I’ve lived nearly half my life without my mother. In a lot of ways she’s a memory that’s faded over time, but as she’s faded, I’ve found significance in the small things I have left of her. I’ve certainly got stories–eating hot cereal every morning from the crockpot, plotting city park gardens and identifying all the flowers, trips to the Y to swim laps every.single.day, really wanting to part my bangs in the middle of my forehead despite her rolling eyes–but I think the greatest thing she gave me was the ability to create. Today, emphasizing the craft is what I’m striving for in many aspects of my life.

I made my first cross-stitch sampler of my (lopsided) initials at age five after mom grimaced a little at the plastic and acrylic yarn “needlepoint” rainbow I brought back from kindergarden art class. She promptly found me some embroidery floss and a square of linen instead (if I’m a fiber snob now she started me young) and penciled out stitch lines for me to follow. At six I asked if I could use the sewing machine. Do you know how? Of course I knew how, I’d watched her sew about a million seams, and how hard could it be? She waited a few minutes to give me time to thread the needle, and came to check on me…and was suprised to find that I did in fact know what I was doing. It wasn’t a pretty first project, but hey, I was six and could barely reach the Bernina’s pedal.

We made clothes together, me sewing my own floral, Laura Ashley-styled jumpsuits, while she sewed along on the matching ones for my little sister. She taught me about nap and selvedge and matching stripes and cutting on the bias. To this day I have scissors reserved solely for fabric that have Never Touched Paper. When I made my first quilt she took me to the quilt store where she’d once worked and taught me about color theory. Even now as I choose fabric and yarns my eyes strain to match and contrast tones exactly. And I laugh as I do, remembering the HOURS we spent choosing those quilt fabrics, and how all the greens looked the same to me but were so obviously different to her.

It’s so important to me now to know that I inherited something more than physical similarity from my mother. She left during some formative years for me, and for a long time I only felt anger and a certain kind of derision when I thought of her. I thought of her selfishly, in terms of what I’d lost, with little attention to her feelings or what she must have been experiencing.  I think I started focusing on knitting because she wasn’t a knitter—it wasn’t a skill I’d have to give her credit for. But what is knitting really but another fiber art, another method of crafting and reacting to our worlds? Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich once said that “textiles… have also been an almost universal medium of female expression. If historians are to understand the  lives of women in times past, they must not only cherish the Anne Bradstreets and Martha Ballards who mastered the mysterious ways of quill pens, they must also decipher work composed in yarn and thread.” And, considering this, I realize that I have had one key to knowing and understanding my mother all along; as I’ve moved through college and across the country, from house to apartment to house to next apartment, the two most valuable possessions that have come with me were once hers.

The first is a quilt she made in college out of scraps from dresses and other sewing projects (my mother, in the 60s, sewed nearly all her clothes herself). The first time she showed it to me she pointed out different squares—the black velvet that was the singing performance dress, the green linen of a college skirt, the bright flowered rayon from the dress she wore when she and dad announced their engagement. I love this quilt. It’s ragged and tattered and some of the squares are worn so thin that it can never be repaired. But it’s my mother’s girlhood and history in textile form, and it’s been everywhere with me.

The second item is another quilt—this one she made for my dad before they got married. It’s 70s-tastic: chocolate brown backing with a geometric design in shades of orange and cream. I can see my dad choosing the fabric, and my mom gently guiding him to choices that would match their first Scandinavian furniture-and-macrame-styled home together. It’s utterly fabulous. Her name and the date embroidered in the bottom corner tell me that she was younger than I am now when she spent a year piecing it together. I imagine her preparing to start a new life, and I wonder if she had any idea what that life would become.

I don’t have any pictures of mom at all. I don’t have many mementoes of home. But I have these two quilts and if I had to save something in a fire, they would be the things I’d carry. I can trace my mother’s progression from sometimes-sloppy machine-pieced strips to some mad hand quilting ability, and I’m reminded that I too have skills I can refine, skills that will one day tell my own history.  The quilts remind me to thank my mother and grandmother for passing on this method of expression. They remind me that I am proud to come from a line of talented women with the patience, skill, and sense of beauty to create such things.  They remind me that I, too, need to be creating in whatever way I can.

I haven’t seen my mom since I was 14—thirteen years ago this fall. For a long time I didn’t want to see her, didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that I had a mother who’d left. But for whatever reason, I took her quilts with me, kept them with me, use them and love them still. Mom, wherever you are, thank you.