`Grandmother's Flower Garden' Revisited

`SALE $69.95 HANDCRAFTED QUILTS, ANY SIZE.'' The ad in the slick department-store catalog tempts me. For a mere phone call and recital of my credit card number, I can acquire a king-size quilt that will transform my bedroom into the country look of a bygone era.

If, indeed, human hands were involved in the crafting of these quilts somewhere along a factory assembly-line, is the product in any way close to the genuine article that is stored in the chest at the foot of my bed? What about fine workmanship? What about the stuff of which it is made?

It was Grandma Hall who took on the task of creating a quilt for each granddaughter's bed. Her son's family and his house were expanding.

With another child on the way, my dad had transformed the attic of our bungalow into a bedroom for his two older girls, so that the baby could sleep in the downstairs bedroom. He partitioned the attic, painted the wallboard apple green, and laid knotty-pine patterned linoleum on the floor. Mom sewed curtains for the windows and flowered chintz slipcovers for a chair.

``Grandmother's Flower Garden'' was my grandma's chosen quilt pattern, and I was summoned to her house to help.

It was always special to go to Grandma's. Her house was spacious and peaceful with lots of interesting nooks to explore. A shopping bag full of toys hung on a hook by the basement stairs.

And there was an abundance of flowers. Pots of African violets were lined up with other plants on the dining-room window sill. Huge gilt-framed floral oil paintings adorned the walls. In a corner of the dining room was a fancy tilt-top table with a painted floral motif. Outside, gardens of tiger lilies, lily-of-the-valley, tulips, lilacs, and peonies all seemed to thrive in the big shady yard.

I clearly remember the day I sat with her in the ample dining room with its built-in mirrored sideboard. The mahogany table was piled high with pieces of old and new fabric. The new solid-colored goods were apple green, white, gold, yellow, lavender, rose, pink, blue.

There were dozens of different flower-sprigged pieces for the required 79 flowers (no two the same) in the twin-size quilt. Most were scraps left over from my mother's sewing basket. We sat under the Tiffany chandelier and traced hexagon shapes over and over. I was reprimanded for not being precise enough in my tracing and cutting, a necessary requirement for the proper engineering of a quilt. I took it as a scolding rather than instruction. Afterwards we cleared the table and played anagrams and had hot chocolate.

I just now counted and discovered that in the main body of the quilt are 2,923 hexagon-shaped pieces. I scrutinize, for the first time, the logic of the pattern - a single bloom in the center, surrounded by increasingly larger circles of flowers.

``It must have taken Grandma years to make the three quilts, one for each granddaughter,'' I think. ``No'' Mom said, when I recently questioned her, ``it didn't seem to take long at all. Grandma used to enjoy spending her evenings quilting while listening to the radio.''

In my childhood memories this quilt was always on my bed, and I was free to flop on it.

Well-versed in the ``minimalist'' art and architecture theories of my college years, I shunned the cute and country look and chose the then-more-popular sleek and modern furnishings for my own home. The quilt was carefully wrapped and stored in an old chest. Every once in a while I took it out and tried to find a way to use it. I tried displaying it folded on a shelf for a homey touch. I considered hanging it on the wall.

It made a charming spread in my teenage daughter's room for a couple of years before it was returned to its place in the chest.

I began to appreciate its value when attending antiques fairs and quilt shows and my younger sister became a serious quiltmaker. Never would I make pillows or a trendy jacket out of it - or stiffen it to make a hanging sculpture (as I recently read about in a decorating magazine), or use ``that old quilt'' to buffer furniture when moving.

So, here it is today, spread out on my king-size bed for another look. Colorful blossoms of familiar material - pieces of the soft homemade cotton house-dresses (always with matching aprons) my mother and grandmother wore in the 1940s. Remnants of some of my favorite childhood clothes - my ``flyaway-birdie'' dress, my ``circle pocket'' dress, my summer sunsuits, all with the secret pockets mother sewed into the side seams. Doll clothes cut from the same fabric scraps.

King-size nostalgia in a twin-sized, authentic, grandmother-made, one-of-a-kind quilt.

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