by Rachel Sudbeck
My house is full of quilts. Go into any room and you’ll find them- draped across the back of a chair, bunched at the end of a bed, pinned to the walls of our den next to family portraits and a needlepoint map of the U.S.
I can go into that den and pull one off the haphazard pile at the end of the couch. A Halloween quilt with purple and black fabric, a Christmas quilt featuring the Grinch- his smirking face peppered into neatly stitched squares, alongside other prints that feature such adages as “Ho-ho-ho” and “Happy Holidays!” printed in friendly green swirls. There are other quilts of course, featuring the more standard constructions- flying geese and north star and so forth, all lovingly rendered in pale creams and browns; the nostalgic sepia tones of my mother’s childhood. But they end up in other parts of the house; the friendlier, more “modern” quilts tend to gravitate into the family room.
I always dig for a particular quilt; a happy image of a big-eyed frog on geometric lily pads, and above him tightly stitched dragon flies. Their wings are flaps of fabric sewn in such a way that they flutter off of the quilt’s surface. This quilt is the plushest and the largest, the best for wrapping myself up in and feeling the dragonfly wings rustle across the surface of my skin. If I bury myself underneath it I can see the ceiling lamp through the fabric, burnishing the green hues a dim orange, creating constellations out of the miniscule holes made by the pounding of my mother’s sewing machine.
If I listen to the silence of the house, I can hear that sewing machine downstairs, fervently chugging away at a new blanket- unneeded, but when mom clears a space on the floor so that she can lay it out for everyone to admire, I will still think that there is a sort of magic to it. It will hold a place of honor on mom’s chair for a few weeks, until she starts another; relegating this one to find a space in some empty corner of the house.
Quilting is my mother’s passion, her obsession, her compulsion. She calls it her “stress relief,” and indeed her output increases during times of turmoil- the move to Nebraska, my sisters leaving for college, and the general everyday stresses of life are all marked by the number of quilts churned out of the basement, all of them harkening back to simpler times. Christmases and childhoods reduced to geometric shapes, easily pinned and stitched.
There’s a sort of manic quality to it- to the hum of the sewing machine murmuring through our house. Sit on the stairs leading to the basement and that hum is accentuated by mom’s record player- a Christmas gift to herself- which churns out crackling tunes from Mott the Hoople and Jethro Tull, the needle tracing out the contours of the record, the moaning voices of the singers rising and falling above the steady thud of the needle puncturing fabric.
This is preferable to when the needle stops, and I can sit on the stairs and listen to her sob while the Who or the Beatles provide a scratchy backdrop. At these times I wish that I could go down to her and wrap us both up into any one of the quilts, huddle us together under the fabric the way she used to do for me when I cried, make a patchwork cocoon. Instead I merely wait for the machine to whir back to life, for her to resume work on some new cowboy printed piece of fabric.
There are two quilts that my mother is proudest of- two that never got relegated to the end of the couch. These are the two that are hung on the wall, although the central design of one of them also graces my mother’s custom credit card. With most quilts I only see the end product, but my family was treated to in-progress shots of these two. My mother would bring one up, shake it out so we could all see what she’d done so far, and beam at us. I don’t know if any of us quite understood the significance of them (we had, perhaps, grown desensitized to the art of quilting.) But even so, looking at the unfinished quilts, their blocks trailing off of each other like pixels, we would all nod and bug our eyes out and generally congratulate her. There was nothing else for it, really.
When they were done she laid them out side-by-side in the living room. They were clear companions- had the same color scheme, a sort of deep midnight blue offset by pale oranges and the occasional flash of a dim green. One- the one I liked better- she nudged with her foot and said, “Obviously this one isn’t the main attraction, but I wanted to do two quilts, so I put together this sort of simpler one as well.” It was like a large harvest moon to my eyes. The center was a pale orange circle made of four pie slices, each a subtly different shade or pattern. The background of each slice was a different array of blues radiating outward from its center.
The other one she crouched down to smooth with her hands. It was…I didn’t understand it. It was a geometric quilt, but made of thin orange shapes that made me think of apple slices, all arranged in a circle, their ends meeting in the center of the quilt and radiating outwards, thin green triangles and circles interspersed between them, everything stark against the deep blue background. The meeting point in the middle is what I supposed must have made it so difficult, but I couldn’t see such a difference between this quilt and any other quilt my mom had stuffed into our house.
Even so, she had us hang them up, moving aside pictures of our family- me and my siblings, my mother as a baby, my parents getting married, and some old sepia prints of more distant ancestors. These we spaced in a tighter clump along one side of a wall, and the moon quilt was hung alongside them. The apple-slice quilt got its own wall, set beside the door. Finding that pushpins weren’t holding them in place, we instead used some of mom’s sewing pins, which are longer and drove the fabric deeper into the drywall. We all stood in the middle of the den to appraise them.
Mom produced some magnifying glasses from various points in the house and handed them to us, encouraging us to examine the stitching more closely; the quilting that softly swirled along the inside of each block. I looked at it alongside my shoving siblings and soon grew bored, instead turning the magnifying glass to engorge other things; the crack in the wall, the sepia prints, my mother’s face. I followed the lines of her, the constellations and patterns etched into her skin, threaded into the corner of her eyes and the edges of her mouth. I followed their arrows to her hands, the radiating contours of her swollen knuckles gently fingering the fabric.
Rachel Sudbeck is just some chick who splits her time between her home in Omaha, Nebraska, and her education at Western Kentucky University. She is currently studying Creative Writing and Broadcast Communications, and overall things seem to be going okay on that front.