Monday, July 02, 2007

a scalloped edged coverlet of violet and green

My family steps out the door without me—without me!—and for the first time in two weeks I have a stretch of afternoon and evening to myself. Already I’ve entertained five different scenarios for the evening, playful options, necessary options. I dressed for gardening as they drew out the leaving process to an excruciating degree, spiraling louder and louder with the excitement of a minor league baseball game. I watered the plants in the backyard and on the porch, waiting for them to go and giving them distance. When they finally, finally leave, I tiptoe gingerly around the house for fifteen minutes or so, until I actually believe they will not return for something forgotten.

Then I exhale. It’s been a good beginning to break, with a five-day trip to Pennsylvania and numerous solo parenting days. Children have exhaled since school ended, sleeping late, lounging quietly over novels and baseball card collections, taking helmets to the parking lot for cycling and rollerblades. We’ve had a beach day and several beach evenings, plus several days too cold to consider being any closer to the icy Atlantic. I’ve done my online work for Ladies Home Journal in and around other activities. I’m preparing for grad school. They’ve let me do what I need to do for long stretches.

And now they need to go. Now.

I reach in the closet for my gardening shoes and look far into the top of the shelves: there sits my new floral coverlet, the one I hope to use as a bedspread. Except it’s too large, twice the size of my three-quarter width mattress on the Ginny Lind bedframe. I step back and consider for a moment. I don’t LIKE to sew. I know how, true, and that is why I bought a too-large coverlet on sale. The old-fashioned print of violet-colored roses and green leaves matches my vivid purple and white Signature Quilt, hanging on the sage green wall. I turn and look at the cheap shredded quilt on the bed—made in China of cotton so thin it will not hold up to four years of laundry, sigh. Underneath it is another heirloom quilt, too fragile for much more exposure to our kitty. Satchmo doesn’t claw the quilt on purpose—he just puts his claws out when he stretches, and that’s too much for the Star of David quilt my Grandma Mae crafted from scraps of favorite shirts and dresses.

I’d like the new bedspread I bought to actually fit the bed I bought it for. I step back in the closet and onto the step stool. It’s time to sew.

When the package is unzipped from it’s Liz Claiborne bag, I’m impressed once again with just how huge the Oversized King coverlet actually is. Measuring is easy—I place the right edge at the correct height from the floor, and smooth the coverlet over the bed. I fold it at the center wooden spindle of the footboard. The coverlet is edged with deep, wavy scallops. Three and a half scallops fall to the right of the center spindle, so I need seven scallops in all, across the foot of the bed. This leaves three scallop’s worth of fabric to be cut off one side—nearly a third of the blanket. I lift the coverlet from the bed and place it on the living room floor—the entire open space of the living room floor!—and fold it in half, at three and a half scallops.

Now comes the part where my mother would say to me, “you better go find a piece of chalk and mark that wavy cutting line before you pick up those sewing shears.” I glance left, and right, and my mother is nowhere to be seen. I could find the blue tailor’s chalk if I wanted to. I know where it is. Nah. I take a deep breath and plunge the scissors through the velvet bias tape at the edge of the blanket, and I begin cutting a large wavy line to match the opposite edge of the coverlet.

Does cut fabric have a scent? I swear it does, though I can’t imagine how it would. Is it simply the smell of something new, something that’s been sealed in a bag, in a store?

The wavy cut is completed and looks fine. Now for the tricky part—will the velvet bias tape tear free easily? Or will it shred when I remove the stitches with a seam ripper? I pull it apart a few stitches. It comes off the scrap of fabric perfectly, good. I will need it to cover the newly cut wavy edge of my blanket. I open every few inches with another snip and unfold the long strip of green velvet. It takes time. The time feels good.

An hour since the noisy crew left, I have the urge to lie down on the cut up pieces of blanket and listen to the quiet, smell the scent or non-scent of cut fabric. I think of my mother, the upholsterer, and all the practical skills I inherited, and how I miss her. I walk to the bedroom for my laptop—I’m getting accustomed to using it before my writing workshop in a few weeks—and bring the laptop onto my sewing project, on the floor. I type a few quick paragraphs, then tuck the computer away in its case again. The bias tape falls free. I admire the big strip of fabric left after all the cutting. My antique Signature Quilt is bold in color, and this fabric is so very subtle. They will compliment one another well. And there will be enough fabric for a few bolster pillows, a lucky bonus.

Back to the bedroom to unearth my mother’s old Singer sewing machine, and my daughter’s book of pins. For bias tape, the wrong side is sewn first, so I flip the coverlet to the all-white side, and begin to pin the velvet along the cut edge of scallops, overlapping the tape a bit on both ends. I switch on the lamp of the sewing machine knowing that smell will return me to my mother’s house once again. Lift the presser foot, position the fabric, just a moment’s hesitation to backstitch a half inch or so. Then push the foot pedal to the floor and follow the fabric’s edge. Done in a moment.

By now Garrison Keillor is hosting James Taylor at Tanglewood, on my radio, and I return to the floor to slowly pin the edge of green onto the right side of the coverlet. Somehow I’ve made no unforgivable mistakes in this process, and a song or two passes the time. One last set of backstitches and one more time remembering the “speeding tickets” I given to me in high school home ec class, rumbling along my dining table, also my mother’s, into the quiet night.

I finished the floral coverlet and quickly removed the tattered quilt and the Star of David quilt—one to the scrap pile and one to the cedar chest. Then I made the bed again, with the new delicate sprays of violet-colored roses and green leaves on a ground of white. From a distance no one can see the difference between my edge and the professional edge of the quilt. Up close, I still need to hand stitch two tiny sections of green velvet, so nothing can “catch” on each join and undo my work. Another day. I fold down the top hem of scallops and place a nest of pillows atop it, at the head of the bed. Nothing torn, now, and nothing too precious for the cat to rest on.

Back in the living room I fold up my scrap of quilt and tuck it away, then pour a glass of wine. The sun is still up, though the evening begins to cool. I sent them to the ballpark with jackets and socks, against their wills, but I’m sure they’ll return wearing the warm layers.

Just out of curiosity I walk back into the bedroom to find a project I planned two months ago, a handbag to be constructed of boiled wool from a retired sweater. The pieces are cut already, and the wide shoulder strap is embellished with a needle-felted vine of green leaves on the charcoal background. All that is left is to cut a lining from the block print pillowcase I bought just for this bag, and to sew. And my sewing machine is all set up, on the dining table, with no disruptions in sight. The light is on, the bobbins are wound…

I don’t like to sew, at least not as much as I like seeing the finished project in my hands. I like knowing how to sew, how to construct things, how to use what is easy, convenient, priced right to craft what is perfect, what fits, what pulls everything together. I’m a designer at heart.

With just enough know-how. And a beautiful bed, if I do say so myself.

Oh! The Signature Quilt was crafted to celebrate my great-grandparent’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Signature quilts were still a popular gift for special occasions when I lived in Farmland—each participant pays one dollar and signs a square of fabric. Each signature is embroidered onto the square. The fabric is then “pieced” into a quilt pattern—mine is in eight-pointed stars, surrounded by rings of squares, more diamonds and a few triangles—and then the entire blanket is hand-quilted at eight to ten hand-stitches per inch. The quilt is then given, along with the money raised, to the honored recipients.

My mother identified each of the 255 names on the startling purple-and-white quilt, including her own family’s block, with the names of her parents, her brothers and sisters embroidered in white on one of the purple “stars.” I never knew my great-grandparents, but I know many of the people named on my quilt—they must’ve been children, like my mother was, when the quilt was made. When I sleep under the quilt, I think of “the great cloud of witnesses” named in the Bible, and I think of the teachers who’ve told me “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” What giant’s names appear on this quilt, I don’t know, but my grandfather willed this quilt to me, and nothing, not a scrap of fabric to anyone else in my family including my mother, whom he loved a great deal. I saw him perhaps twenty times in my life, but we were similar, and we wrote letters. I loved God from the time I could think a single thought, though no one in my family told me my grandfather did, too. Grandma Mae was not really my grandmother, but she handstitched the rest of my quilt collection herself—a quilt embroidered with fifty state birds, and the Star of David quilt. I slept under those birds from the time my mother could trust me to treat it properly, in the Ginny Lind bed with the hand-turned spindles, in my bedroom under the eaves.

I think these stories through, all the cinderblock walls of all the apartments covered by these quilts over all the years of my adulthood, while I strategize the pockets and flaps of the charcoal wool handbag. The shoulder strap and the front flap are lined, and a pen pocket sewn in place by the time I hear footsteps rushing up the steps to my door. I feel like telling them I’ve been to Indiana in my mind, been singing with James Taylor through my college summers in Colorado, too, been to every place I’ve ever lived.

Instead I listen to an extended tale of a ballgame from one child, while the older child, less interested in baseball, must be pulled from the heap where she collapses, just inside the door. Five minutes later I find her in a similar heap on my new coverlet, on my bed. I whisper her out of the bed and through brushing her teeth while Brendan continues to talk at the speed of light, at the top of his small lungs, in the dark of the night. I made their beds while they were gone and Madeleine falls directly into hers. I find her lying across her bed crossways with her feet under the dresser, and lift her into her bed properly. I walk Brendan to his bed with a smooch, after he admires my new bedspread, and he tucks his autographed ball from the pitcher onto his shelf of special things. I unplug the sewing machine and wrap up the cords, placing it under the lower shelf in my bedroom, where the dust will gather on it until the next occasion. My wool messenger bag needs to be stitched by hand from here, I think, with a green yarn to match the vines on the shoulder strap. Away go the pins, the sewing shears, the scraps and threads, the empty wine glass. Scott will need to tell me stories, too, after the children are soundly asleep.

“How was your night?” he asks as he walks through his nightly routine.

“Quiet—deliciously quiet. Did you know I’ve been mostly alone with these two kids for two weeks? Until this break tonight. I’ve forgotten what this is like, summer with children.”

“Hey where’d you get the new blanket?” he asked. Time for the stories of my own. And time for sleep, next to the great cloud of witnesses, tucked under the scalloped edges of green velvet in the Ginny Lind bed, on a chilly night in June.

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