Generations The Bathrobe: On Quilting and Memory
The act of quilting is the transformations of meaning and object.
We’re making a quilt together, my mother and I. We’ve each made many alone but never together. It works only if we are patient with each other’s strange wishes.
Don’t throw that away.
It’s just a scrap.
Don’t throw it away.
It’s a scrap of green-blue flannel, and I’ve never thrown away even a sliver of it. Instead, the smallest bits stay balled up in the corner of my sewing basket.
Where will he go? we ask. At first we think to get as much of him in as possible, to cut into long strips this old bathrobe. And then we decide: No, the square, the smallest, the center in every single block, the one that tradition says should be red instead will be him.
As a child I sat for what seemed like hours on boats still tied to shore, waiting. Then, his calloused hands unknotting, pushing off, and the light from the water squinting my grandfather’s eyes.
I like him in the middle like that , my mother says.
It’s women’s work, sequestered off, something old, something tired, something with too much feeling. My Yankee neighbor tells me his mother used to make quilts that didn’t last but a year, those old fabrics brought to the edge of their use before they were ever sewn together. But still there was the desire to hold, to preserve, to keep working over the same worn places, the same old moments that time has moved on from.
We’ve always made quilts. My earliest memories are filled with the drama and quiet around them. The folds of pink fabric in a Kmart bag, carried over the mud puddles of our driveway; the dining room table spread with clean pressed squares; the Christmas morning quilt, wrapped around my body when I awoke.
It was one of the only times my mother and her mother got along in relative peace, each with their tasks and their ways. They knew how to care for what they were making and knew that it was more important to find places of overlap than for each to have her own stubborn way. But my mother still remembers the concessions, the fabrics she didn’t want to use that my grandmother put in, the way they’ve pilled up with age, just as my mother knew they would, or faded or bled or wore straight through.
But my mother also marvels at the hand-stitched binding, her mother’s perfect tiny stitches; and the way the squares are always square, not the parallelograms my mother always ends up with; those perfectly aligned seams, one two three four, all meeting in the middle to form a perfect cross. These are my grandmother’s markings.
My mother says that when I was a baby, and she and my grandmother would quilt, they would drop the scraps of fabric down to me in my crib, that I loved to watch them flitter and land. Everything covered in threads during quilting season, which was no season at all but a series of moments, wherever they landed.
My grandmother is always there when we quilt. Though she’s been dead for years now, we never quilt without her. I never quilt without my mother, either. There is always the overlap. And when it comes time to tie the quilt, to pull the layers of fabric and batting together with tiny knots of embroidery floss, it is her I always miss, her I always call as I take on the lonely task.
When I was young, my grandfather was always sick; he was always dying. There came a time when he couldn’t come to the lake with me anymore, when he was laid out on that old scratchy couch. I have a memory from after that shift, a memory I wrote and rewrote for years. Today I don’t know why. It’s just a scene, me and him and a wooden ball. I took my crayons and colored a nickel-sized circle on it. The crayons were in a butter cookie tin; I handed them, with the ball, to him. He did the same, colored a circle, handed it back to me. It went back and forth like this, and that’s the whole story. I handed him the ball and he handed it back to me. When we ran out of places for circles, we added flourishes of lines. Handed it back and forth, as though as long as we added to it, everything might go on like this forever, him on the couch, me on the floor beside him.
Was it the night before he died? Why was this the story? There are scraps I must be forgetting. The ball is precious; I still have it. These things that touched him, I cannot let them go. Two broken watches, four greening pennies, a gigantic red inflatable heart that says, “I love you this much” (Did I give it to him? Did he give it to me?), three engraved tie clips, this pencil, this magnet. This old bathrobe.
The story is like a piece of fabric I find one day. I know it is important, know it was once a thing I loved. But what was it, exactly, and why did I love it, and why, today do I still have it? It’s a plain fabric. It has a rancid smell I can’t get out. Keep it. A memory to something forgotten. Put it somewhere to honor someone, somewhere, some memory untethered to its moment.
The act of quilting is always about who isn’t there, about the passage of time, the transformations of meaning and object. A quilt both asks and answers questions of memory. Where did my favorite old shirt go? What did this fabric—this fabric that seems so important—used to be? And where have you gone? Why have you left us?
There are things I will never forget. But then I wonder, how much do we create and recreate the stories we tell? Did I ever see him in this bathrobe at all? I must have. I must have. But it was so long ago now, and I, so young.
My grandmother learned to sew at her deaf boarding school, where the children learned trades and were expected to work. My grandfather learned to work wood at the same school. They were all taught work with machines: printing, sewing, cabinet-making. My grandmother wanted to be a dressmaker but instead got a factory job, sweeping fabric scraps and threads that flew until, one day, they let her work the machines. She wanted to make dresses, but by then we were a country at war, and she made uniforms instead.
But at home she made dresses, and my mother remembers the rhythm of the sewing machine lulling her to sleep.
That memory is mine, too, from my own mother. The hum and the whirr. The pause and the snip. The gentle unfolding of cloth, and then, again, the hum, the clinks of the pins passing along the metal.
It was a decade before I finally cut into the bathrobe, with a deep breath in and another breath out, cutting in with the shears that used to be my grandmother’s, which have spent their lifetime cutting nothing but cloth.
I wanted to honor him.
And so I’ve cut and cared for it like my grandmother would have, ripped out all the threads, found room for all the pieces, nothing discarded. My first quilt with the fabric has bathrobe pockets still intact along the edge. A bathrobe belt loop along another edge. I didn’t want to forget what it was. The other belt loop has been stripped of its threads, ironed out, strung into strips and layered along the bright oranges, the deep reds of drunken log cabin squares. It’ll be something someday, or else I’ll go back in; I’ll find the pieces; I’ll extract them. An old bathrobe, to always bring warmth, that perfect green-blue, that sturdiest of flannels, and not a scrap wasted.
As I’ve grown I’ve had to admit that I must have never really known him. Almost all of what I know today are the stories the living have left for me, stories told and retold, loved and worn and old. I know nothing barbed, nothing uncomfortable. There is almost nothing left of his ragged edges.
Still there are lessons: that objects can have spirits, that one should not waste, that one should care for things that are precious. When he was too weak to stand at his workbench I still lifted the padlock from his basement door. I still sat in the stink of his sawdust.
This fabric from this, and this one from that, an old dress, a favorite pillowcase, torn. It adheres us to the past, but it is also an escape, a breath that releases us. The pants, they’re done; there is nothing left to do but quilt up their fabric. There is a point when the usefulness is finished, when it is time for the fabric to give something new.
I am stubborn with my fabrics, and my mother is too, in different ways. She doesn’t like the flimsy polyester blends I want to put in. She dangles a strip in the breeze through the window, pressing her lips. Maybe if we starch it, she offers, trying not to annoy me with her resistance.
It’s an old plaid shirt of my father’s, and I’m unyielding on the issue of its inclusion. Maybe if we only use just very small pieces of it, my mother suggests. She’s trying very hard to be accommodating, and so am I. We agree: no long pieces of the horrible polyester.
Still, it will be quilted in.
My father is older now than my grandfather was when he died. I say I don’t worry but still I ask, Are you afraid of dying?
No, he says.
Tear along the raw edge: That’s the one that tangles, that’s the one that misbehaves, always falls from its long, threaded lines. Most of these tiny torn scraps I throw away, but not the bathrobe’s. It is down to the smallest bits, those with embroidery backing, with curves and seams and threads through places I don’t understand. This must be the yolk, the part that held to the base of his neck, that gathered shower water rolling from his hair. This is the sash. Rip open the seam. Iron it and iron it again.
I remember clothes let out on the line, in the shade of pine over driveway dirt. My grandparents’ small home pressed up against the woods. We pressed against the woods too, walking for hours. And we went out on the lake, a peeling blue boat. A water the color of bathrobes, with a stench of pollen atop.
And while he spent his last mobile days in the boat with me, my mother and grandmother made a quilt. It had greens the color of oceans, mother said, where he once worked his weathered body fishing lobster. The quilt was for him but he was dead before it was finished. We buried him with a finished square, dust with his body.
My mother cannot make it now, cannot finish it. There is that missing square.
We found the other squares in an old vinyl blanket bag in the closet corner in my grandmother’s apartment as we cleared it out. My grandmother couldn’t do anything with them either. It seems impossible to finish a quilt intended for someone who is gone. The quilt is never made, never let go. Sometimes we lay out the squares and look at it.
We save these scraps not only out of usefulness, but out of love for things of memory; for things that look, merely, like fabric; for secrets.
It’s just a scrap.
After he was gone I would go to the lake, wrapped in this bathrobe. For years I did it, in the earliest mornings when no one would see. I sat in the boat. I waited there, pulling—gently, gently, and ever so slowly—at the moorings, waiting for him to come back, unknot us, and push us free.