A steep staircase opens directly into the sewing room at the top of her small house. Dormer windows give a view of the quiet street below. The walls of the longish room are white, with little tables scattered about. Jumbled with bits of fabric, they look the way my sewing table would if I upended the box that holds the scraps I plan to use to make my crazy quilt. From the piles of many-hued thread and floss, I can see she adhered to no particular color scheme. In a shopping bag, embroidery patterns, hoops, and more floss are stacked neatly; embroidery isn't too popular these days. There's another shopping bag full of needlepoint patterns: flowers drooping from a vase, a rabbit family, a one-room schoolhouse on a hill. A couple of them are half-finished. Did you weary of your projects, too?
The pale green sewing machine I bought secondhand the first week I moved to Minneapolis sits on a table in the room where I do my writing. It's always out, threaded, ready to go. For years I've been planning my crazy quilt. Collected in a wooden crate in the same room are scraps of old clothes, patterns I remember; they used to be my clothes, my grandmother's clothes, my children's clothes. In the crate is a Mexican blouse with bright embroidery at the neck and pockets, and a faded magenta sundress I couldn't bear to throw out after the sash ripped away at the waist. The cotton blouse I wore throughout college, unearthing it each spring after the Vermont snow gave way to mud. The magenta sundress was a relic from my first years in Boston, also a sign of spring. It conjures memories of swinging down Tremont Street eating ice cream. It's always sunny when I look at this dress. I used to wear it with red shoes, shoes I still have and still wear, despite the worn-away soles and heels that show wood instead of red leather.
This woman's scraps are not to my taste. Of wool and flannel, mostly, their colors are somewhat dreary; tans and ivory and dusky blue. I see boxes of bobbins and threads, red and turquoise and baby blue, packets of elastic and seam binding and snaps and zippers. With so much bright thread, there must have been bright fabric scraps to match it, and for a second I wonder who came this way already, who bought the leavings that would have drawn me. Sewing patterns line the edge of one table, their tissue-paper innards crackling gently. These are old patterns, mother-daughter Easter outfits, elaborate curtains with puffs and ties, the full skirts and fitted bodices of the '40s dresses I would have looked good in had I been a young woman then. Did you ever plan to make a crazy quilt?
Downstairs I join two or three others moving in a crab-like, bent-headed way down stacks of books lined up haphazardly beneath a sign reading: "Hardcover $1, Paperback $.50." A little pile of J.D. Salinger: Franny and Zooey; Nine Stories; The Catcher in the Rye. Mark Helprin's A Winter's Tale, its cover nearly torn off, its pages thumbed and yellow; Toni Morrison's Beloved. An old edition of The Arabian Nights, almost hidden behind a pile of Bibles, its full-color illustrations held to the binding by glue turned fragile in old age. You loved books too.
In the bedroom, next to the nightstand with its swan-neck reading lamp, a rough open-ended crate sits on the floor. Its exterior is painted white, one coat so the wood shows through--pine? oak?--and blue inside. Everyone in the room ignores the box, intent on sorting through the piles of linens: sheets, $4.00/set; towels $1 each. I pick it up, heft it. It's heavy, thick, unsanded, what in an antique store would be called a 'primitive' box. In a corner is a new portable toilet with stainless steel handles, looking as if it belongs in a hospital. There's a walker folded in on itself; a bag of Depends.
The old sundress in my crazy quilt scrap box is buried underneath the floppy cotton T-shirt, many times laundered, that was put on my son moments after birth and that I stole the day we left the hospital. My daughter's pink cotton leggings, the seat puffy to make room for her diaper, worn through at the knees from her crawling and climbing. The blanket, inseparable from the child for a year, then discarded one day under the crib. She has left it behind. But I can't. I look at it and see the baby she used to be, its soft yellow held close to her as she dreamt, moving even in sleep to clutch it closer.
Clouds gather and thicken, impenetrable, in a dull sky. From the upstairs sewing room, I glance out the window at the old ladies and gentlemen shuffling into the house, trying to hurry their stiffened legs so as to avoid the drops beginning to splatter on the sidewalk. Inside they move slowly from room to room, now and then picking up a teacup, a picture, a mirror, holding it close to their eyes and then letting it go.
One couple bickers their way from room to room, arguing about the armchair in the basement that she believes they should not have passed up and he insists on leaving. "What do we need with another chair, Erna? Tell me that."
A small house holds so much. Her closet, its hangers holding carefully pressed old-lady dresses, her tie shoes lined up beneath. The china service laid out on the formal dining-room table, its accompanying crystal, the few pieces of worn silver-plate in its velvet box. Large pieces of glossy furniture--the buffet, the mahogany secretary, the formal dining-room table--that I neither need nor want. What did you need and want?
Rain falls from the thickened clouds. Upstairs in the sewing room it patters steadily on the tin roof. The house quiets. All around me I feel a stillness; people are moving slower, their voices hushed, in the presence of the rain. I stand with my wooden crate filled with its haphazard treasure, a spool of crimson thread, the worn books. On my way out I see I almost missed a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude, that twisting tale of generations bound together by blood and loyalty, people who bear their ancestors' names, stories flowing together until it's not clear what was then and what is now.
This old woman is gone, leaving me to imagine a life for her. At home my crazy quilt scraps wait, the histories its fabrics tell lengthening now into months, years, decades.A task for a lifetime. When did you realize, dear lady, that it was a project without end?
Alison McGhee wrote "The Food Exchange" for the November issue of Minnesota Parent.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter