Here’s a free short story that I wrote for a prompt at Mallory Bowen Tam’s blog: “Tell me a piece of your history that you’re proud to call your own.” This was supposed to be a short sketch, but it grew … and grew … and eventually it was too long to comfortably post in a comment, so here it is!
I discovered via period research this morning that “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” wasn’t performed until 1971 … damn it. I hate to lose the reference, so I left it in there ’til I think of something to replace it with. Heck, narrators are notoriously unreliable, and maybe she came up with that nickname for the quilt later, and is backfilling that detail into her story …
I sewed the first square of the quilt for my boyfriend in 1967. He was a philosophy major. I had finally chosen English Lit because my parents refused to keep paying for college if I didn’t pick something. I knew I would never use my degree; we both planned to own a goat farm and live a simple existence off the land. He was not interested in marriage, which, we both agreed, was an oppressive capitalist tool that we were better off without.
… Even though I secretly hoped that he might change his mind later, and in some part of my mind, the quilt was less a gift than a hedge against my future hope chest. I figured that by the time we graduated and started looking for a goat farm I would have had time to lay in a full bedroom set. But I clearly had no idea how much work went into a quilt. By Christmas I’d managed exactly three squares.
My boyfriend’s name was Joe, so I planned the quilt to resemble Joseph’s coat of many colors, a rainbow going across and back. A further advantage to this plan was that I could buy cheap fabric remainders, or get used clothing from the Salvation Army that I could pick apart. (My parents gave me enough funds for tuition, books, and my dorm room, but very little other than that. In retrospect, now that I have daughters of my own, I realize this was a good move on their part.)
But I came back from Christmas break to find that Joe had flunked out. I had to learn this out from a family friend, since he never bothered to call and let me know. I later found out that the draft board tracked him down a month later. (He made it back from ‘Nam and married a girl named Jeannie. I bore her no hard feelings; I figured I’d had a good escape.)
I wadded up the whole Technicolor Dreamquilt project and meant to throw it in the trash. Instead I stuffed it in a suitcase when I went home at the end of the semester, because it was the first thing I’d ever sewn and I couldn’t quite bear to throw it out. I figured I could use the fabric for something else, at least.
I made the next part of the quilt for a friend who was dying of cancer.
It wasn’t really meant to be the same quilt. Over the intervening two years, most of the spare fabric had been repurposed into other projects; I’d gone from being a rank amateur to having a pretty skilled hand with a sewing machine. But I found those three squares wadded at the bottom of my sewing bag and figured I’d do something with them. It so happened that I’d started the Dreamquilt in the yellow-to-orange end of the spectrum, and I thought it might make a great start for a Sunshine Quilt, which was a pattern in a sewing book my mom had given me for my last birthday.
It was 1969 and I was living in a commune of sorts in northern California. We were all family, bound by bonds deeper than blood, or so we told each other. And one of my new sisters had cancer. She was driving an hour to the city three times a week for chemo, and all her hair had fallen out. I collected all the yellow, orange, and red fabric anyone had on hand, and began piecing some new squares.
Three months later, the commune split up when the couple who’d founded it broke up and divided all their shared property — which made up most of the commune’s assets — right down the middle. I moved back in with my parents and lost touch with everyone. I never did know if my “sister” survived her cancer, though I hope so.
Mainly I had other things on my mind because two weeks after moving home I found out I was pregnant.
The less said of the scene, the better, but I will grant that my parents eventually came around and were a lot more supportive than I’d expected. I think they were starting to despair of having a grandchild — my brother had volunteered for the Army and was looking like career military, without a girlfriend in sight, and my older sister had jumped on birth control pills as soon as she found out they were a possibility. So my parents decided to view the glass as half full and looked forward to the coming grandchild, even if I wasn’t quite sure who the father was. (Actually, I was quite sure — the timing worked out perfectly for Unnamed Baby Johnson’s father to be the male half of the split-up commune couple. But they had three kids already, and were currently in the middle of a huge, messy custody battle; plus, I knew for a fact he had other girls on the side. He was a loser and I figured my baby was better off without him in her life.)
I already knew my baby was going to be a girl. Silly? Maybe. But I met her in a dream. We believed in those things, back in those days. And I turned out to be right.
I sewed the next part of the quilt for Unnamed Baby Johnson. Maybe I should have started something new, rather than carrying on with a project that had so much baggage attached to it, but I was far enough along now that I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. I’d made it through quite a few more squares — I sewed much faster now — but I’d left all the rest of the fabric behind at the commune. So my mom took me out and we bought brand new fabric, gorgeous and beautiful and new. I couldn’t wait to cut into it.
As it happened, I got one more square sewed before I was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia. I spent the rest of my pregnancy in bed, lying at an awkward angle and suffering from pregnancy-induced carpal tunnel in both wrists that made sewing miserable. Then Baby Johnson — now renamed Susie — was born and I was much too busy for quilts.
In 1974 I fell head over heels for a feminist folk musician in San Francisco. She loaned me her well-read, dog-eared copy of Rubyfruit Jungle and a whole new world opened up for me. I decided I’d never found happiness because I’d been chasing men. I embraced my newfound sexuality along with Marybeth.
My new love hit the road and so did I, with four-year-old Susie in tow. We traveled all over the country, my sweetheart chasing her dreams of musical fame and me washing dishes to pay our hotel bills. In the evenings, I’d work on the quilt, though I was no longer sure what I wanted, eventually, to do with it. The pattern had long since gone off the rails, and I’d used the fabric my mother had bought me to make a long skirt for myself and a matching pinafore for Susie. So I took up the slack with random bits and bobs of fabric from rummage sales and old dresses of mine. (I’d abandoned my beloved long hippie skirts for jeans at Marybeth’s insistence.)
In 1978 Marybeth and I had an amiable separation — and we’ve remained friends; our kids know each other, and I attended her wedding when she and her girlfriend of fifteen years were among the first couples to wed in Massachusetts in 2004. (Do I need to mention that I worked on the quilt as a wedding present? Can you guess how that turned out? But I’m getting ahead of myself …)
I’d never finished college, and I thought perhaps I ought to go back. I was facing the big 3-0 (lord how silly it seems to me now, all my fretting over hitting that milestone!) and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. It was becoming obvious that I couldn’t count on a partner to support me, and I didn’t want to end up moving back in with my parents. So I worked out a deal with my folks where they’d help with my college and living costs, and I’d pick a major with good job prospects and take out financial aid for the rest. Even in the middle of my classes, I took the quilt with me. It was about half done by now (hey, it’s hard to find enough time and mental peace to get any proper sewing done in hotel rooms; I figured I was doing pretty well to be as far along as I was!) and I decided that I was going to finish it as a gift to my mom for all she’d done for me over the years.
But life had other plans. I was nearly done with my first year of college as a newly minted journalism major when my mother had a heart attack. She was only 53. I dropped everything and rushed home with Susie. But Mom was gone. The only silver lining to that huge dark cloud was that it brought all three of the Johnson kids together for the first time in over a decade. I’d barely spoken to my brother since we were teenagers, ever since he forged a life path that was diametrically opposed to my own. Now we got to know each other, and I met his wife, who was expecting their first child.
I thought maybe I could finish up the quilt as a baby blanket. But, you know … never enough time. And besides, she told me she hated yellow.
So we all wobbled on into the Reagan years, the whole Johnson clan, an eclectic band spaced out along the entire political spectrum. Susie did a year with a foreign-exchange family in France while I tried to finish up my journalism degree. I dated a few women and then met a guy, and there went my die-hard lesbian street cred. We were married shortly after our mutual graduation. The twins were born a year later, and Robert the year after that. The only problem was that Susie never did accept him into the family, which I suppose was just as well — at least it wasn’t devastating for her when we were divorced. But I was speaking of the quilt …
It may surprise you to hear that by this point I’d managed to complete several other quilts. I was (and am) a fairly accomplished seamstress and I truly enjoyed it. But there was just something about this quilt that refused to cooperate. I’d start to work on it, and then find myself wandering off to something else. The kaleidoscope quilt I made for the twins’ room, with all their favorite colors … The log cabin quilt I put together for Susie’s graduation … There was always a brighter and better quilt, with fabric from the same dye lot and stitches that were straight. Still, the orange and yellow quilt had so much history in it now. That stupid quilt was older than any of my children. It had outlived relationships and cherished political convictions; by the late ’90s, it had even outlived my parents.
And it was constantly repurposed over the years. It was going to be a wedding present for my sister, who had finally tied the knot, to the entire family’s surprise. It was going to be a housewarming present for Susie and her boyfriend. For one brief, heady week in 1992, I made plans to finish it in celebration of Clinton’s election. I meant to finish it to send to Afghanistan with Robert. I even considered sewing the final squares as a “Thank God It’s Menopause” gift to myself. (After all my worries over turning 30, 40 breezed by without fanfare, and my main thought on turning 50 was Thank heaven that’s over — by that point I was pretty much done with the roller coaster of failed relationships, content with my own company and that of my kids and, now, grandkids.)
Instead here I am, with a quilt that’s growing ever longer without showing any signs of coming to an end. To be honest, I’m a little worried about how big this thing is getting. I probably could’ve called it good a few squares ago, but that would mean moving on to the next stage — quilting the top onto the backing, and I’m 65 … do you know how much work is involved in properly finishing a quilt top? And yes, you can hire it out, but I can’t even imagine paying some stranger with a sewing machine to quilt my 45-years-in-the-making quilt top onto its backing. Based on how the rest of it went, I can only imagine it’d take me another 45 years to do the finishwork.
Besides, it’s gotten to the point where adding each new square is a long, beloved ritual all its own. I have to look over all the other squares and figure out whether the new one’s color and fabric will fit with the rest, and that means sifting through a whole album’s worth of memories, some good and some bad. Here’s the very first square I sewed for Joe in 1967 — and wow, is my stitching terrible; I used to want to pick it out and resew it, but now the awful stitching is part of the charm. And here’s the stain where I spilled a cup of coffee, back in the days when I was traveling with Susie and sweet Marybeth. These are the squares that the twins “helped” me sew; the edges are crooked, but I’d never want to redo them properly.
This quilt has seen me through a lot of changes, from bra-burning to cell phones and Skype and my granddaughter’s blog posts about the kyriarchy. (This generation’s terminology seems a little strange to me, but I understand the sentiment just fine.) Truth be told, I don’t think I’m done with it just yet.