As the youngest of four children, I grew up always sleeping on someone else's sheets.
We had a big linen closet full of mismatched pillowcases, sheets and blankets, some almost 10 years old by the time I came along. They were well-worn, a little faded and perfectly broken in.
I loved those sheets.
I had some favorites: the ones with Donald Duck and Goofy, the soft blue-fitted sheet that was a little too big for my bed and slipped off my mattress every night, and the light green flat sheet with a big, faded petal print. Sometimes I stole my parents' sheets when they weren't using them, stuffing all the extra material on top of my box spring to try to make them fit.
I took great comfort sleeping on those soft sheets. Not only were they familiar — the smell, the weathered look — but they were somehow reassuring, like the feeling I got when my dad stayed up telling me stories when I couldn't sleep.
I hated sleeping in beds that weren't my own, in scratchy hotel sheets.
We had a variety of comforters we piled on when it got cold. We kept the heat low and just piled on the blankets, four or five at a time. I usually had the old store-bought kind with lumpy batting that I never paid attention to, but at some point, a special blanket appeared on my bed — my grandmother's quilt.
I don't remember getting the quilt out of the closet — although there were a few in there — or if my mother tucked it onto my bed one chilly day, but I do remember sleeping under that quilt long enough to claim it as my own. I remember knowing that my grandmother, who died before I was born, sewed the quilt — and she made a lot of quilts.
That was one of a handful of facts about my grandma: Her name was Fleeta, and that registered in my detached, adolescent awareness of her. She was a nurse. She died of breast cancer. She made quilts. That was about it.
My father guesses she started making quilts during the Great Depression. She never threw away a scrap of material. Old shirts, vests, pajamas and pants all ended up in neat little squares of scrap. She recycled old quilts when they became worn out, sewing them into newer quilts. Some of the quilts are so old they are made of scraps of clothing she wore during World War II, my uncle says.
I asked him and my father why she made the quilts. The one I have is a simple block pattern, all different shapes and sizes, and far from exactly perfect — not the kind you'd ever see entered in a contest at the fair. It doesn't look like the kind of quilt you'd make to put on display, either. To the average observer, it probably looks like a solid, warm quilt with obvious mistakes and oddly shaped fabric sewn in where the pattern fell short.
Fleeta had arthritis in her hands, but she always kept them busy through sewing, my dad says. But was there a meaning behind the quilts, a message?
"Other than love, I don't remember," he answered.
His words moved me. I knew exactly what he was talking about.
All of those years ago, I never put my grandmother's quilt back in the closet. When it was warm, I folded the quilt up and put it at the base of my bed. I liked to see it there, and I didn't want it to be adopted by any of my siblings. At first, I just liked the satiny softness of the back of the quilt. And then I was fascinated by the fabric on its front.
The pattern of 3-by-3 and 6-by-6 squares are a kaleidoscope of color. There are fleur-de-lis and polka dots, tight red plaids and tiny orange flowers. It almost seems like no two pieces of fabric on it are the same, but they are all worn to a softness that drips over your skin like butter.
There was a turning point in my relationship with this quilt. One day, when high school was horrible and everyone seemed mean and I felt all alone and unloved by the world, I lay on my bed under that quilt and I stared at its pattern through my tears.
I noticed the bright yellow swirls and the aging swatches and I was captivated by my imagination of their stories. They spoke to me of happiness, of history, of a presence beyond the pain of teenage years.
Somehow, through an inanimate object made by the hands of my grandmother decades before, I felt loved.
Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.
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