Saturday, February 28, 2009

Bits and Pieces---the Winter Quilts

I always looked forward to Winter as I grew up. Aside from the magic of shimmering snow, twinkling trees and gifty secrets, there were Gramma's quilts. As the first fragrant, speckled leaves of Fall spun merrily to the ground, Gramma began one of my favorite yearly rituals. A little second floor attic lay off my grampa's bedroom, and there Gramma and I would go to "wake the quilts," from where they slept most of the year.
The dark brown door to the attic stood out starkly against the pale blue of Grampa's bedroom walls. It had an antique beveled glass knob, and when I was a child I remember pretending it was an enormous diamond. Gramma sat me in the middle of Grampa's king size bed with some toys, and she'd enter the dark cavern of the attic. A few minutes later, she'd return to the bedroom laden with two or three neatly folded quilts. Unfolding each one in turn, she'd flip the quilts high in the air over my head and let them settle over me so I could wiggle my way out.
Within minutes, the big bed was covered with mounds and mounds of bright shards of fabric, neatly forming their own intricate designs. These were the things that would preserve us through the winter. When the weather got too cold, a curtain was pulled at the bottom of the stairway to the bedrooms. No heat went upstairs. It was then that these magnificent covers took over, replacing the warmth of the furnace as efficiently as the furnace itself. One of Gramma's works of art became a permanent fixture on each bed until Spring.
But the quilts did more than keep us warm in the dreadful cold of Pennsylvania winters. When we were ill, the quilts became a comfort and a distraction. All Gram's quilts were made of cast off clothing. Each little, carefully cut and seamed piece was a tiny memory. When the quilt floated out over our sick little bodies, Gramma would sit on our beds, point to a certain pattern in the design and help us remember the garment it came from. We'd remember, then, the days that went with that garment. The summer that little green pop-top became my favorite thing to wear. My sister's yellow dress and the day the dog torn it off the clothesline and danced areound the yard with it in his mouth. My Grampa's favorite plaid hunting shirt, and the day he wrapped me in it as we ran in out of a thunderstorm. A faded red dress of my mothers. One of Gram's many,many worn out aprons. The stories went on and on for hours while we laughed and forgot how ill we were.
Each quilt was pieced by machine, but quilted by hand, something that many quilters have no time for these days. Summer days were spent in front of a breezy window sewing the carefully traced and snipped units together, then the units into blocks, then the blocks into complete tops.
When the chill of Fall arrived, it was time to quilt. The quilting process took place in the largest bedroom of our house, which was mine and my sister's. It was an enormous bedroom, which was needed to accomodate the quilting frame. Gramma pushed my sister's bed and my bed far apart and set up the quilt frame. It was simply a couple finished wood pieces clamped to some wooden sawhorses, but to my sister and I it was much, much more.

At first, the quilt was only a few feet wide, wrapped securely around the wood lengths. But as Gramma quilted, the wood peices were adjusted further and further apart. Soon there was a wide expanse between the lengths and it formed a huge (to a little girl) cloth table. My sister and I, with our Barbies and their clothes and their dollhouses, would scurry under that enormous "roof" and set up house with all our playthings. A big braided rug covered the expanse of floor between our beds, and while Gramma sat quietly quilting and humming, my sister and I acted out chapter after chapter of our Barbie's lives. Ocassionally, when the sun shone into the bedroom, it fell on the quilt and the multicolored patches shone through the muslin lining as muted shades of candy colors.

By the time Winter hit us with the full force of it's fury, we were snuggling under even one more new quilt made with old memories. Gramma's quilts were finer than the most priceless tapestries in any great castle. After all, those quilts were made of pieces of us.