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.