Five years ago today, at around 8:30 in the morning, I suddenly lost my father. He hadn’t been ill at all, and it was a horrendous shock. Dad collapsed at home, and my mother called 911. I curled up on the floor of the garage, screaming for my daddy. My husband picked me up in his arms and carried me to our vehicle, and I remember with painful clarity watching the back of the ambulance bouncing in time to CPR compressions. My sister stood in the neighbor’s yard, vomiting Sunkist. My brother held his arms around her. We followed the ambulance to the hospital, and as we pulled into the lot, the song playing on the radio was “Dead and Gone”. A short while later, I was calling family and friends, sobbing into the phone as I told them my father was gone. I can’t count how many people asked if I was pranking them for April Fool’s Day.
About eight shirts – unwashed, of course. About eight shirts was all I needed to get 108 perfect, 3×3 squares. Blues, greens, plaids. A bit of red. It seemed paramount to work with them unwashed, protecting that scent that was so uniquely you. Old Spice, Stetson, and something….something from the garage. Gasoline? Maybe. You were always so busy working on a project out there, it seemed as if the scent of it permeated everything you wore. Oh! And cough drops. Cherry Halls, can’t forget that scent. Always in your pocket, always in the truck console.
It took a few months; I remember starting the squares the fall after we lost you, and I was still finishing it a couple of days before Christmas. It was a slow process; first, carefully cutting off the buttons and buttonhole strips; next, the sleeves and collar. Laying the shirt out flat on the living room floor and pinning the makeshift pattern pieces cut from grocery store paper sacks onto the fabric, I began to cut. Slowly, slowly, carefully. Every clip of the scissors a measured action; I didn’t want to waste any of this fabric that could never be replaced.
Some days I had longer to work on the squares than others, a few hours perhaps; some days, the process was so exhausting, so painful, I could not spend more than a few minutes working, even after I had taken the time to haul the supplies up the stairs and into the living room. I would sit, legs splayed, leaning against the couch and holding the precious fabric in my hands, soaking in the scent of you and remembering.
Eventually, all the squares were cut. 108 perfect squares. Stacked evenly into towers, according to color. The machine was threaded, and the next phase began.
Pinning. Red, blue, green. Blue, plaid, red. Green, red, blue. Three squares sewn together and matched to another set of three, and then one more triple row. A simple nine-patch was formed.
And then, another nine. Over and over; slowly, carefully.
Pressing the seams, so the patch would lie flat. The pointy nose of the iron forcing its way into the tiny crevices where the corners of the seams met.
I would not cry on the fabric; I was afraid my tears would dilute your perfect scent.
Sewing the nine-patches together, it became so long that I had to lay the excess over my shoulder when working on it. I didn’t want this fabric to get dirty on the floor. Besides, I could imagine your hand was resting there on my shoulder, watching.
Finally. Nine rows by twelve. It was heavy already; the weight of it, comforting. On the table you once sat at the head of, I spread my 108 squares. One side face down, the underside with jagged bits of fabric teasing the seams, a few knots of tangled thread showing. I am not a perfect seamstress.
I brush at any small wrinkles with my thumb. It needs to be straight.
Unroll the batting. Slowly, carefully. Evenly. Line the edges up.
I ask the children to help me hold the topside above the rest; corner to corner, we wave the fabric up into the air, like a preschooler’s game of Parachute, and it glides down to rest peacefully in its own place.
The border is blue. A deep, navy blue, the color of the coveralls you wore daily. Shuffling about in the garage, those coveralls were as ever-present as the worn, brown work boots with the scuffed zippers that accompanied them. For many months, your coveralls hung on a peg near the door in the garage, waiting for you to take them down and shrug into them, ready to work.
The blue coveralls are gone now.
The border corners are always difficult for me. It can be tricky to taper them just so, keeping all four even, but I try. Sometimes I feel frustrated, but I keep at it.
Almost done, now. Navy crochet thread, and a needle. Down and up, down and up, I must exert a great deal of pressure to force the needle through the layers. Tying it off, effectively suturing three layers together.
It is finished.
The children clamor to lay on it; wrap themselves in it; hold it close; smell it.
My tears fall then, but I am careful to keep them from falling onto the blanket.
The quilt made with eight of your shirts. I could not bear to give them away.
108 perfect, 3 x 3 squares.