The Memories Quilt

Posted by Wood | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 | | 16 comments »

A few nights ago I finally walked down into the basement to open up the giant plastic bag that I’d been avoiding for nearly a month. A familiar smell floated out as soon as I untwisted the top: a smell of stillness, of clothes long unworn, but also under it all the laundry detergent my mom's been using since I was in high school, the smell I'd bring back to California after a long trip home where she washed all my dirty laundry while I lazed around on the couch. I began to pull out men's t-shirts and sweatshirts, pausing to look at each one. There were several from Toronto, one of his favorite places. A shirt from the factory where he worked as an engineer. A couple from the restaurant he started with his best friend back in the late 1990s, one of the most exhilarating and exhausting times of his life. Then I pulled out a shirt he bought at the coffee shop that opened in a hard-luck spot just a block from the apartment Jim and I shared in San Francisco.

When I took that shirt out and unfolded it I saw that someone had meticulously cut open along one side and sewn in velcro closures so that he could fit it over his swollen arm: the arm where he took all his IVs, where they constantly searched for veins, battering it with needles until he could no longer fit his arms through the sleeves of his favorite t-shirts, even as chemotherapy whithered the rest of his body. That was when I started to cry.

And once I started crying, I couldn’t stop. Further into the bag was a University of Michigan Law School shirt that Doug loved to wear so that he could beam proudly whenever someone took notice of it and gave him the opportunity to say that his daughter was a student there. Below that was a Detroit Tigers shirt he bought when the Tigers made the World Series in 2006, a few weeks after we moved to Detroit, and a few short months before he was diagnosed with leukemia. We walked around Comerica Park with him and my mom during one of those games, so happy to all be finally living in the same state. He carried Juniper on his head as he made small talk with homeless guys about Kenny Rogers’ pitching. He referred to the hard-throwing lefthander knowingly as "The Gambler," even though he'd only recently taken an interest in the Tigers, mostly because we'd moved within walking distance of the games and talked about them during visits. That's how Doug was. He might not have given a hoot about something for most of his life, but the second his daughter showed even the slightest interest, he became an expert. He surrounded himself with the knowledge of it. And he never would let on that a month earlier all this might have bored him to tears.

Kenny Rogers and the Tigers won that game. My stepfather lost his battle with leukemia a year and a half ago, but my mother continues to fight the grief that sometimes threatens to swallow her up. And while I miss Doug, my own grief often takes a backseat to the heartache I feel when I navigate the difficult waters of comforting my mom. I’m her daughter – she is the one who is supposed to make me feel better, and she is the one who has always fixed my problems. Hearing her express her grief makes me feel helpless, and no matter how many times I call her each week, or how many weekends I bring her grandchildren to her house, nothing I can do can fill the loss she feels when she goes to bed each night without her husband.

Through her grief it has been difficult for me to come to terms with my own grief. But I am the kind of person who wants to do something. To make something. So I decided to sew. I’m making my mother a quilt from Doug’s trademark t-shirts and beloved sweatshirts: the clothes of his that she can't bear to give away but that serve no purpose sitting in a bag at the bottom of his old closet. Making my daughter’s quilt from her baby clothes so many months ago planted this seed, but I wasn’t sure that it would have the meaning I hoped until I finally got around to opening up the bag of old shirts, and was instantly reminded of each and every trip my mom and Doug had taken together. When I was younger and foolish, I often scoffed at the way he and my mom always purchased a shirt from every cheesy Irish pub or museum they visited on vacation, and I even laughed at the way a rotating menagerie of these shirts became the entirety of my stepfather's wardrobe. I was the kind of snotty tourist who would never stop in a t-shirt shop, never buy a souvenir to commemorate that I had been somewhere. But opening this bag full of shirts, I faced many of my own memories with Doug. Our vacation to Colorado when I was fourteen. All the trips he made to dull midwestern cities for my gymnastics career. All the places I'd lived around the world where Doug and my mom had come to visit me. Now that I'm older, I have to admire the way they found something that interested in them in every city we visited: the art museum in Milwaukee. The colleges that made some of the towns I competed in "college towns." They weren't snobs. They understood that every place, like every person, has its virtues, and its value.

Like the mysterious friend who'd opened Doug's sleeves on his favorite shirts while he fought the cruel disease in the hospital, that night I took a scissor to those beloved shirts. And I cried. I cried at the sewing machine as I started to make something warm for my mother to keep in her bedroom, to remember and honor the man she traveled with through so many years of her life.

Like Juniper's quilt, I'm sewing each t-shirt square with a square of muslin behind it, so that the quilt top will be uniformly stretchy (each teeshirt is a different consistency and some are much thicker or stretchier than others). I'm thinking of putting a strip of dark gray fabric between each row of shirts to finish the quilt top, and maybe a border of the same color. I plan on tying the layers together rather than quilting it. If you have any thoughts or suggestions on how to finish this (I still have another bag of shirts to go through), I would love your thoughts. And eventually I'll post pictures of this finished project. Even in its current state as a work-in-progress, someone thinks Grandpa Doug's quilt is pretty cozy:

Like Jim’s post, this one was sponsored by the American Cancer Society. I feel indebted to that organization because their work is not just about fighting cancer -- they also provide cancer survivors and those who've fought cancer alongside their loved ones meaningful ways to grieve and honor those who've lost the battle. My mom participated ACS’s Relay for Life recently, and I joined her for a few hours. I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I pulled up to the local high school’s track at 10:00 p.m. The Relay for Life is a 24 hour fundraising event similar to those walk-a-thons or a dance-a-thons you do in college. At the one I attended, there were giant bouncy castles and tons of kids running around, screaming their heads off at nearly midnight, obviously having a great time. There were musical performances, and there was a special time when all the survivors did a lap together, and seeing them all fill the track was breathtaking. But my favorite part was the paper bag votive candles that lined the track, each one decorated in honor of someone who had fought cancer. The track was completely lined on both sides with these candles. This gave my mom an opportunity to make something in Doug's honor. She decorated several for him, and she squeezed my hand as we neared the corner of the track where she’d placed them. She even made one dedicated to Doug from Gram, the grandson he never had the chance to meet. Next time we do the Relay for Life – next year – I’m bringing the kids. And the only t-shirt I'm putting in this quilt that wasn't worn by my stepfather is one worn by my mother at the Relay for Life.


  1. sarah // June 30, 2009 at 12:55 PM  

    this is great. i think you've found a wonderful way to celebrate a few of the things you and your family love so much about doug.

  2. Procrastamom // June 30, 2009 at 2:12 PM  

    This is a gorgeous post and a wonderful idea for a memorial to your step-father.

  3. Lisa // June 30, 2009 at 2:20 PM  

    Usually your husband brings tears to my eyes, but today it is you. What a beautiful idea. I can't imagine how overwhelmed your mom will be with this incredibly personal and loving project.

  4. Anonymous // June 30, 2009 at 2:27 PM  

    We attend a Relay for Life event here in NC every year. It is a special event. I lost my mom to leaukemia when I was very small. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. TisDone // July 1, 2009 at 3:36 PM  

    I cried.

  6. Anonymous // July 1, 2009 at 4:52 PM  

    I'm winking away tears. Beautiful.

  7. Anonymous // July 2, 2009 at 12:55 AM  

    what an amazing project. i think you and your mom will have a huge (and hopefully cathartic) cry when you give it to her.

  8. Jennifer N. // July 3, 2009 at 10:07 PM  

    Such a wonderful and touching project. I can only imagine how much this will mean to your mom.

  9. Unknown // July 4, 2009 at 4:53 PM  

    Thank you. Your post is a gift to us all.

  10. Amy Millward // July 5, 2009 at 6:03 PM  

    My dad died of brain cancer almost two years ago, and my sisters and I are always searching for ways to memorialize him. This is a really great one, and I'm proud of you for doing it.

  11. Barb // July 6, 2009 at 11:40 AM  

    What a beautiful, meaningful keepsake for your mom. Alicia from Posie Gets Cozy ( hand ties her quilts. She might have some useful info for you on her site. I really like using Warm and Natural batting. It crinkles up just like a vintage quilt once you wash it.)

  12. Unknown // July 8, 2009 at 12:30 PM  

    Have you read "A Year of Magical Thinking" by Joan Didion? I happened to read it the year before my grandmother died suddenly leaving behind her spouse of 57 and 1/2 years. Her book helped me to understand my own grief and my grandfathers grief in the most amazing way.

    I think that the way you are honoring your stepfather is amazing. That you can remember when and where those shirts came from is a tribute in itself.

  13. Amanda // July 9, 2009 at 9:49 AM  

    This is amazing. What a tribute. Your mom is going to love it.

  14. JCS in SATX // July 9, 2009 at 4:24 PM  

    Wood, I'm so sorry about your stepdad and thank you for sharing the stories behind some of those t-shirts. I hope making the quilt will help you remember him fondly. I know the quilt will be something your mom will cherish. Your plan for it sounds great! Do you plan to use the same fabric for the backing and the sashing?

    My baby boy was diagnosed with cancer back in April, so I participated in the Relay for Life in May as well. Baby Alan had a long line of luminaria from friends and the support it represented was priceless!

  15. patty // July 15, 2009 at 3:40 PM  

    this made me cry.
    my dad loves old cars and his favorite thing to do is buy a good ol' t-shirt at the many car shows he attends... makes me think of him. :)

  16. Unknown // August 3, 2009 at 5:42 AM  

    What a fabulous idea. The quilt is looking great already. Quilts are a wonderful way to continue the journey of life. They are wonderful to share and a privledge to make. I have tied a quilt that I made but I also hand quilted it. My good friend recenly hand quilted her niece's quilt in a DMC Perle 8 thread - which is thicker than normal quilting thread and your stitches are bigger and more nieve looking. It would look great with tying it. Just an idea! Keep on stitching.