This morning I tried to make an inventory of my quilts. I began quilting 34 years ago and am truly self-taught. Someone told me once that I’d get better (I think I was lamenting my careless skills) and that wasn’t true. I’ve now made 35 quilts and I am still careless and I don’t sew well. But I love the process and I am always working on at least one quilt, often more. Right now it’s a school bus quilt to celebrate grandson E’s transition into a bed. I also have some pieced variable stars that have been waiting for me to notice them again and figure out what to do with them. I think I know now so I’m looking forward to finishing the top. What you’re seeing in the photograph here is a pieced top for a quilt I made for Forrest and Manon about 10 years ago. I batiked the fish and then dyed the squares in indigo. The lighter marbled squares are me using up the dye when it didn’t have much ooomph left in it. I love the soft blue though. I can’t remember if I sewed akoya shell eyes on the fish.

I was thinking about quilts as I was reading Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory last week, a book that won’t quite let me go. Her Canadian publisher calls it a documentary novel. Maybe it is. I wonder about calling it fiction though. It is a scrapbook in a way, a pieced quilt made of fragments. Family stories, portraits, songs, maps, journals, letters — all of these, incomplete in themselves, with missing elements, forgotten names, have a cumulative effect. Some sections of the book are like art history (meditations on Rembrandt), 20th c. history (the sections on the siege of Leningrad and the Stalinist purges are harrowing), and very moving parsings of family history in all its possible variations.

The past had bitten me, but it was only a warning nip, and it was still prepared to let me go. Slowly, very slowly, step by step and bawling gently at the effort, I made my way back to what once had been the beginning of a path through the cemetery. 

I thought how the material could have been organized differently and the book would have been a very different experience. I was curious about the decisions Stepanova made to include particular things and how different the book might have been if she’d been given permission to use material her father vetoed. In some ways I was reminded of an interview I’d watched, Doireann Ní Ghríofa talking about her wonderful A Ghost in the Throat, and how genre isn’t on her mind as she writes, that what she’s doing is, in a way, its own thing. I completely understand that. It’s true, too, of In Memory of Memory.

It won’t let me go. Her uncles, her aunts, her great-grandmother who went to medical school in Paris. What they left. What they lost. Sitting in the chair by the fire, sewing, I am in Leningrad, I am sorting family photographs and letters, walking streets in small forgotten towns looking for traces. And how my own scraps gather, accumulate, until the right arrangement suggests itself. Fish on blue cotton, lopsided stars, log cabins pierced at their centres with red fire.

In a book about the working of the mind, I once read that the important factor in discerning the human face was not the combination of features, but the oval shape. Life itself, whilst it continues, can be that same oval; or, after death, the thread of life running through the tale of what has been.

5 thoughts on “patchwork”

  1. I like that “warning nip” bit. In the library catalogue here, the title for the epub has a subtitle associated with it: “A Romance”. By the way you’ve described it, i can see how it would infiltrate your thoughts for some time afterward. The lingering.

    1. The interview with Doireann Ni Ghriofa is really interesting for the way in which she says that genre was the last thing on her mind while writing and how the interviewer indicated the difficulty in classifying her book (and the interview, part of the Cuirt Festival in Galway, was conducted at Kennys Bookstore, one of the really great ones…). I thought then how this difficulty should never shape our thinking while we’re writing and then wondered how much it does? Writers with Big Reputations and agents and eager publishers waiting for the next book might well feel the pressure to shape their work into a convenient package. So grateful for the books that are, well, Other. The ungainly ones, the ones straddling the borders, the ones walking into the mountains, whistling…

  2. I love the soft blue too.
    With respect to your comment above: it’s such a shame when writing gets pushed into a convenient package. Yay for straddling borders!

    1. I was really so impressed with Doireann’s observations about genre, about not really paying attention but simply following the materials. That is so much the way I write and I realize what a pleasure it is to discover books written out of the same urgency.

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