Quilting Will Improve Your Health

Ultimately, our mother was made to realize her error. You would have thought she would have noticed it herself at some point, looking at the boldfaced headline from The Herald News. Quitting was the first word in both the headline and the article, one that she clipped from the paper and affixed by magnet to the refrigerator. “Quitting Will Improve Your Health.” Had she read the article, she would have realized sooner that the whole article was about cigarettes. By the time my sister, Ginger, announced her discovery that the article was all about “quitting”, our mother had already been to the craft store on Route 17 numerous times. A large plastic bag holding “her quilting gear” had, according to our father, “taken up permanent residency” in the dining room, next to the mirrored curio, which contained most of my mother’s rarely used wedding china.

That bag contained colored broadcloth and batting, but that was nothing compared to what had been laid out on the dining room table. These she had categorized, separating the quilting tools, her frames and hoops, a cutting mat, and seam ripper from what she described to us as her quilting notions, the adhesives, quilting clips, and tape measure. And these items hardly amounted to the entirety of her supply of quilting paraphernalia; there was a large basket containing the miscellaneous items, and this she had begun to carry with her from room to room.

“What’s in there, Peg?” our father wanted to know.

“Stuff.”

“Really? Couldn’t figure that one out by myself. What kind of ‘stuff’?”

“Don’t think I don’t know where this is going.” My mother shot him a look of slight disgust. “Like you haven’t been mocking my quilting since I took it up.”

“I just want to know a little about your project,” he demurred.

“It’s not my project. It’s my hobby.”

Curiously, my mother did not remove the news clipping from the refrigerator even after learning of her error. The correct wording was pointed out to her by Ginger, who was at the house to pick up some winter clothes she had left in the attic following the move to her own apartment, an excuse that she called a family visit. Casey, my other sister, was there as well, so that the whole family could serve as Ginger’s rapt audience, her well-manicured nails splayed against the refrigerator while she reviewed the headline.

“I never had a hobby before,” my mother told Ginger and everyone else in the kitchen in response to Ginger’s observation.

“So really, what do I care? As long as it improves my health.”

There was no evidence, at least not in the newspaper article before us in the kitchen that morning, to indicate that quilting actually would improve my mother’s health, but she was making at least a pound of bacon at the time, so that drew most of our attention.

[blockquote align=right]As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room.

I had to wonder about Ginger, who had been alone in the kitchen with my mother for almost an hour but never mentioned the article until the rest of us were there to hear her. Something in her manner suggested to me that it was really Casey she was addressing, when pointing out Mom’s mistake. I should have said something to her on the phone when we spoke later in the week, as we sometimes did in the evening. Ginger was the ideal of an older sister, the one who had successfully moved out. She doled out “healthy” connections to Casey and me in sparing phone calls, so I chose not to mention the timing of her observation.

*         *        *

Because the air conditioning in my car was leaking water and probably other chemicals, I had to borrow my mother’s car the day after Ginger’s visit. It was the car I used when Casey needed a ride to work. My sister who, at age twenty, still did not drive. Casey heaved a bag with apparently more quilting material out of the passenger seat before she got into the car.

“What is this stuff?” she asked. “I thought quilts were like material and cotton stuffing. That was heavy, you know, for just cotton balls.”

“I didn’t look,” I told her as I backed out of the driveway, my head turned over my shoulder so I could avoid the large oak tree whose roots were infringing on the edge of our property.

“I think it’s more of her quilting material. Maybe there’s some notions underneath.” Casey rolled down her window and lit a cigarette, thoughtfully blowing smoke in the direction away from me.

“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked after she had smoked the cigarette three quarters of the way down and flicked the remainder out the window.

Casey is my twin. We are not identical, although we have a stronger resemblance than most sisters. Someone once told my mother that we were a hybrid of sorts, the kind that share an unfertilized egg. The egg splits in half and each is then fertilized separately so only half of our DNA is identical; the DNA of our mother. I looked this up after my mother told me the story and found out the whole thing about the unfertilized egg is just a theory. We don’t really know if it’s true.

So we are not identical twins, but when Casey turned her face forward, just staring at the windshield with nothing to occupy her but the road ahead now that her cigarette was gone, I could swear it was my profile.

“When did you stop wearing a uniform?” I asked, concentrating on the navy sweater she had matched with pale blue pants, a sweater that was mine. I had last seen the sweater cleaned and folded neatly in my drawer.

“I do medical billing.”

“You always wore a uniform, even when you worked for Dr. Margulies,” I told her.

“That was a small office. I sat at the front desk with the nurse.”

Casey had left Dr. Margulies’ office three months earlier when she didn’t even have another job. “Because it was boooring,” she had told us. Now she was working at Rutherford Pediatrics, located in the Medical Arts Building on Berkery Avenue. She had been there for less than two weeks. This was the first time I had seen her in non-uniform attire. My sweater was stretching uncomfortably over the folds of skin that draped the waistband of Casey’s pants. Casey did not even pretend to diet, the way some people do. I turned onto the one-way street that led to the parking lot.

“Let me off here,” Casey said quickly. “I like to get coffee from Jerry’s.” She leapt out, slamming the passenger door.

I sat for a while in the car next to the convenience store, which offered better coffee than the “swill” that was brewed in the back office space of Rutherford Pediatrics. I wanted to catch Casey buying the packaged baked goods that I knew she was stockpiling. I sat watching nothing at all pass by out the window. Customers parked and walked into Jerry’s Minit Stop, one after the other. They all came in different cars and trucks, except the last two who worked for the same refrigeration repair service. The men held the door for each other. There was still no sign of Casey even after several of the men I observed walking in had come out minutes later holding cardboard cups of coffee and matching logoed paper bags. I called my mother to see if she needed the bag that Casey had thrown into the back of the car, deciding not to wonder what Casey was doing in the Minit Stop. Not caring if she ate an entire box of cinnamon frosted donuts while pretending to peruse the magazine rack, as she had once been caught doing when Ginger had agreed to drive her home from Dr. Margulies.

When my mother answered the home phone, I explained in detail the items we had found in the rear of her car.

“That’s just some extra cotton, dear.”

“You don’t need it for your quilt?”

“Not now. You can just leave it in the car.”

That was the first feeling that my mother was hoarding her quilting material. Purchasing quantities beyond her ability to stitch her squares together. Spending money on cotton fluff and gold lacing that she did not want my father to know about. I moved the plastic bags from Marcia’s Crafting Attic to the trunk of the car when I got to my part-time job at Healy Dry Cleaning. The bag would be there for my mother to find, should she need the materials, which I began to doubt that she would. I had left while Casey was still in the convenience store and tried not to wonder about that.

My mother had begun a pattern entitled “Crossroads,” she told us over dinner.

“It took me a while to think about which quilt I should start with.” She lifted the lid off the butter substitute that she spread over a roll she had peeled open.

“I almost did “Monkey Wrench” because, to tell you the truth, it’s a pretty pattern. I just couldn’t get past the name, Monkey Wrench.” She balanced her grease-smeared knife on the edge of her plate. “Monkey Wrench. The woman at Marcia’s told me it’s an all-time favorite, but in the end, I just couldn’t go for it.”

Casey eventually picked up the thread of conversation that my mother had left hanging for us to gather.

“I’m sure that Crossroads will come out fine.”

“Well, I just want to do some justice to the pattern,” my mother announced.

“Justice?” Even my father could not ignore that clue.

“The woman, …Bonnie,” my mother began, turning her attention away from the remains of her second roll, “is a member of the American Quilter’s Society. And she says that it makes a wonderful story, even if no one can actually prove it.”

“Are we still talking about quilts?” Casey asked.

“There is evidence,” my mother informed us with as much authority as she could infuse into her voice, “that quilt patterns, such as Crossroads and Monkey Wrench, were part of a code.”

We thought that she had paused for dramatic effect, maybe she wanted us to pull the information from her, as she teased us along. Her attention was focused on a portion of string bean casserole on her plate until one of us interrupted her gaze.

“Code.” Casey used her facial expression to make this a question.

“In the underground railroad. Quilts were used as codes, hung on a line, left on a fence, so that the escapees would get information they needed.”

“Information? From a quilt? What kind of information are we talking about, here?” my father asked.

A long sniff emerged from my mother.

“The kind of information that an escapee would need when they were making an escape.” After her triumphant reply, she repeated several times that, as Bonnie had mentioned, it was a wonderful story.

The structure of the Crossroads quilt occupied my mother. Its construction, its supposed meaning. Left, in various stages of completion in our family room, it occupied all of us as well, mostly because we were constantly moving bags of material from couches, the passenger seat of my mother’s car, anywhere a plastic bag full of batting could possibly be set down. As my mother’s quilting talent developed, her hands giving shape to the many squares that she was to piece together, we began to anticipate the appearance of the final product, something that might hang proudly on a wall in our family room. All that remained was for my mother to actually complete the quilt.

*         *        *

And while she continued to speak often about the Crossroads pattern and its specialness, my mother never told us the quilt’s secret meaning. It was my guess that she did not know. That remained curious to me. During a break from class, I wandered into the computer room of the library. The equipment was not intended for personal use, there were warning stickers on every computer. But most of the staff at Ramapo Community College was tolerant, as long as you were discrete. I sat at a terminal and typed in “quilt codes.” After scrolling through various websites, I was led to a page with eight distinct patterns, the illustrations depicted in black and white. There they were. Monkey Wrench and Crossroads. There were others as well. Log Cabin, Bowties, Flying Geese, Drunkard’s Path, North Star, and Tumbling Blocks. Each had its own paragraph in justified text. The secret codes revealed. Crossroads, a block pattern quilt, spoke of travel. Travel onward to Cleveland, Ohio! Cleveland having been the crossroad of the Underground Railroad.

Most of the “secret codes” were not very secretive at all, although Bowtie was said to have meant “choose a disguise.” There were instructions on how and when to leave. And what to do once on your way. Particulars, like follow the birds north to Canada (Flying Geese). Or go “zigzag” (Drunkard’s Path). Of all the coded meanings, my mother had chosen Crossroads, often described as simple, a “quick block pattern. No doubt that simplicity figured most into her decision.

I swiped my student ID and printed out the page with the eight quilts and their secret codes. I printed the page and placed it in my binder even though I had seen other websites claiming there was no proof from oral history or otherwise that the quilts were used as codes along the route of the Underground Railroad. Many claimed that some of the quilt patterns had not been designed until the early Twentieth Century.

*         *        *

Another of Ginger’s phone calls came when no one else was home. She must have planned it that way.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

When I asked Ginger how things were going for her, she began to speak rapidly. I held the phone slightly away from my ear, thinking how much better my room would look with lavender walls. Changing the color of my room was something I had been considering for a while. That, and moving out entirely. All of the books on my desk would have to be cleared off and boxed so I could store them in the basement. If the choice were painting my room.

“She needs to stay away from the carbs!” Ginger was yelling into the phone. “Are you listening to me? What are you keeping in the house? Doughnuts? Is that what they’re eating?”

“I don’t, I mean, I’m not sure. Doughnuts?”

“Yes. You’re the one that can talk some sense into them. I’m not there and Dad, he’s, I mean, really. Do you think he gives any thought to carbs?”

“Okay.” I answered. She barked a list of approved fruits and vegetables into the phone, demanded to know whether I was writing all of her instructions down. Ginger was good at giving advice, letting us know exactly what she thought. I had a harder time of it. Casey would see my weakness, ignore my best efforts to keep her off doughnuts.

It was Casey, after all, who was stronger than I was. She was the sister I admired most when we were younger. Not Ginger, to her immense disappointment, although she did not have to wait long to reclaim her rightful spot as older sister, as the boss of the family. As the boss of me. But for a brief moment, it was Casey who I adored. Casey, with her blonde, confident wedge haircut, the one that I copied shamelessly. Her bold stance as catcher on our softball team. Casey could hit the ball, could throw it. She could do everything. At night, we would talk, as sisters do, going over the days events, what we thought of our neighbors, the Nichols family, the first people we ever knew to get a divorce.

Over time, the conversations would change. At night, Casey would tell secrets to me about the girls in school that she hated, how they were mean to her. How they secretly avoided her in the locker room, rolled their eyes, “accidentally” bumped into her in the hall. When we reached high school, I understood, then I understood, that Casey was not sharing secrets with me. She was telling me all of the reasons to avoid her. All of the reasons I should enroll in drama after school, the student newspaper. Anything except softball with Casey. I began to model myself after Ginger. Taking the time to groom myself. Growing my hair out of the wedge. Like all of the other girls, who wore those long, silky layers.

At some point, a package arrived from The Basket Factory, a local store for shoppers looking for knockoffs of better quality home goods. Inside were four really good-sized baskets with lids. My father opened the cardboard crate with the utility knife he retrieved from the bottom kitchen drawer. It was a dull paring knife we kept only for slicing tape off of deliveries. He left the baskets for my mother in the family room, and when she came home that afternoon, she placed her still-in-progress quilt in one, the plastic bag from Marcia’s Crafting Attic in another. The other baskets were soon filled with Mom’s quilting notions and fluff. They looked good in the family room, the varying shades of rattan soft and unoffending. The baskets were useful as ottomans. No one cared if you put your feet on them while slouching on the plaid couches that formed our conversation circle.

The college library was often noisy and there were only a few carrels. I preferred the family room where I could study on the couch with the new basket/ottomans for my books. On a Wednesday afternoon shortly after the quilt had been put away, I heard the tiny click of the rear door returning to its place against the jamb and looked up, expecting to see my mother, who sometimes came home for lunch. Casey was standing in the doorway between the kitchen and the family room. It was almost 1:00 and I was due to pick her up from Rutherford Pediatrics at 5:30.

“Don’t you have work today?” I asked.

Casey had most of a muffin pressed into her mouth.

“Ummm.” She kind of nodded along with that answer.

“Work. I thought you were working today.”

She added a half shrug to the information that she had already provided.

It felt like we might have the exact conversation as when she left Dr. Margulies. At any moment, she might look at me and say, “It was boooring.” Or she might say nothing this time and just leave me with her little shrug. If I were to pursue a better answer. Of course, her means of transportation, how she had wandered home, remained puzzling.

There was not a lot of room to hang out in our house. The spaces were small, our rooms too narrow and confined for us when we were in high school, and we were older now. Young adults encased in bedrooms that barely fit our twin size mattresses. Casey moved a plastic bag filled with shiny ribbons onto the floor and sat across from me. It was, I noticed, the lone bag that had escaped enclosure into the baskets. I also noticed that Casey seemed to have swallowed her muffin. Her speech was much clearer.

“Did you get a flu shot this year?” Casey asked.

I moved my yellow highlighter across a portion of text that explained the cycle of water being absorbed into the atmosphere. I heard a noise coming from Casey’s direction. It sounded like marbles. I used my highlighter to underline another sentence. Humidity is the amount of water vapor in the air.

“Here,” Casey said. When I looked up her arm was outstretched, a few vials resting on the palm of her open hand.

“What?”

“Flu shots. I got them from the office.”

“They gave those to you? What, I mean . . . why? Why would they give you flu shots like that? Don’t you need a nurse to give you the shot?”

“I’m a technician,” Casey announced.

“Right. I know. Right. But you don’t do that at the office. I mean, you file and stuff like that. Right? You file.”

“So? You don’t need to be a genius to give someone a flu shot.”

Casey looked around. The lid was off one of the baskets, revealing the partially constructed quilt that our mother was producing, the pattern that may or may not have once told an important story. “You want one?” she asked.

“No thanks. I got one at the pharmacy. They started giving them in the back near the reading glasses around October.”

“Oh.”

I would have to remember to go to the pharmacy and get my flu shot there, something I had been meaning to do for a while. That was preferable, not having to tell Casey what to do with her flu shots, that she was only a barely competent technician who just made her way through six months of training. We had that conversation once before, when she was in school, at a time when I could not leave her failure alone. Casey was missing her classes, leaving books that had their bindings perfectly intact in the kitchen, not doing any of the assignments. One afternoon, I just had to tell her.

“You never read these. It’s so obvious. Look at this book. It’s never been opened.”

I picked up the book and opened the cover, a stiff movement of paper.

“How do you know what I do? And why do you care?”

“You’re going to get thrown out of that school, you know that? Thrown out.”

“They don’t do that when you’re paying, you know. They never throw you out of school when you pay them.”

“Really? I think they do. When you don’t show up, when you don’t do any of the work, I think they do.”

And it was because she looked so much like me, her cheeks the same as the ones that I brushed with pink bronzer, it was because of those cheekbones that I choked on those words. But apparently she had been right because she had earned her technician’s degree and now here she was with a handful of flu shots and most likely syringes as well.

She was wearing sweatpants and a matching long sleeve tee shirt. Her office attire. Perhaps there were other drugs that she stole from her new office, from Dr. Margulies as well. Maybe that was why she left his office, before she even had another job. Most people took pain killers, things that you wanted but could not get for yourself easily, things that you could sell. Casey took flu shots and wanted to administer them to her family. Would my parents let her? I could picture my mother, holding the little vials close to her face, her eyes squinting behind her glasses. They could be tucked away with the mounds of quilting material, just disappear and Casey would never get into trouble for stealing them. Lost among the notions and the barely remembered tape measure.

Here is the thing about the quilts and their secret meanings. We used to see drinks listed on the placemats at Valley Forge Restaurant with names that hinted at more. Those names, Singapore Sling, Sloe Gin Fizz, Caribbean Rum Punch, suggested dark mystique. Nothing unfathomable, nothing beguiling existed in names like Bowtie or Log Cabin. But if you did your own research, found out a little more on your own, then it all came out. Beyond the quilts, beyond the small paragraphs and their meager information. Then it all flew right at you.

The code name for Cleveland was Hope. There, on Lake Erie’s shore, someone might reach Hope. That was the message of the Crossroads quilt. Nearing the end of a long journey, with Port Stanley, Ontario just across the water. Port Stanley. Code name “God be Praised!” Surrounded by dark woods, no one to trust but some quilts that may or may not have been imbedded with secrets that you had to rely on. Secrets coming from total strangers whom you had been told to trust like the family you never really had. Around you is a kind of darkness no one has ever seen before and now you are alone and in danger and desperate for the North Star. True North. The truest star in the night sky. The quilt told you one thing, inspired and encouraged you at the start of the journey but how could you trust everything that they told you. How did they know? This is what you would wonder, about the Crossroads quilt, whether its message was real.

And then the faintest sound of water. So tiny a sound at first that you might think it was just a soft rain getting ready to fall a little harder. But the water is rushing, you hear it now as a river now that you are nearer. It starts to smell of cardinal flower and swamp rose mallow and dampness itself and everything wet and cold but it is Lake Erie and you rush forward, as fast as the river. Maybe faster. It’s there across the water. Port Stanley. Waiting for you to cross. God be Praised!

Imagine that.

Or imagine our home that afternoon. Surrounded by our mother’s new baskets and never-to-be finished quilt, snoring in an easy chair on a Wednesday afternoon, there was my sister, my twin. The ugly plaid of the family room, the ottomans, none of it large enough for all the misplaced strips of gold quilting, the more often than not flawed stitches, nothing to make all of the flaws and imperfections disappear, or at least unknowable. How I longed to not look at her. Or maybe just once to see her differently. With long, silky layers of blonde hair.

*         *        *

Melanie AnagnosMelanie Anagnos is an MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College and the current nonfiction editor of LUMINA. She was awarded the Kathryn Gurfein Writing Fellowship at Sarah Lawrence for her short fiction. Her work has appeared online and in Ozone Park Journal. Melanie lives with her husband and two children in Haworth, New Jersey and is completing a collection of linked stories.