Just like so many others in my family, my Aunt Nancy was an extremely creative person. She was an avid knitter and enjoyed lots of other crafty pursuits, but one in particular eventually took the lead and became her favorite: making quilts. She started quilting in the early 1980s, completing her first quilt in 1983. After that there was no turning back. For nearly four decades she pieced and sewed, gifting her creations to lucky friends and family members like me (I received a quilt for my college dorm room as well as baby quilts for my sons).
For as long as I can remember, if she wasn’t holding court in the kitchen (Command Center for her household which included my uncle, four boys, and various pets) or reading in the family room, she was seated at her sewing machine. A visit to her house always included a stop in her sewing room where she would give me a look at her current project, some new patterns she had just picked up, and her overstuffed fabric cabinets, which were completely fabulous and contained the brightest colors of cotton in folded yards and fat quarters, solids and patterns. Usually she’d pull out a large plastic container full of discarded patterns, kits, or leftover fabrics, gesturing at it as she offered me its contents. “Do you want any of this? Take it!”
I’m not sure how many quilts she made over the years; I’m not even sure if she knew herself. What I do know is that she kept an album full of pictures of quilts along with short paragraphs on when she made each one and to whom it was gifted. My mom and I found that album last week when we traveled to Arizona. Three years after her cancer diagnosis, Aunt Nancy was at the end and we wanted to see her one last time and be there to support my uncle and cousins.
It might seem strange in that situation to say that my mom and I had plans to work on a quilt while we were there, but we did. A few months ago my aunt lamented to my mom that she was trying to finish a quilt for her grandson but hadn’t felt up to it. “Don’t worry, Nancy,” my mom told her. “When I visit you I will help you get it done. Take that off of your list.”
When we booked our flights two months ago we had no idea that my aunt would literally be in her final days and unable to get out of bed, let alone work on a quilt with my mom, so it was left to us to enter her sewing room and figure out what she had envisioned. Luckily the quilt top was mostly pieced out on her design board, and as my mom sat down at the machine to figure out how to operate it, I approached the worktable to gather pins, unfinished squares, and other supplies we’d need. What I noticed first took my breath away for a second.
“You’ll live on. You never die if you live in the memory of others.”
Did she see that saying somewhere along the way after her diagnosis and write a reminder for herself to see in the place where she spent the most time? Did she leave it for her loved ones, knowing one of us would find it upon entering her sewing room when she couldn’t anymore? We’ll never know, but I sure was happy to be the one to find it. That it was written in her own hand made me smile.
The rest of our visit was bittersweet; time was spent just being there with my uncle and cousins as we all took turns checking on my aunt and spending bits of time with her. When the rest of us were in the kitchen and living room we laughed a lot as we recounted family stories, all of us cousins seeming to be in the same roles today in our fifties as we had been in single digits. We talked about our time growing up together, our grandparents, and of course my aunt. Many of the stories were the ones that get told over and over again through the years and it struck me that all of our shared experiences as a family are similar to the most beautiful patchwork quilt that we keep with us at all times and use to keep us warm whenever we need it. The three days we spent together at my aunt and uncle’s house in Prescott felt like just the thing I needed at that moment; there’s nothing like family and I will treasure those days for many reasons, including the opportunity I had to tell my aunt I love her one final time.
My mom and I returned home on Saturday and late Saturday night, my favorite aunt passed. Like most family members of someone who has suffered way too much, we were both sad for the devastating loss and relieved that she was finally at peace. I know I can speak for everyone in our family that Aunt Nancy will definitely live on in our memories forever. I’m thankful for the squares and stitching she made on our family’s patchwork quilt of stories, for they are among the most brightly colored.