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September: apricots, a pandanus coffin and a patchwork quilt

September 7, 2012

Today I bought a punnet of apricots and a coffin woven from pandanus leaves.

The apricots are for a friend who is due to visit from Chicago. The coffin, which looks like a Moses basket, is for my mother, who died quickly and peacefully two days ago, aged 90. I chose pandanus because my parents spent a good many years living and working in Sarawak and Kiribati, where these plants are of huge economic importance.

Mother was a fine needlewoman. When she left school she started to train as a theatrical costume designer. The outbreak of war, followed by marriage and the birth of two children, put paid to that ambition, but she was always a maker and mender. When my son announced his engagement last year she decided it was time to make the double-bed quilt she had been planning for over half a century. From an early age she had hoarded scraps of cotton fabric,  and by last August she had already made over three hundred hexagons. My father, who died in 1980, had calculated the number that would be needed for the project.

It took her eleven months to hand-stitch the hexagons together. In the final week  I tacked the three layers together and a dear good friend offered a pair of helping hands to stitch them. We completed it three days before the wedding, blanket-stitching the front to the backing in various colours of silk thread, around the kitchen table at Silver Street with visitors coming and going all afternoon. Not quite the peaceful meditative session I had been looking forward to!

Mother embroidered a label to go on the back.

It was ready just in time, and was the only wedding gift to get a round of applause when the presents were opened in the sunny back garden at Mary Road the next day.

I think of this quilt as representing my mother’s long life. There’s a story connected to every piece. Some of them we know, but some of the stories will never now be told.

The following week she unpacked  some skeins of fine wool she’d had since the 1940s, wound them into balls and began to knit a striped waistcoat.

I’m writing this at 3am. I haven’t slept well since she died.

In October last year I wrote a poem which will form the text of the next book:

Piecing it together

In her 90th year she’s harvesting the past.
Neat left-handed stitches match up
hotch-potch remnants saved
from a lifetime of dressmaking –
pieces pressed, folded and tacked
to hexagons of paper snipped
from letters, calendars, a shopping list.

She groups them in sevens by colour
sews together these random
snapshots from a life in transit:
a curtain from the house before last,
a blouse from Malta, 1953,
one of Father’s batik shirts
from their years out East.

Memory’s threadbare. I try to patch the gaps.
Here, swallows swoop in a pink sky;
there, a green forgotten river flows;
here, petunias make a purple splash.
On the table at her side
the pile of coloured circles grows.
The stories settle into a new pattern.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2012 8:41 pm

    Beautiful and moving. Thank you.

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  1. ABCD: Fragments | barleybooks

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