A Patchwork of Memories Warms Him

Slung over the bed, it looks like Joseph's coat of many colors, though it's a quilt, not a coat. Although it is, like Joseph's coat, a visible sign of my love for my son, it is much more than that. It is a record passed down through the generations, a record of the work that makes love visible.

Matt, whose bedroom is unheated, had been asking for another quilt, a supplement to his stack of down and flannel. He rarely complains about his heatless state, though every year he asks for heat in his room for Christmas.

He's concerned that, if he complains, his father and I will switch bedrooms with him. And he loves his room. From his bed, he can look out the south window over the roof of the barn and watch the Canada geese pitch into the cornfield. In summer, it is the coolest room in our old farmhouse, filled with light and breeze and the rosy glow of the sun descending into the woods on the next hill. Enduring the winter cold is the quid pro quo, the trade-off for summertime luxury.

Knowing this, Matt always just pulled his sweatshirt hood over his head and burrowed into the down quilts. Though the lightweight down was warm, he wanted something heavier, something that would make him feel covered.

He wanted not just warmth, but substance.

You can't buy substance. So I opened my blanket chest and began pulling out a lifetime of woolen remnants.

I began sewing as a child, making doll clothes from whatever scraps I could find in my mother's meager supply. Though Mom could sew well, her mother had been such an accomplished seamstress that Mom rarely made anything by hand; it wasn't necessary. Grandmother, a minister's wife, had always sewn. Necessity dictated that she save every last bit of what was left over. Waste not, want not. She had a supply of scraps that reached back to the beginning of the century. I inherited her remnants.

Dark-hued velvets and satins, bits of crepe polka dot, red silk, and a rustling navy taffeta were just part of the collection.

While I took pleasure in the richness of the fabric, more important was the connection with Grandmother. She had chosen each piece, had held them in her hands as she cut out the sleeve for a dress, the lapel for a coat. She had transformed them into something simultaneously useful and beautiful.

Sometimes, a piece of material triggered a memory for Mom. "My mother made a dress for me out of that when I was about 10," she told me once, fingering a ragged scrap of bottle-green velvet that I was awkwardly turning into a dress for my doll. Out spilled a story of her childhood, one fragment of a history I did not share but to which I was linked.

The practice I gained from using these scraps produced skill. In adolescence, I began making my own clothes. In high school, I graduated to making some of Mom's, too. Like Grandmother, I saved every scrap and carefully stowed each in the blanket chest Mom had bought specifically for that purpose.

When I married, I began making Gary's clothes - wool shirts, flannel-lined bathrobes, down vests for use at sea - and saved every scrap.

So when Matt asked for a quilt, I had a treasure trove of fabric waiting to be put to use. By now, of course, the volume of scraps had long since outgrown the blanket chest, but the pieces stored in that antique pine box were the oldest and reached furthest back into my past. I pulled out cloth I hadn't seen in decades: a skirt I made in high school from a piece of glen plaid my mother brought me from her only trip to Scotland, her ancestral home; bright orange coat wool I bought from the 200-year-old mill in Dickeyville, Wis., my childhood home; a vest that had once been the only pair of wool pants I ever made for my brother, Chris; the sport coat (it never fit properly) I made him one Christmas with a length of plaid brought back from my first trip to Scotland.

There was even a piece of wool I had saved from Grandmother's scraps.

Each bit of fabric emerged from the blanket chest with a memory attached. Piece by piece, I cut them into squares. One day, when Matt was out, I spread them all out on the office floor, playing with the colors - the light and dark plaids, the bold and subdued solids - remembering, and thinking about where this jigsaw puzzle of the past might go with my son and his future.

After laying it out, I stacked the squares in preparation for sewing them together. Then one snowy day while the children were busy exploring the white wilderness outside, I machine-stitched each square to the next, first in long rows, then in a colorful whole that blanketed the sewing-room floor. After backing it with batting and a sheet, I bound it with black corduroy and tufted it with black wool - saved from knitting my father a pair of socks many years ago.

I presented it to 14-year-old Matt at Christmas.

"It's perfect," he told me, feeling the weight of it, running his hand over the multihued surface. "With this over me, I'll really feel covered."

"It's got a lifetime of sewing in it, I told him. "That square was a shirt I made for Pop when I was not much older than you. And the two squares there are two skirts I made, one for me and one for Mom, when I was in high school. And that square came from my Grandmother Hines."

He understood. A lifetime of memories - mine, my mother's, my grandmother's, and now his, sewn into one warming, sustaining piece.

"I want one, too," Abby announced.

Unlike Joseph's coat, a sign of favoritism that provoked envy among Joseph's brothers, Matt's quilt of many colors is a gift of love and connection, a drawing together. While making it, I had carefully reserved enough squares - and the same memories - to piece together a second, slightly different whole. Next birthday, Abby gets a quilt of many colors, too.

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