt.

Iron the finished quilt top.

Step 8:

Cut plain muslin fabric slightly larger than the quilt top you constructed. Lay this backing fabric on the table, then arrange the batting—a thin layer of cotton—on top of the backing. Lay the quilt top on the batting. Pin the three pieces to keep them from shifting, as I will, from intensive care, to cancer care, to hospice and home health, and finally to public health. Eventually, I’ll shift to the career that also chose you—writing.

Step 9:

With one hand on top of the quilt and the other underneath, guide needle and thread in and out of all three layers of fabric. This will take dozens of hours. Expect to prick your fingertips repeatedly as you feel for the sharp needle piercing the layers. This won’t be the first quilt with tiny bloodstains; without some imperfection, quilts are thought to be unlucky. Your tears will seep into the fabric, grieving your own unfulfilled dream to be a nurse.

Step 10:

Sew bias tape to the quilt edges, encasing all the layers of fabric. Give quilt to me, even though by that time I’ll be straining at the tight seams you stitched to keep me close.

For nearly twenty-five years, I’ll store the quilt, folded into thirds and wrapped in tissue paper, in a big white box, unsure of what to do with it. It’s much more than a cover, laden as it is with memories of your expectations.

You and I couldn’t know when you made the quilt you’d die before we mended our tattered relationship. Yet, some months after your death, I’ll bolt a pine rod on the wall at the top of the stairwell that leads to my writing room. I’ll drape that memory quilt over it, finally able to see the love that guided your hand.

IRIS GRAVILLE is the author of three nonfiction books, including a memoir, Hiking Naked (Homebound Publications, 2017), a recent recipient of a Nautilus Award. Her first book, Hands at Work: Portraits and Profiles of People Who Work With Their Hands, received numerous awards, including the Nautilus Gold award in the Small Press category. Her essays have been published in The Examined Life Journal, Spry Literary Journal, and River Teeth Journal.  Her essay, “Flight Home,” received an honorable mention in The Lindenwood Review Lyric Essay Contest.  Iris lives on Lopez Island, WA where she writes essays, teaches, and serves as publisher of SHARK REEF Literary Magazine. Sometimes you’ll find her on the interisland ferry, working on an essay collection about the Salish Sea, climate change, and Washington State Ferries.