It was 1975 and my hippie sister was getting married. Our parents thought it was wonderful, but mind you, my sister and her boyfriend were not exactly invested in tradition. I thought she’d lost her mind. As I saw it, she had the perfect life at college. I imagined parties until all hours and awesome concerts. Classes, sulky professors and living on a shoestring didn’t factor into my vision of her life.
The wedding would be small, out of doors. I would serve as bridesmaid, my sister’s best friend as the maid of honor. My mother would make our dresses for the event: floor-length, empire waist, spaghetti straps. In keeping with the times and the warm summer temperatures, we’d have flowers in our long, straight hair and sandals on our feet. The dresses would be lovely for a late summer wedding and I’d be able to wear the dress on another occasion. In my selfish, teenaged mind, that was the most important feature.
This was the summer before my junior year of high school. I worked on a suntan in the rare Pacific Northwest sunshine, listened to rock music with friends, and snuck an occasional cigarette that I rarely enjoyed but it was cool to pretend. I had no plans for my future beyond completing the driver education course and getting the coveted license to drive a car. Beyond that, I hung out with girlfriends, all of whom wanted to spend their time enjoying the company of cute, long-haired teenaged guys who drove loud cars and were always looking for a party.
Sprawled on my sister’s bed, I stared at the ceiling while she jotted endless notes. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “It’s out of character for both of you.” She looked at me with her usual older-sister haughtiness then rolled her eyes.
“We’ve simply decided. You should be happy for us and enjoy the experience. If anyone should ask,” she added, “I’m not pregnant nor am I quitting school. And try to be helpful,” she said.
“Whatever,” I said as I left the room. There would be no further response because we did not share intimate snippets. If I shared with my older sister the private details of my life, I would be met with obvious disdain and at sixteen, my self-disdain was enough.
I flopped onto my own bed, face up to the ceiling once again. My thoughts left my sister and I began to muse on the party I planned to attend later on, up in the woods near the river. These parties were always the best; no one for miles around bothered by our music, our noise or our fun.
There was a knock on my door and my mother entered. “I know you have plans later, but I need a favor,” she said. She closed the door and sat on the bed. “Your grandmother,” she explained, “is anxious about the quilt she’s making as a wedding gift. She needs help measuring and cutting, simple tasks like that. I have errands to run and I’m accompanying the choir at five p.m. I’ll make it up to you,” she assured me.
I felt myself slump which is hard to do when you’re lying down. For all my faults, I rarely argued with my mother. She didn’t ask that much of me. My mother didn’t work outside of our home, but she played the piano. Actually, she was an accomplished musician whose talent was relegated to the occasional wedding or community event. And she took care of my grandmother.
My father’s mother lived with my family, but I didn’t enjoy her company. My grandmother wasn’t mean or difficult, but she conveyed an attitude of indifference. She had had a difficult life. Her husband, my grandfather whom I never met, was reportedly an angry man with a sour nature and she had retreated into herself and her sad past. As far as I knew, my grandmother had two pleasures in life: she smoked cigarettes like a house on fire and she was an avid quilter.
Grandma’s large bedroom had a view of our backyard. She spent hours alone in that room making quilts. Quilting wasn’t my thing. I brooded about the assignment then dragged myself downstairs.
I approached my grandmother’s open bedroom door, hearing her faintly humming a tune I didn’t recognize. I knocked on the doorframe, glancing in her direction with a civil expression. She was surrounded by bundles of fabric and taking more out of a box. The humming ceased as she looked up and waved me in.
“I’m looking for fabrics I’ve saved, but I’m not finding them,” she explained.
“Are you sure they were in that box?” I asked. No answer as she delved deeper. She pulled out a small bag and looked inside.
“Here they are,” she said. She pulled out rolled remnants secured with rubber bands. I recognized one of the patterns. My sister had a peasant blouse made from it which I wanted to borrow although it was too big for me in the shoulders. The shades of blue had complimented her dark hair.
“I remember that blouse,” I said. “It was one of her favorites.” My grandmother nodded, set the remnant aside and pulled out another; blue with green polka dots. “I remember that, too,” I mentioned. My sister had had an Easter dress made from the fabric in sixth grade. She had argued with my mother over the length of the hem. My sister had won the skirmish.
As she began to pull a few other remnants from the bag, I could see that they were all saved from garments or items made for my sister. “You’re using fabrics she’ll remember to make the quilt,” I stated. “She’ll like that.”
My grandmother nodded again. She held up dark blue cotton with tiny white flowers. “You won’t remember this one,” she said. “You were still a baby. She wanted a pleated skirt for first day of kindergarten. We chose it together.”
“Nice,” I answered, a bit confused. My sister had not shared any more affection with my grandmother than I had. Weird. I felt left out, as though I had missed an event because I wasn’t invited.
“These three patterns will do,” she said, “and I’ll need three others. Help me decide which.”
“I like these,” I answered, as I suggested the deep-green paisley that I remembered from a jumper and a pale blue denim. The last fabric was a calico print.
“These will work well,” my grandmother said. “We’ll use solid green, blue, and yellow for borders.”
I became intrigued by her plan. “What do you want me to do?” I asked. Grandma explained that she would create twelve squares, eighteen inches on each side, constructed in a modified pinwheel arrangement. The pinwheel had been her great-grandmother’s signature pattern.
My grandmother’s expertise and precision were impressive. She was truly in her element. This was a side of her I had not seen. She handed me a right-angle tool to measure six-inch squares of fabric with one-inch allowance for seams. “Use these fabric scissors to cut exact squares,” she instructed. I listened wide-eyed.
“Are you sure I can do it correctly? I asked.
“Of course, you can,” she answered. “Keep the fabric flat, don’t pull it, and mark before you cut. Do the math first to know how many squares of each fabric.”
I calculated aloud. “Nine small squares per finished square. Nine times twelve finished squares is one hundred and eight. Six fabrics, so 108 divided by six is eighteen squares of each.”
“Exactly,” Grandma confirmed. “You’ve always been good at math.” I was a little embarrassed by the compliment, but she was correct in that math was my best subject. I was just surprised that she knew it. “Which color for the backing?” she asked. “There’s plenty of blue and green, not so much yellow.”
“Definitely green,” I answered.
“Okay,” she said, nodding agreement. “Let’s get started.”
I had expected the tedium to drag me to utter boredom, but I enjoyed the repetition. Soon, I was a few dozen squares into it. Grandma showed me how to stack them so I could count at a quick glance.We worked together in silence.
“What do you think of them getting married,” she asked. “Do you like him?”
“Sure,” I said. “He’s a nice guy.” She nodded. She had responded with a nod a few times.
“Why do you think he’s nice?” she asked me.
“He’s cool,” I answered. “They get along. He listens when she talks and he doesn’t try to talk her into anything,” I said. “That really turns me off,” I added with a shake of my head. “That means I really don’t like it.” It sounded like I was interpreting another language. She looked at me with half of a smile and said she had figured that much out.
“He’s nice to me,” she said. “But I didn’t know if his manners were for show, like Eddie Haskell on Leave it to Beaver.” We shared a laugh. I wasn’t sure if I had shared a laugh with her before and it had been natural, unforced. “I had hoped the kindness and the manners were real,” she said.
My grandmother hoped they would wait to start a family after they finished college. I realized that when she was my sister’s age, the choice of when to start a family was a decision seldom left to a young woman. I wondered if she knew that times had changed. It sounded like she hoped they had.
We continued working. I measured and cut. My grandmother created triangles made of joined squares, cut diagonally. Every few minutes she would count and measure.
When I had cut several dozen squares, Grandma said, “You can stop working if you’re tired.” I was enjoying myself. I didn’t want to quit.
“No,” I said. “I’d like to keep working.”
“This is a big help to me,” she said. “Scissoring is hard with my arthritis,” she explained. “How about getting us something to drink?” she suggested. “I would love a glass of tea.”
I returned from the kitchen with sweet tea for my grandmother and a Coke for me. She had two pinwheel-pattern squares, exactly the same, set out on her work table. The pattern was impressive, the colors vibrant. The combinations she had chosen were beautiful together. “Wow,” I said. “They’re so cool.”
Grandma smiled at me and nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I think so, too. They are cool, aren’t they?” she agreed, using my word. We sipped and worked. “I see you with friends,” my grandmother said. “So, if you don’t mind me asking, is there anyone special?”
“No,” I said, “and I don’t mind. There’s not anyone special. Just friends,” I told her.
“These boys that are friends, are they nice boys?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, laughing. “If they weren’t nice, we wouldn’t hang out with them.” She smiled and nodded. Another smile. Another nod of her head.
“Get to know them. Don’t rush anything,” she advised.
We had been focused for quite some time on the prep work when there was a knock on my grandmother’s bedroom door. It was my father. I couldn’t believe that it was time for him to be home.
“How are you two doing?” he asked.
“Fine,” Grandma answered. “We will join you for dinner soon,” she promised.
We sat at the kitchen table together, the three of us. The back door was open. The waning sunlight warmed the evening. My father talked with his mother and their ease together was touching.
The phone rang. “I’ll get it,” I told them, as I ran to the hall table where the rotary telephone had been sitting for as long as I could remember.
“Hey,” my friend said when I answered. “Still on for tonight?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I told her as I looked towards the kitchen. “There’s a bunch of stuff going on. Wedding shit. I’m trying to act interested,” I said. I wanted to meet up with my friends, but I was enjoying the quilt project. I just wasn’t ready to confess it.
She sighed and said, “Okay, whatever. Call if you can make it. I’d much rather go with you.”
“Okay. Later,” I said and placed the receiver on the cradle. I told myself that another hour with Grandma and I’d be done. I’d make it to the party after all.
When we finished, Grandma started to clear the table. “Let me do that,” said my dad, still seated.
“Thank you, dear,” she told him. She patted his arm as he lit a cigarette. “That stew was delicious. She does such a good stew,” she said, referring to my mom. Grandma looked at me. “Are you still with me or do you need to leave?” she asked.
“There’s nothing going on,” I said.
She nodded and looked at my father, then at me. “You’ve been a big help,” she told me. “I’m beginning to think we may finish it.” My father nodded and smoked his cigarette.
Grandma went to the backyard for a cigarette of her own. She rarely smoked in our house, only in dead of winter and never in her bedroom. “How come you don’t smoke in here?” I asked when she returned. “It’s your room. Mom and Dad won’t care.”
“Years ago, a buyer mentioned to me that his quilt had a cigarette odor and they were allergic. Some of my quilts go to babies. Others go to elderly folks in rest homes. It would be a waste if someone couldn’t use them. That’s why I make them.”
“That’s nice of you,” I said. It really was.
“I didn’t smoke inside when your father was a child and I had my own home.” My grandmother paused and I glanced in her direction. With brows slightly raised behind glasses, she added, “And your grandfather didn’t like me to smoke.”
After a few minutes, I said, “I don’t remember my grandfather. I’ve seen pictures, but not many.” There were several family photos in my grandmother’s bedroom, but none of her husband. I thought of the picture from my parents’ wedding day that sat on my mother’s bedside table.
My grandmother looked at me over her glasses. She inhaled, sighed and I felt tension. Then she smiled and said, “You can stop whenever you want. You have helped so much.”
Trying to sound cheerful, I said, “I can keep going for a while longer.”
“I don’t want to keep you,” she said.
We worked quietly. When we shared conversation, it was about the quilt. I counted the dozens of squares and realized I had met the required number. It seemed impossible that I had reached the goal, but I looked at the clock and saw the time. We had been at it for hours with only a short break or two.
“I think I’m finished,” I said. My grandmother counted softly to herself and confirmed that I was correct. It had all caught up to me and I suddenly felt exhausted. I yawned, unable to hold it back.
“You should be tired,” she said, “You’ve done a lot of work.”
“The quilt will be beautiful,” I told her. “They will love it.”
My grandmother stepped over to her dressing table, opened a drawer and removed a small item. It was a pair of picture frames, hinged together. She handed them to me. “This is a picture of your grandfather as a young man. It’s the only picture I’ve kept of him,” she said. “The other picture is of me.”
The photo was of a handsome young man wearing a jacket and tie with a beautiful smile and big, dark eyes. He looked happy, laughing as if someone told a joke. He had his whole life ahead of him, excited for it to unfold. I looked at the photo of my grandmother. I could see traces of her. Fair waves of hair pinned back from her face. Traces of makeup and dark lips curved in a big smile.
I had heard little of the man who had raised my dad. I thought about the tension when memories of him had entered the conversation. I blurted out the statement that I’d not seen pictures of him before I realized there were no photos of him on display. I looked up and saw that my grandmother had returned to her chair. Stumbling on words, I managed to ask, “How old were you here?”
“The portraits were taken the year before we were married,” she said. “He wasn’t a happy person as he grew older. Maybe the responsibilities of having a family, maybe something deeper, I never knew. He saw his life as a disappointment. Whatever it was that made him bitter, he took it out on me. Mostly, he ignored your father.”
I handed the photographs to her. She looked at the picture of the young man she had married. “These were happier times. You never know how things will turn out,” she said.
“That’s sad,” I remarked. “What about my dad, Grandma. Did you worry about my parents before they married?”
My grandmother looked at me and tried to smile. “No,” she answered. “Your dad has always been a sweet person, from the time he was little. And I thought the world of your mom.”
“I guess things turned out okay for them,” I said, not really qualified to pass judgement on my parents’ relationship.
My grandmother smiled and said, “You’d better get to bed. It’s late.” I agreed and said goodnight.
As I passed the living room I saw my parents sitting together watching television, the same as most evenings. They looked up as I came into view.
“Goodnight, honey,” said my dad. “Sweet dreams.”
“Nice job helping out,” said my mom with a wink. “Sleep well.”
I wished them a goodnight and headed upstairs.
My bedroom window was open and I listened to the quiet sounds of the neighborhood that wafted in on the breeze. My thoughts and emotions swirled. My grandmother had shared her love of quilting. Also, she had warned about pain, sadness and choices. I felt her love and concern for my sister. I felt it for me.
My sister’s wedding was lovely. As they pulled the quilt from the wrappings, my sister read the card aloud with tears in her eyes. My grandmother had signed the card from the two of us.