11/19 Weekly creativity contest winner & new prompt
Lots of layers for this week’s creativity contest prompt, “quilt.” So wrap yourself up and have a cozy read. Our winner is Cathy Coley, who wrote a personal essay with unfettered honesty. Congratulations, Cathy (defending champion!). Your $10 amazon.com gift certificate has been issued.
Quilts are heavy. I love sleeping under them, but for me they are weighted by memories of grief and struggle. One person comes to mind whenever I see a quilt because she was an award-winning master quilter and my late former mother-in-law. Her death is still the most visceral for me, and her son gave me a life’s worth of hope and potential, but ultimately we divorced.
She was a woman whose heart was big enough to fight for a little boy who was born into unimaginable neglect at a time when her marriage was dissolving. She fought to adopt a foster child who was slated to be reunited with the parents who had several children removed from their care because of their inability to cope due to severe alcoholism. At the time, the presiding policy was shifting to try to keep families together against the odds of betterment for the children involved. She went to court and succeeded in her bid to adopt the boy she had been caring for determinedly for three years, and who had begun to thrive.
When our wedding approached, she sat me down and asked me point blank if I was ready for this. If I was going to be able to handle all that may come up for him because of his rough origin. At the time I assured her I could love him enough, no matter what, I could be there to take care of him. I had already for two years, and had been very aware, or so I thought, of the depths of his despair and needs. Aren’t we all a little more optimistic about the powers of love in our mid-twenties? Don’t we all think if I can just love him enough, then all will be well? She promised us a wedding quilt, but was still working on it by the time we were wed, and honeymooning in her cottage on a lake in Maine.
Her father’s many acres of land were a generational home we would eventually take our boys to for summer vacations. She and her brother had grown up romping along the lake, her children and his, and then ours did the same. In the October of our honeymoon, the lake reflected the most glorious patchwork of changing tree colors, filling the spectrum from brightest yellows thru golds, bright and deep oranges and reds, even hues of burgundy and plum. The loons’ mournful cry echoed the sentiment of earth’s shutting down for the winter, across the lake. When the quilt arrived a few months after we were married, it was unusual and beautiful – a Japanese window pane pattern in red, beige, pine greens with strong geometric bands of black giving a three-dimensional effect. The only request I gave her for it was to please use strong colors rather than pastels. I didn’t know of her particular talent and skill in that gift of her hands until I opened it and marveled at each tiny stitch, under an eighth of an inch, precisely and lovingly stitched. Later, she would quilt a baby’s quilt for my oldest son. He was nineteen months when she passed.
By then, she was already twice through battles with breast cancer, to which she eventually succumbed. She flew us down to Florida in her final days. In her house were several examples of her handiwork: a beautiful throw on the sofa, a decorative element on a marble table, a back room with bits and parts of progress, shelves of colors waiting to be sewn, paper plans, wooden rings, loose and taught with fabric. Each piece finished and unfinished was museum quality.
Her son was unable to cope with the loss of someone he always credited for saving his life. The sight of her in such a depleted state was unbearable for her multiple stroked second husband; for her mother, aged ninety, who had had quadruple bypass surgery months before our wedding, and made it from south Florida to the wedding in Boston a few years before; and too much especially for her youngest son.
I had a little remove from the situation, and so was left to care for the others. I won’t go into the excruciating details, but much was too much for me to bear as well. She had worked until the week before and was gone by the following. I was alone with her when she made the decision to die. She looked herself square in the eye in the bathroom mirror, as I bathed her after a traumatic incident. She looked at the state of her self, her family, and knew it was time. She could no longer care for everyone else, now she was unable to do the simplest tasks in self-care. She looked in the mirror and said, “So this is it.”
That afternoon, I watched by the window for the hospice worker’s arrival. I stopped her outside and said no one else in the house is capable of making this decision. I told the hospice worker that she was ready to go, but couldn’t as long as the others were with her. After a private discussion in the back room between them, arrangements were made, pieces were put in order, and she put her last stitches into the quilt that was her life, neatly, precisely, as in everything she did. We were put on a plane back to Boston while she went into hospice.
At her funeral the following week, so many women, quilters, came to us and spoke of her quilting with such reverence. They said it was a shame she couldn’t be at this last county quilt show. Her last piece was on prominent display, already the winner of the show’s competition, even before her death. They all insisted we should go see it. We arrived at the show, came around the corner. Displayed upon the first of many temporary panel walls, was the most beautiful quilt I have ever seen, even to this day. Not just because of the circumstances, it was genuinely the most exquisitely executed piece of art. A king-size traditional wedding ring quilt — a white background stitched intricately with millions upon millions of stitches, interlocked green rings in the foreground with perfectly puffed borders, meant to be given to the first grandchild to be married, on their wedding day.
From Juliet Bell: “I don’t suppose this qualifies as creative, unless you count the watercolor from which the squares are derived. But…I confess to a compulsive addiction to doing this, and the prompt set me to it again.” I’m pretty sure this qualifies as creative, Juliet!
From Jen Johnson: “I’m going to dust off an old piece to send for this week’s prompt, since it came immediately to mind. This one has actually appeared in print, in an earlier version (in Once Upon a Time, the magazine for children’s writers and illustrators). The file for this draft is dated 2003, before my kids had been born — interesting to look at it now, from the perspective of a mother, especially after making my son’s quilt. (Still working on one for my daughter!)” Jen also sent in a photo of the very first quilt she made: “Machine pieced and hand quilted, put together on a whim without a pattern. It hangs over our bed. (In earthquake country, it is a comfort to have something soft over your head as you go to sleep!) I was working on this at the time of writing my poem.”
The Poet Pieces for Cover
Day after day, the page remains as blank as a bedsheet,
so she puts aside the pen and selects a new between.*
She threads the needle — thinking of it as a dash
worthy of Dickinson — and she muses upon her material:
a scrap of calico cut from her mother’s apron,
a seersucker square from her father’s summer suit,
a paisley print from her sister’s skirt,
a flannel plaid from her brother’s shirt,
silk velvet from her favorite dress,
the denim from a threadbare pair of jeans.
Several bolts of discount cotton and all manner
of misfits rescued from the remnant bin —
linens, cambrics, rayons, chambrays, corduroys,
damasks, jacquards, jerseys, woolens, organdies….
She takes whatever cloth she can get
and starts another crazy quilt.
There was a time when women did this
of necessity, re-used each scrap of fabric,
put the pieces together as best they could
because the pieces were all they had.
They called it piecing for cover, making blankets for the beds.
Winter was coming, and their children would be cold,
especially at night. They had little time for frivolous things,
no time for wishing that words would come
when they are called, as though words were
obedient children. Perhaps her words
are too well-behaved, she thinks,
for lately they are neither seen nor heard.
Perhaps she’s whipped them into silence
and is an unfit mother. They have taken
all her words away, swaddled babies
stolen from her grasping arms by a barren midwife
and left on some stranger’s stoop in late December.
She could sense their lexical shapes but nothing more
beneath the swaddling bands, yet she is sure
that she would know them if she saw them. She looks
for their faces in novels, in magazines, in skinny books of poetry.
Bending her head, she knots an end of thread and wets the tip
against her tongue, imagining her writer’s block
as an actual block of old fashioned ice —
enormous, opaque, surrounded by sawdust.
The dimples on the familiar thimble
reassure her nearly numbed thumb,
and she tells herself the block will melt.
It always does. Creativity is all about
entropy, and every thought will thaw
to the liquidity of language if given time.
And time she has. Words don’t grow up
and leave home. Her babies will be taken in and cared for
until she can bring all of them home.
and give each one a proper place to live.
For now, she makes a quilt, piecing for cover,
each patch a paragraph, each seam a sentence
in the archaic language of her ancestors’ needles.
* a “between” is a specific type of needle, often used for hand-quilting
From Brittany Vandeputte:
The quilt in the closet was given to my great-grandmother by her grandmother when she was born.
And now itʼs mine.
Blue pinwheels dance across bone white. Tiny pinprick stitches by my great-great-great grandmotherʼs hand.
How many times did the needle graze her finger, I wonder?
How many of her loose hairs were woven unseen among the thread?
What dreams did she dream for my great-grandmother as she sewed?
103 years of dreams.
Of her very own.
The other quilt is Mamawʼs
Made especially for me.
She knew me well, my great-grandmother.
No staid blue pinwheels blowing across bone.
For me there are stars and flowers, pinks and purples and yellows.
A garden for me, made by her hands, pricked with her blood, tangled in her hair.
And full of dreams
From me (Miranda): When my firstborn son was about two years old, I made him a quilt. No pattern; I just made it — sewing machine for the piecing; hand tufting when it was all put together. While my quilting skills are entirely amateur (maybe “maverick” is a better word?) and I never did get the batting quite right, I did have a lot of fun in the process. I also included a few scraps of material that my mother had used in a quilt she made for me when I was a child, and I love that continuity. My son’s quilt is now faded, stained, and a little tired, as it’s seen a lot of use in the past 16 years. At some point I told myself that I’d make quilts for all of my kids, but I’ve never made another. Better put that on the “someday” list, with a few underlines. I’ve got a lot of work to do….
This week’s prompt: “Silver”
Use the prompt however you like — literally, or a tangential theme. All media are welcome. Please e-mail your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org by 10:00 p.m. eastern time (GMT -5) on Tuesday, November 25. The winning entry receives a $10 gift certificate to amazon.com. Writers should include their submission directly in the body text of their e-mail. Visual artists and photographers should attach an image of their work as a jpeg. Enter as often as you like; multiple submissions for a single prompt are welcome. There is no limit to how many times you can win the weekly contest, either. (You do not have to be a contributor to this blog in order to enter. All are invited to participate.) All submissions are acknowledged when received; if you do not receive e-mail confirmation of receipt within 24 hours, please post a comment here. Remember, the point here is to stimulate your output, not to create a masterpiece. Keep the bar low and see what happens. Dusting off work you created previously is OK too. For more info, read the original contest blog post.
wow, these are wonderful! thank you for the honor among them.
i can’t believe jen and miranda didn’t use patterns for those and ‘winged it’.
juliet, my goodness! stunning. i accuse you of the same planning perfection as my late former mil! something i am completely incapable of.
i love the weaving of fairytale and family history in jen’s and brittany’s poems! after all, in this day and age, isn’t that what the craft of quilting is about?
a note of syncronicity: i befriended an amazing quilter this week. she refers to herself as a ‘fabric artist.’
What amazing entries this week — thank you everybody for sharing.
Cathy, that’s neat about meeting a “fabric artist!” The woman who taught me to quilt referred to herself as such. Love the term. I greatly admire the way your essay presents such heartbreak with such clear eyed honesty. Bravo!
Juliet, if those aren’t creative than I don’t know what is! Love the color combinations.
Lovely poem, Brittany. Especially like the detail about weaving the hair into the quilting. Beautiful.
Miranda, I laughed aloud at the idea of “maverick” quilting skills! So nifty that you were able to incorporate the same fabric pattern scraps as those in your own childhood quilt. I have a quilt from my grandmother that uses several different types of fabric with family context like that, and it’s such a comfort to meditate on the stories behind the scraps (and part of what inspired my poem).
all beautiful entries. congrats on your winning essay, cathy. very touching. i’m so ashamed to admit that with a master’s degree in english, i don’t make myself find the time to write like you guys do. triple kudos to you all. add that to my someday list, i guess.