Posts Tagged ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’


Don’t waste yourself in rejection, nor bark against the bad, but chant the beauty of the good.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Grandma’s quilt, drying.

We do not live an equal life, but one of contrasts and patchwork; now a little joy, then a sorrow, now a sin, then a generous or brave action. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Last weekend I bought a box of Ivory Snow and hand-washed my grandmother’s quilt in the bathtub. The water turned the color of strong tea, and never did run completely clear. But I got the worst of the dust of some 30 years off it, and Ernesto hung it gently on the clothesline where it dripped for one full day and then finally dried completely on the second. It looked so beautiful. I had a good view of it from the desk in the office, and for the first time I could see the pattern of the stitches and not just the triangles of fabric. The triangles were pieced together to form hexagons, and the stitching was done in concentric hexagons. As the sun set, a low, golden light made it look bright and fresh. I would have liked to leave it hanging there as an ornament.

Many years ago I wrote a draft of a failed novel. It didn’t really get off the ground good, but it had its moments–a little joy, some sorrow, a dash of sin. The main character was a young married woman, Melanie, whose marriage goes pear-shaped. About the same time, her grandmother instigates a fracas by opening her home as a bed and breakfast against the advice of Melanie’s father. Melanie moves to the B&B to sulk and sort things out, which makes her father even madder. Other things are going on, too—not many, it was, after all, a failed first draft—but one of the subplots involved Melanie’s sister, Vanessa, making a quilt. The entire family is aware of it, but no one is focusing attention on Vanessa’s project given all the other crap going on. One afternoon Melanie goes up to her grandmother’s attic for something and discovers that Vanessa had vandalized every wedding gown and bridesmaid dress that the ladies of the family had carefully packed away. Vanessa had cut bits and pieces—mostly along the hemlines—for her quilt. Melanie raises a big stink over the desecration of her own wedding gown, which seems to her emblematic of the damage to her marriage. But all Vanessa wanted to do was weave together a lot of particularly beautiful bits of fabric into something splendid.

Now that I’m thinking about that extremely unsuccessful story again, it occurs to me that Vanessa’s quilting was also an attempt to hold things together when so much in her family seemed to be falling apart.

Quilts do bind things together.

I’ve always thought of writing as similar to quilting but without such a happy ending. I collect fragments, flotsam and jetsam, bits and pieces, and whipstitch them together in stories and letters. It doesn’t make the same splash as a real quilt, though, and it can’t keep you warm or make you feel better when you’re sick in bed. A few months ago, when it was not 103 degrees every day, I met several friends for lunch. We climbed out of two cars in the parking lot of a little café, and before going inside Mary K. pulled out a quilt she’d made for her granddaughter. We each took a corner as she unfolded it, and the four of us spread it between us to admire. As I held up my corner, I wished so hard that I could make a quilt, but I cannot even sew buttons on properly. I admire my quilting friends, Mary and Diane. They both create gorgeous bright patchworks that people will treasure for always, and pass along to their children. What a gift.

Another quilt story:  Last fall at a university luncheon I sat next to a nun. Sister Mary Ann was retired from teaching, but she still worked as a hospice chaplain and she told me she quilted when she had time. She had recently finished a quilt with heart appliqués for her 9-year-old great-niece. Then she had it appraised and was astounded when the appraiser valued it at over $2,000.  She believed this was thanks to all the careful hand-stitching. It caused Sister Mary Ann to fret about sending such an expensive quilt to a small girl. But she packed it up, insured it, and sent it off, hoping that the little girl would appreciate it at least a little bit.

Pretty soon Sister Mary Ann received a thank-you letter from the great-niece, who wrote that the quilt had been on sort of a traveling exhibition.  It went with her to school for show-and-tell, and she took it to a piano lesson to show her piano teacher. She reported, too, that she now made her bed every morning since she had such a beautiful heart quilt on it. Sister Mary Ann smiled. “Then, at the very end, she wrote, ‘You are creative and a real artist.'”

I could tell that Sister Mary Ann felt she had gotten her money’s worth.

One final patch.  Italo Calvino wrote:

Who are we, if not a combination of experiences, information, books we have read, things imagined? Each life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles, and everything can be constantly reshuffled and reordered in every conceivable way.

All right, I’m done. For the time being.

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