Saturday, June 25, 2011

Guilt Relief

Like many women, I sometimes feel like the Queen of Guilt.  It started in my childhood, as these things usually do.  I felt guilty when I made a less-than-perfect grade, because I was a perfectionist.  I felt guilty when I dropped out of college after one year, disappointing my parents.  I felt guilty wanting to get married at 19 and choosing to marry an active alcoholic.  I felt guilty because I had to work and put my kids in day care.  Through the years, I have felt guilty for just about anything, from what I choose to eat and not exercising enough, to playing the harp too infrequently and not making enough quilts.  I feel guilty when I procrastinate about balancing the bank statement.  Oh, brother, do I feel guilty!

But some of the worst guilt feelings I have ever experienced have been in the last three years, and they involve my mother (now 88).

Mom, having lost Dad in 1980, has lived independently all these years until she was involved in an auto accident and broke a hip and ankle.  After the hospital gave their exceptionally wonderful trauma care and sorely lacking followup care, she moved to rehab.  The next step was up in the air.  She clearly couldn't live by herself anymore.  Even if she completely healed from her injuries, she was getting macular degeneration and blepharospasm, she had one hand permanently in a claw-like position and arthritis had deformed all her fingers, so going back to her little house was out of the question.  My sister Joy, who lived locally around Memphis while I was up here in Maine, visited a few nursing homes but she said the ones that Mother could afford were bad.  So there was only one thing left to do.

My sister sold her beautiful dining room furniture and turned her dining room into a hospital room for our mother, as it was the only first-floor room she could use.  She installed the hospital bed, potty chair, wheelchair, and all the other accoutrements of postsurgical/elderly care, and moved Mother in with her.  Mother has been there ever since.

I can't help but admire the sacrifices Joy has made in these last years.  It started with getting up every night multiple times to care for her, and as Mother got more mobile, Joy was in charge of making sure her prescriptions were refilled and picked up, her doctor appointments had to be scheduled and Joy had to take time off work to drive her there.  She has had to put up with everything that living as an adult with your elderly mother entails.  With her own daughter starting 12th grade, a second daughter in college, and full-time job, and her activity in her church, Joy has had her hands full.  On top of that, Joy has had to take care of Mother's house, making sure the grass was cut and beer cans from the neighbors were out of the yard, that it was not broken into, that repairs were made, and gradually Joy has cleaned out the house so that she can finish repairs and put it up for sale.

Oh yeah, and Mother's dog?  Joy had to adopt it, too.  (For a few months, Joy had her own old dog, her late father-in-law's dog, and Mother's dog all at the same time.)  Add vet visits and dog-hair cleanup to Joy's overflowing schedule.

You can see where the guilt comes in.  Joy is sacrificing her family life, her social life, her personal mental and emotional sanity, privacy, and any hope of being able to just relax and do something for pleasure and recharging.  Meanwhile, except for a short yearly visit to stay with Joy and help with Mother (which brings it own set of problems, having to host out-of-town relatives, of course), I have been sitting here in Maine with a predominantly non-stressed life.  I like my job, my kids are all grown with their families and doing great, my husband is retired so he stays home and cooks wonderful meals every evening, my house is quiet, we live in the country, I have time to do my hobbies.  Just because of the fact that we moved to Maine 15 years ago, my sister is having to handle this life stress all by herself.  Hence, the guilt.  Powerful guilt.

A few months ago, Joy and I started mentioning in passing how nice it would be if Mom would come stay with us for a while.  When I even mentioned the idea, Mom scoffed and changed the subject.  She has never flown and won't start now and refused a car trip.  So the conversations progressed to more pressing suggestion, that she really needed to take a break and come up here for a while.  Nothing worked.  It finally was clear that only an order would be accepted, so we just flat out told her she was coming.

So in a couple of weeks, my 88-year-old mother with her walker and her prescriptions and her topical lotions and potions and her walker and clothes and, yes, her dog, will be living here with us.  I didn't have a dining room to turn into her bedroom, but I do have a very small third bedroom I've been exercising in, so that's what she will have.  We've been cleaning and organizing and buying things and hanging curtains, and trying to arrange furniture to be walker-friendly and getting ready for another dog to be living here, as it's been over a year since our Babe died.

It will be a stressful trip bringing her and the dog back.  She has bad anxiety and tremors anyway, and this will be hard on her.  But I think once she gets here, she will relax and settle down and get into a new routine.  After all, we told her, Ed and I already live like old people.  We have no social life, we eat at 5 p.m., we watch old movies from the '30s and '40s on the weekend, our house is elder-friendly (wide doors, push handles, etc.), and we have put cable TV in her new room just for her.  Add that the fact that  she can see her grandchildren and her 3 great-grandchildren on a regular basis, and it sounds very good, doesn't it?  Mother has never liked change, but I think she has finally adjusted to the idea of living with us.

I am really looking forward to it, also.  Sure, it will assuage some of my guilt for Joy having to have borne the burden ever since Mother's accident, but here's something surprising:  Along with my guilt has been some jealousy, too.  Joy has gotten to interact and take care of Mother for quite a while now, and now, it doesn't just have to be my turn, I want it to be my turn.  I talk to her every night but I really miss her, and I look forward to touching her old gnarly hands and kissing her good night on a regular basis.  Oh, I'm sure the stress and irritation will wear on me - it'll be like having a little kid at home again that you have to worry and watch out for, except this kid will query me every time I leave "shouldn't you wear a hat?" - being the stereotypical "once a mother, always a mother."  We will have to make sure her prescriptions are refilled, that she gets to the doctor, the dog to the vet, that she gets to watch her favorite TV shows.  We will have to figure out what to do about holidays since she will probably be homebound when the snow and ice starts this winter.   I'll have to get comfortable exercising in a more crowded part of the house somewhere, and poor Ed, who thankfully genuinely likes my mother, will not have much privacy anymore and won't even be able to cuss loudly at the weatherman.  It will be a major change in our lives.

But I will have a little less guilt and a little less jealously, and I am grateful for the opportunity.  My sister has been a saint.  I will never be able to be as conscientious and organized as she has been, but we have one thing the same in Tennessee and Maine - and that's lots of love to offer.  Wish us luck!

Friday, June 17, 2011

The "Challenge" of Life

A short version of how we ended up in Maine goes like this:  We were living in middle Tennessee, preparing to take a family vacation.  Neither Ed nor I had ever been to New England, so we thought the family would enjoy a trip there - and as I am a quilter, the main impetus for my suggesting this was Keepsake Quilting, a quilter's dream store in New Hampshire (pictured above).  Ed, of course, had to say if we were going to New Hampshire, he wanted to go to LL Bean in Maine.   We managed to hit both shopping highlights on that trip, but once we got to Maine, we fell in love with the state and decided one day we would relocate here.  So in a way, Keepsake Quilting is responsible for our being in Maine today.

Every quilter loves Keepsake Quilting.  Just to go into the store will take your breath away.  It has over 12,000 bolts of fabric - that alone is enough to make a quilter lightheaded.  The folks at KQ have several quilt challenges a year.  I've never entered, but the ones who have won are extremely gifted and creative quilters.   Each challenge has a theme.  The latest challenge was "Create a Log Cabin Keepsake Challenge."  Here, for your amazement, is the first place winner:
Now, can you imagine creating this?  This lady is unbelievably talented and could probably teach geometry too!  So what's the challenge?  Well, besides the requirement of sticking with the theme, each entrant received six fabrics.  She could choose up to two additional fabrics of her own choice to supplement what she was given by KQ.  This is the truly astonishing part of the whole challenge, in my opinion.  Look at the six challenge fabrics below and see if you could come up with that winning quilt of Sandra Smart's.

It doesn't look possible, does it?  Yet those six fabrics are used in that winning quilt!

Quite a challenge, huh?  First you get a packet of six fabrics - not of your choosing - some you might love, some you might think are downright hideous, some you are sure could never be featured successfully in a quilt - that part is hard enough.  But then, you have to make the difficult choice of what two fabrics to add to the mix so that the final picture is the one you imagine.  Remember, you can choose any fabric in the world - KQ alone has over 12,000 bolts - so narrowing your choice to two must be a task of unfathomable struggle.  After imagining your quilt, dealing with the Challenge fabrics, picking your other two fabrics, assembling the quilt and finally quilting and embellishing the quilt, you are done. You are judged on:

Color, fabrics and patterns used in an unusual way.
Design reflects something unique about your personality or style.
Use of Color
Color values (lights and darks) arranged in an interesting way.
Color accents lend spark, design interest or movement.
Piecing fits together smoothly and lies flat. Applique stitches are invisible or add to the design.
Binding is neat and square.
Embellishments are tasteful.
Design Balance
Design has a focal point.
Size of the design elements are in scale with the overall design, and the sashes and borders are well proportioned.
Uniform amount of quilting over the entire quilt top. 

To see all the winners, click here.  When you look at these amazing creations, remember they started out with the same 6 fabrics - fabrics that were thrust upon them without their choice or approval.

I love to read the quotes from the winners.  They say things like "I had no idea how to use that odd-looking floral fabric!" and "Yuck, I've always hated orange," and "The theme was so frustrating for me" and other initially negative reactions.  Then they get to work.  They use all sort of tricks to expand their options within the rules - using both sides of the fabric, for instance, or maybe using some fabric paint for details. Maybe they tweak their original design after they see what the Challenge fabrics look like to make better use of what they received.   This winner said it all: "It all goes to prove that, no matter what fabric you start with, you can create a successful quilt."  (She also mentioned that the Log Cabin has never been one of her favorite patterns because she can't sew a straight line.  So what does she do?  She uses curves!)

So what does this all have to each us?  Last week when I read about the winning quilts, I had an epiphany.  This is not just about fabric and thread - this is about LIFE.   We are each granted our 24-hour days.  We are each given a genetic and environmental packet of fabric.  We did not choose our parents or the place of our birth.  We did not choose or economic status or race.  We did not choose how we were raised.  We did not choose the teachers we ended up with at school.   Some of what we have been given in our packet freaks us out.  Some of it delights us and makes us feel blessed.  Some of it is indeed hideous and evil and no one should have to put up with it.  But there it is, in our life challenge packet, and we are stuck with it.  The good news is we do have some extra choices to put in the mix.  And we do have creative ways to tweak what we have.  And the final result - our LIFE - is totally from our choice - given the rules, the genetic and environmental packet with which we have been allotted, and using the additional gifts of choice, imagination, passion, talent, education, mentors, and all the other wonderful things we have available to us - and the end result can be a thing of wonder.  We can't all win first place.  A lot of us will wind up with a truly beautiful quilt, every detail almost perfect.  Some will end up with a whimsical, lighthearted quilt.   Many of us will put that last stitch in a scrap quilt - using all sorts of fabrics that don't seem to go together but actually do.   Others will finish their years with a crazy quilt, everything jumbled and tossed around and my, oh, my, a little of everything!  Each quilt - each LIFE - will be different, unique.  It will reflect our true personalities and spirits.  It will hopefully make the best of what we started with.  What you end up with might pleasantly surprise you, and may not even be close to your original design.  Maybe you highlighted the challenge fabrics in your packet and thanked your lucky stars, or maybe you hid them away in the quilt and highlighted the fabric you chose to add to the mix.  It's the Challenge of Life.  Everyone is already an entrant.  The deadline for finishing your quilts is unknown, however.  So keep working, and good luck!

Monday, June 06, 2011

Cloth Tales

After spending much time with my sister cleaning out our mom's attic in upper 90-degree heat, I have learned a few things.  One is that no one should ever try to clean out an attic in upper 90-degree heat with a mask, gloves, hat, and a disposable coverall from Home Depot originally made for a 7-foot man with legs that are 4 feet long.  The second is that some of the most precious memories have involved clothes.

Nothing brings your memory back to past times as holding a piece of clothing.  A lot of the clothing we found in the attic was not preserved correctly, so it had to be thrown out, unfortunately.  But on the other hand, we found some things in good condition.

We found my bridal veil, for instance. This was not an expensive designer veil.  It was a very simple, short veil that my pastor's wife gave me for our wedding day in 1974.  (She had worn it in her own wedding.)  My gown had been made by a gracious lady who attended our church, and as I had no veil, my pastor's wife let me use hers.  I am definitely taking that back to Maine.

We also found a delicate pink baby dress made out of the sheerest cotton.  I am almost certain I have a picture of me in this dress, so it's going too.  Do you remember back when all girls wore dresses for years and years?  My kids can't believe I never had a pair of jeans until I had to buy a pair for camp one year, and they find it hard to believe that blue jeans, that ubiquitous school uniform of today, were banned at our high school.  Even simple pants on girls were banned at East High until we had an exceptionally cold winter, and the principal or school board or whoever was in charge of fashion rules  relented on the pants ban (you might remember that short skirts were the style then....brrr!).  When I stroked the baby dress, it brought back memories of a time when not only girls wore dresses, but women wore gloves and hats.  It's hard today to imagine what used to be considered minimal appropriate attire with which to be seen in public.

We found the famous dark blue Mr. John's hat.  From Wikipedia:
According to the New York Times, "in the 1940s and 1950s, the name Mr. John was as famous in the world of hats as Christian Dior was in the realm of haute couture."  Mr. John's most famous work was his millinery for Vivien Leigh in Gone With The Wind [2]. With a long association with Hollywood and Broadway, his hats were much in demand. [3]

A famous anecdote about Mr. John goes that a woman came into his shop in urgent need of a hat. He built one up right on her head, but she balked when he named his price. He then disassembled the pieces and handed them to her. "That's $3.59," he said, "You make it." 

Joy and I grew up with the story of the Mr. John hat.  Apparently Mother had won it in a contest and it was the first thing she had ever won.  She adored that hat.  It was revered and worn with a bit of pride and lots of awe.  I think she always stood up a little straighter when she wore that hat.  Well, last week, Joy and I found the Mr. John hat in a plastic bag in the attic along with some other hats.   It was the Velveteen Rabbit of hats, left to its untimely demise, incognizant, I hope, of its former glory and status.   At first, Joy said, "No, the Mr. John hat is in its original hatbox in a closet downstairs."  But I peered inside that blue hat in the attic, I could see the "Mr. John" label, and I knew an impostor was hiding in that precious hatbox in the closet, which sadly proved to be true.  The Mr. John hat, the original symbol of Mother's unbelievable luck and the item which made Mother a fashion icon in her social circle, was indeed the one in the plastic bag.  With great regret, the Mr. John hat was trashed.  It still lives in family home movies, adorning one of the most precious heads in the world.  You can't miss it - it's the head of the lady with the wide smile, preening for the camera.

We also found The Wedding Dress.  Despite its name, this was not a gown for a bride; this was a dress Mother wore to all the family weddings since 1989.   I had made it for her to wear to my sister's wedding in May of that year.  It was pale turquoise with satin base and lace overlay, and Mom looked lovely in it.  So when Ed and I got "remarried" in a 20th-anniversary ceremony in 1994, Mom wore it again.  Then she wore it for our daughter Rachel's wedding in 2002.  That is why we call it The Wedding Dress.  It holds special significance for Rachel, since it was made by me and worn by her grandmother at her wedding, and after a call to Rachel confirmed she wanted to keep it, I packed it for a trip to Maine.

The last thing we had to decide was what suit jackets of Daddy's we wanted to keep.  Mom gave away most of Dad's clothes after he died, but there were a few suit jackets in the attic in remarkably good condition.  Dad practically lived in suits, as he worked in a bank and was a choir director and leader at church.  Ed jokes that even when Dad mowed the lawn in a short-sleeve cotton shirt, Ed still pictured him out there in the yard in a suit, because he so rarely saw him in anything else; Ed's eyes could not resolve the apparent dichotomy.  I chose one jacket for Rachel and one for Matt.  We miss our Dad so much, and it was good to touch his suit jackets and reminisce.

You can't clean out an attic without memories washing over you, and you can't touch a piece of special clothing without honoring the wearer.  In the end, it is just pieces of cottons, laces, netting, wool, interfacing - but their significance goes beyond their fiber contents.  They are pieces of history - our history.   And there is a reason why "story" is a part of that word.