Stitches

When she phoned, Linda said nothing about quilts. Her excited voice roused me from a Minnesota winter of weary sitting and reading. For me it's a lot of effort to go outside in early March when the temperature is in the teens. Suiting up against the crisp cold and taking that first breath-freezing step outdoors required a moment's thought, but I decided quickly to walk the brisk mile to her house through the old inner-city neighborhoods.

On a back street of stuccoed duplexes sheltered by century-old elm trees, I slowed my pace. Each house along the sidewalk sat like a warm spark on a hearth of melting snow. Poster tulips lined the windows of the local grade school, reminding me that in a few weeks the snow would melt and the hard ground would soften for shovels and hoes.

By the time I reached Linda's door my heart anticipated spring. Her warm hug greeted me, and over her shoulder I saw a pile of quilt patches shimmering in the mirror on the old buffet. Jonquil yellows, garden greens, cloudy blues, and candy pinks shone like jewels through her black hands as she showed me how the colors were to be arranged. They told me of a spring garden soon to be planted.

Her gentle laugh told me she was utterly content with her choice of colors. Then she told me about her friend Paul's engagement and how her husband, Bill, would hand-carry the quilt to Connecticut for the wedding. They were longtime friends, and this event in his life wanted their special caring. She hoped the bride would like the colors she had chosen.

''How long will it take you?''

''I have these patches more to do.'' She waved her hand at the hill of fabric , cut and ready to baste. Then, as if I had reminded her how little time remained before the wedding, she settled on the piano bench with needle, thread, and a stack of patches. I looked at the two squares that made a patch, one a half-inch smaller than the other. With easy care she pinned a jonquil yellow to a cloud blue, taking a tuck in each side. While she worked, the long afternoon shadows colored and brightened her face. I thought of her generous giving and loving hands. Could I teach my hands to be as loving? Could I make a quilt? She made me want to give. The pure colors of the patches pleased my eye, and my mind began to mix together royal purple, bright yellow, spring lilac, and shiny black.

The thought of our long friendship wrapped me up in that warm quilt. I remembered another early spring years before when I had met her across an alley fence hoeing the just-thawed earth. Her slim young face looked into my young face. Come in and meet Bill, she said. And with that simple request I knew what she was asking: Come into my life and be my friend. I didn't hesitate. We planted beans together and danced and picnicked in the park. Every day we traveled the alley between our houses. We talked about our marriages and puzzled over raising children. Always her soft laugh encouraged me to share my feelings and dreams.

Linda taught me to see and care for the individual people in my neighborhood. She knew details about each family, tiny stitches in a multicolored fabric of cultures. She let me look into the lives of her sisters and her friends. So unassumingly did she engage the friendship that the quality of her living was always surprising me. As it was this long-shadowed cold day. And I sat in her dining room till the sun set.

When I moved away to live in the East, I could no longer sit in that warm-wooded dining room looking at her shiny face, so I began to quilt. Each quilt stitch became a detail of that friendship. I've looked at my quilting books in the 10 years since that day, but none has given me the memories of that Midwest afternoon. And I've never had to look up the pattern for that biscuit quilt.

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