Of quilts and woodsmoke

Today I’m hoping to begin a quilt. I have some Moravian blueprint bought in Roznov last February, at the Wallachian Open Air Museum —http://www.vmp.cz/en/visitors-tour-the-museum/roznov-pod-radhostem/ The Museum was fascinating, a collection of traditional Wallachian wood buildings, set among spruce trees. It was there (and a little earlier that same day, in my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomna) that I began to feel the stirrings of my own Czech blood. (I’m a quarter Czech, I said to John in wonder as we left that part of the CR by train. How is it that it took me 57 years to realize that?) Anyway, I’ve preshrunk the beautiful fabric and I’m trying to “see” what might be done with it.


In the meantime, here’s a short section of the novella I finished last week. I’ve given it to my husband and my daughter to read, to see if it hangs together, if the dialogue works the way I’ve presented it — I didn’t want to clutter the page with quotation marks or em dashes so I tried to embed the dialogue within the actual narrative. I might have to revisit this but for now I like it. So this is the narrator, a young woman in her late 20s in 1978 (and no, she’s not me…), considering a quilt she has inherited from her grandmother, a Roma woman who came to Canada in 1913, falling in love with a Czech man on the Mount Temple and marrying him once they arrived in Canada.



I shook out the quilt. It was large, big enough for a queen-sized bed, composed of scraps of wool, mostly, though I could also identify some coarse linen, a few bits and pieces of velvet, and the back was striped ticking, the kind you find on old mattresses. I think it was in fact a cover for what would have been a mattress in the Calderas’s wagon and it was pieced together, probably from scavenged outer edges of the bag once the central part had worn thin. A bag, roughly woven, to hold dried grass or hay, or goose feathers. The stripes had been deep blue – I could tell this by examining the seams where the fabric still kept its vibrant colour, those blue stripes on a creamy ground. Now both were faded almost to grey.

The wool scraps were loden, once green – again, I could tell this by looking closely at the undersides of patches from which the stitching had loosened. And the velvet was black, though faded and rusty. The green wool and black velvet was appliquéd to linen squares, the stitching fine as bird tracks, in thread that was now a faded yellow but which once had obviously been rich gold. I had glimpses of the original colour where the stitches had been covered with sashing, now frayed. And between the squares was sashing pieced from various lengths of grey wool.

The smell of woodsmoke and musty air. My grandmother’s house. My own small flat, on the second floor of the converted theatre, had a set of double windows with a generous sill. I hung the quilt to air, leaving it for an hour or so while I rode my bike into Oak Bay village to buy some groceries. Nuts, rice, and yoghourt at Earth Household; carrots and apples at the Super Valu. I decided I had enough money for a bottle of wine and chose a Hungarian red, the one with the bull on its label.

Riding back, I saw the quilt hanging from my windows like a banner. I propped my bike against the side of the building and looked up. The loden green scraps were leaves, scattered over the surface. I saw this when I looked from a distance, adjusting my eyes to its perspective. Groups of two in some squares, three in others, a single leaf in many. I ran into the building, up the stairs to my apartment. I touched the fabric. It was densely woven, a kind of felt. I bent my face to the leaves and inhaled something animal, oily. Rubbing my fingers together, it was like touching sheep, that coarse wool suffused with lanolin. My grandmother told me once that her father had worn a cloak, a loden cloak, given him by a man who’d bought some of the copper pots. It was very warm, she said, repelling both wind and rain. Sometimes he’d open it to allow two or three of his children to shelter within. We sat under trees while the rain poured down and it was our own tent, warmed by our father’s body.


Think of those two “c”s with little hooks over top. (I hope that’s the right way to describe that particular diacritic…) And that’s the name of the wonderful Czech garlic soup. I’ve been thinking about it this afternoon as I plant next year’s garlic. It’s a soup I had almost daily when we spent a month in the Czech Republic last winter. Martina in Brno said, when I asked her how it was made, that it’s a soup you can make when you have almost nothing in the house. Water, or stock. Onions, if you like. Garlic. Fried bread. Potato cut into little cubes. Maybe some cheese or ham. Some caraway seed. I had many types. I think my favourite might have been the two bowls I had at the lovely Brasserie Avion in Roznov. I’d intended to have soup, then something else from the inventive menu. But that first bowl was so satisfying that I had another. The fried bread came on the side, crisp and hot, and you put in as much as you liked, offering some to the others at the table.

Yesterday I woke with such a vivid scene in my mind that I sat at my desk and wrote the first thousand words of a novella I’m calling Patrin. Part of it takes place in the Czech Republic and part of it in Canada, two brackets of my grandmother’s life. It’s not about her, exactly, but something of her life will echo in its pages. This morning I wrote a little more and am filled with that excitement that the beginning of a book produces. I’m trying not to think of the other two projects I have in the works but I do believe that they won’t go away and might even be better for waiting.

Today I planted four varieties of garlic —  Chesnok Red, Leningrad, Georgian Fire, and Northern Quebec, all purchased from a late summer Farmer’s Market in Sechelt. Last year I grew Russian Red, bought in Grand Forks, and a porcelain variety from Gabriola Island, bought at Coombs on our way home from the Pacific Rim. They did well, producing 80 good-sized heads, enough for John and I to use this winter. Here’s a bowl of them, against the Japanese maple:

It’s definitely fall here on the west coast. Last week we picked a big bag of chanterelles and made some of them into soup for the freezer. This morning I noticed that there’s fresh snow on Mount Hallowell. Yesterday there were chum salmon in Angus Creek, undulating in the tea-coloured water, a sight that always moves me to tears. And several days this past week, we saw skeins of geese flying very high on their way south, their scribble telling of northern waters, the prospect of long dark nights, our hemisphere turning to winter.

Time to make Ceznecka with the summer’s bounty, a few red potatoes tumbled from their soil, and the scent of garlic to remind me of my grandmother’s country.