March 16, 2022

Memory Quilt


Here is why people treasure quilts.  This quilt holds so many loving memories, symbolizes such a great story, and inspired this beautiful essay.  (Notes and photos on the repair process follow the story.)

My paternal grandmother made this quilt in the mid-1990s.  It was born from love that went back one long lifetime, and love that she wanted to carry forward several more lifetimes.

Grandma was a proud, tough “Okie.”  Born in 1919, she came of age in the worst hard times:  on a homestead farm between Hough and Guymon, Oklahoma, during the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.  She was able to do some college.  But she left early, to join the WAVES during WWII.  Then, she married and had two kids.  She was stubborn, but she had a sweet streak, too.  Acutely aware that she was my only living grandparent, she tried to be all of my grandparents, all of the time.  She lived an hour away, but she often came to important school assemblies and birthday celebrations.  We spent every holiday together.  And I spent lots of time with her, at her old farmhouse.  We gardened, read, exercised, played piano, sang, danced, listened to opera, cooked, quilted, and crossworded together.  As she approached 70, she set her heart on finishing her bachelor’s degree.  She went back to school at an HBCU, where she connected with people from very different backgrounds and took down challenging advanced algebra classes.  She did well until she slipped on ice, broke her hip, and was never quite the same afterward.

My mom was ethnic Chinese, from the south of Thailand; one of six kids in a rubber-farming family that had fallen on hard times.  By age 15, she’d lost both parents and taken on a quite a bit of responsibility for her raising her youngest brother.  When she met my dad in Douglas, Arizona, she was a bright, brainy American Field Service (AFS) exchange student.  It was their senior year of high school.  For better or for worse, they were smitten.  They wrote near-daily letters to each other while they were in college, in different countries.  Once they’d both gotten jobs and settled into early adulthood a bit, they married.  And the rest is history.  Mom was an avid reader and an amazing home cook.  She kept an immaculate home (tidy house; tidy mind).  She was a loving “Tiger Mom” who embraced motherhood, American culture, Christianity, and her career.  She had a quick mind and a sharp sense of humor.  She brightened and lightened every room she entered; everyone loved her.

Things can get pretty complicated between mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws.  But it was even worse for Mom and Grandma.  They came from totally different worlds, literally a world apart.  They’d both grown up poor and lost their parents.  They were both smart, strong, stubborn, and stylish.  Pretty, too.  But that’s about where their similarities ended.  They often misunderstood and mutually offended each other.  Whenever they got close, they went round and round. 

So I was quite surprised when one day, out of the blue, Grandma said she was talking with Mom about making a quilt for me.  I was about 10 years old.  Grandma was an avid quilter, and Mom was getting rid of her rainbow array of gauzy old 80s shirts.  Mom thought Grandma might like to use the shirts for scrap quilting.  Grandma proposed turning them into a quilt that would preserve the feelings of my mom, from back when I was younger:  soft, light, sweet, pretty, colorful, and comforting.  Grandma said that, after all the hard times ended, her own mother had walked off on the family and into a new life.  She said she’d missed her mom every day since then, even though she never saw her again.  (And she’d died nearly 20 years earlier.)

For the backing, Grandma asked my mom for one of my old baby blankets.  The biggest, not the most precious.  It was cool, classic white cotton with a waffle weave.  It was a bit small.  So it limited the size of the quilt to something more like a “throw” or a “cuddle,” not a proper bed covering.  As with many quilts, I got to help my Grandma piece the blocks together.  But this one was extra special:  I also got to pick the color theme for the rest of the quilt.  Grandma recommended picking something that I loved, and that reminded me of my childhood.  Without hesitation, I picked hot pink.  Just like any good (girl) child of the 80s might have done :)

The memory quilt was Grandma’s labor of love.  It was a love that transcended the many difficulties between her and Mom.  It was more about how much mothers mean to us, generally, than how many hard words she and Mom had exchanged over the years.  Grandma finished the quilt in about 1994 or 1995.  She said she wanted me to keep it to share with my own children someday.  Not long after, Grandma developed Alzheimer’s.  As her mind slipped away, she softened.  And Mom softened toward her, in turn.  We spent many pleasant hours at the nursing home – visiting, laughing, and just living in the moment together.

I loved the memory quilt.  But I couldn’t imagine a world where I’d be missing my mom, the way Grandma had described missing hers.  Sadly, though, that world would become mine too soon.  In 1998, Mom was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.  In 2004 and 2005, it metastasized and took her life.  She was 48; I was 22.  Grandma passed away not long after, in 2007, at 88. 

I still love the quilt.  It’s come everywhere with me, all through my adult years – which were admittedly quite hard early on, without Mom and Grandma there to keep guiding and cheering me on.  But the quilt was a steady, familiar old friend.  It kept those feelings alive and with me.  I was too young to understand how to give it the care it deserved; I loved it to shreds.  As I approach 40 and turn toward starting a family of my own, I am so very thankful to Ann for repairing this deeply meaningful quilt and teaching me how to preserve it.  It’s the perfect vessel for carrying Grandma’s and Mom’s love forward into a world that’s no longer their home.

There are many stories about the process I’ve been through to successfully repair this much-loved quilt, not the least of which is that dear Grandma had a construction style that made the rebuild more tricky…..   Let me just say “24 per inch machine stitching”. 

The daughter requested that I save as much original fabric as possible of course….would you like to guess how long it took me to get the binding off?!  

I took the binding off because in addition to patching the top, I was also replacing the back, the soft cotton blanket that was mentioned in the story.  (These "before" condition photos are courtesy of the quilt owner.)


The damage to the top was that the edges of the fuchsia brocade fabric had pulled out of the seams, leaving frayed edges. After a couple of trial runs, I decided on slipping a strip of the new fabric (an amazingly close match) under the frayed edges.  I turned under one edge of the strip along the seam line, and turned under the frayed edge on top of the strip.   


I was able to save and reuse most of the binding.  But the quilt had lots of ripples in it, and flattening it out made it larger.  So I added some more of the brocade I used for patching in the centers of the long sides.

There was a nice hunk excess blanket along one edge, which you see dangling in this photo.  I divided in two, hemmed them, and made two nice receiving or crib blankets.  

I highlighted this quilt, along with a quilt that was made in Hawaii, in a recent YouTube video.

All in all, a super successful project, if I do say so myself!

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