Pieces of a Dream: Quilts are feats of connection, one person to another

By Lise Funderburg

The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine
October 5, 1997

I began to glimpse the deeper content of quilts only when I started making them some years ago — my attempt to give distinctive shower gifts. As I spent hours making these blankets for other people, for children I could not yet possibly know, I infused them with my affection, my whimsy, my skills, and, of course, my mistakes. How, I wondered, would they be received? What new meanings would overlay my own over time, once they left my hands? And who would ever know? I’ve started asking these questions of others, of those who give and those who receive these extraordinary handcrafted ties that bind. Here are a few of their answers, collected over the last 18 months.

Hairdresser, New York, NY

Jerry Jacobs was born and raised in Kentucky, close to the Ohio border. When we talk, he has been a New Yorker for 15 years, earning a living “clipping wigs.” He cuts hair in his small, uncluttered Greenwich Village apartment, where everything is tasteful, from the custom-made shower curtain to the carved, hulking sideboard that holds his scissors, combs, and brushes.

I went to a small college, majored in psychology and sociology, and as soon as I got out of school, I went to this psychiatric hospital where I ran the social work department. I wasn’t supposed to be in charge, but two weeks after I arrived the guy who was said, “It’s all yours; I’m going to Seattle.” So I’m like, OK.

The hospital was in the northern part of Kentucky. It was a small unit in a beautiful setting; it was in the woods with lots of trees and grass and stuff around. People that came there were truly disturbed but very quickly settled back into normal — whatever normal life would be. And the staff there was very friendly; it was like a family.

So I was there for a year when we got this woman who was from the country, way in the country, and sweet as can be but just as mad as can be when she came in. Mad as a hatter. Just out of her mind. And within a week or so, she had settled down to the point where we could speak to her. Part of my job was to make sure that everything after she left the hospital was taken care of. So I contacted her family and dealt with a lot of personal things. I didn’t have to make her take medicine. I didn’t have to probe why she hated her mother. It was just, “Do you have someone to take care of you when you go home?”

So she liked me. She became my friend. And she called me Jury instead of Jerry. It was just her accent, kind of a country accent. She pulled it together enough where she was going to go home for a weekend, and before she went home, she says, “Jury, I’m going to make you a quilt.”

I’m like, “OK, great, I’ll see you on Monday.” So Monday, I’m sitting at the front desk, and all of a sudden this quilt lands on my desk. And she takes off and she doesn’t say anything. She just drops this quilt on me. And I’m like, “Charlene, come back here. What is this?”

And she said, “I told you I was going to make you a quilt and I did.”

And I said, “You made this whole thing by yourself over the weekend?”

She says, “No, all my girlfriends got together and we all made this quilt for you.”

I’m like, “Well, how sweet. Thank you.”

And that’s it. She really didn’t make a big deal of it. Who knows why, maybe something in her head, but she only brought it up a couple of times, like, “Did you like it?” or “How’s the quilt?” She just made this quilt for me and that was the end of the story.

And I loved it And I still love it. She and her friends spent the time to make this thing for me. And it’s like, Wow, she made this just for me. And then I’m thinking, Who are these other women that she got together to make this quilt for me? They don’t even know who I am and they made something for me.

And then it started to take on other meanings because after I left the hospital, not only was it from her, but it was also from the hospital. And the staff there, as I said, was like a family, so it’s like this is my quilt from them, from when I had all these those friends and work was good and the patients were fun.

There’s a coffee stain on the quilt, from me. That was my contribution within the first year, and it won’t come off. Overall, I think it’s pretty sturdy, but it’s handmade and these little spots are starting to come up, some of the comers are coming up, so I’m going to have to be careful so I can preserve it. This is the blanket that I’ve had for 16 years, longer than anything I’ve ever owned, I think.

Teacher, Wilmington, DE

In the 20 years since Karen Horikawa and I went to school together, we’ve bumped into each other only a handful of times. Still, my feeling for her is an unmitigated fondness based on that shared sliver of our pasts. The anatomy of friendship is a curious thing: Its bonds may be based on sameness or difference, proximity or distance. Karen’s quilt story is of a friendship anchored in time, a foundation that brings a lovely, certain knowing.

I’ll tell you about the quilt that’s on my bed. It was made by a friend who is the oldest friend that I have. She and I were friends since we were 1 year old. In fact, when I was 1 exactly, because that’s when I moved into the neighborhood that she lived in, Havertown.

We lived right behind each other and across an alley. She was the reason I got grounded for the first time, when we were 4 years old. It was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. We ran away to the nearby playground. We didn’t tell our parents, and they were furious. For the next week they locked us in; they closed the fence in my yard and she had to stay in hers. We just stood at the fence and talked to each other.

She moved away when we were in second grade. We were never even sent to school together because she went to Catholic school and I went to the public school. So our lives were really, really different. She was an only child, so I was her only mate around.

We stayed friends after she moved away, we really did. We were at that age where we could write to each other, and it was really nice to have that correspondence. She moved to North Carolina for a little while, then to New Jersey, then to Indiana. And, yeah, we kept writing the entire time.

From the time she moved away till the summer before my senior year in high school, we probably saw each other five times. There was a stretch in there where we were writing an awful lot. I told her about all my friends and who’s liking whom and who’s going to the dance with whom. She would write back and tell me her gossip, so it was a nice outlet we had for each other.

I really don’t know why our friendship didn’t fade, because we are so different. And even when I see her now — I just saw her last summer, and we’re just completely, completely different. She’s always been the kind of person who likes to be the center of attention, and when we were growing up, she said she wanted to be an actress, so she was always posing. Then she became a mime, which kind of bugged me because she was always miming. It was, you know, one of those things that gets under your skin.

I was more, hmm, I was trying to do a lot of reading and to think about science a lot, because that’s what I was studying at the time. Not fun stuff, I admit. I think about that now: I wasn’t a real fun person.

I met up with her after a really long time, before that senior year. And then we saw each other a couple of times through college. But we kept in touch, and I guess the main reason is because we were friends since babies. And she was the person that stood next to me in my wedding. She wasn’t maid of honor, really, because we didn’t have attendants, but I did want someone to stand up, and she was the one. And I had also been her maid of honor, which was really hard, because she had all these people I didn’t know what to do with as maid of honor. So it was kind of a reciprocal thing.

Anyway, we’re just very different personalities. But we really liked each other and we really like the fact that our friendship was so old and nobody else could match that. No matter what. The other thing that keeps us in touch is that she also has family in Philadelphia. Even though her parents are long gone from this area, she has cousins and aunts and uncles here. Every Thanksgiving, she seems to come back.

I guess Leslie found out we were going to get married a couple of months before the wedding, so that’s when she started this project. She was working as a nurse in Chicago, living there with her husband and working to put him through business school. I guess she thought of herself as an artist, but after the actress thing died down, she went into more visual art. I guess she held it out as a dream for herself the whole time she was married to this guy. And anyway, she took up this quilting project. She took a sewing course and designed the quilt and put it together. I called her on the phone one night and she said, “Oh, I’m making your present! But I’m not going to tell you what it is.” All this suspense. I had no idea what she had up her sleeve. And she was that kind of person, too, who would build something up like that.

We got her at the airport the night before the wedding, and she arrived with this huge, huge box. We opened it before the wedding, and it was just this awesome quilt. To know that she made this and she designed it — I mean, I had never received a gift like that, that was so heartfelt, that she put all this work into. It was really very, very touching. I’m sure I never have gotten another gift like it.

And it was so big. I think she said it’s queen-size. The amazing thing was, she didn’t know anything about the room or our taste and style or colors or anything. She had no idea what we would like, but went ahead and made the quilt. When we put it on the bed, it was a perfect match. It matched with the bed frame, because we had the cherry headboard; the bed is sort of a Shaker style and with all the squares and the black lattice or whatever, lines, outlines of the quilt itself, it just really picked it up well. She used a lot of earthy, muted colors, and I guess she got that idea from our conversations. It was lucky and it was just weird. The wavelength or the karma was good.

So we love it. We really do. We keep it on the bed year round. We always get a lot of compliments on it, and when she’s been back to visit us, two, maybe three times, she always asks about it. And she tells me every single time I see her, “That’s the first and last quilt I’ve ever made. You have an original.”

I think she planned on doing a lot of baby quilts, too; in fact, she told me she was going to make one for us when we were having our babies, but she stopped talking about that, so I don’t bring it up. But things have also changed a lot in her life. Her marriage broke up and she’s been divorced for about a year and a half now. Funny thing is, she’s in art school right now. She somehow scraped the funding together, got some grant.

She’s in school in Savannah, Ga. Quite a switch from Chicago. And she doesn’t care for the climate, the pace of life, everything there is about the South. But she’s in a nice place — the Savannah School of Design, I think it’s called. She really likes what she’s doing, and she’s a metalsmith.

I think with her, going back to school was the only choice she had. In order for her to really be happy, she had to do that. She knew that it was going to be probably the hardest thing she would have to do because of the financial aspect and going where she knew nobody, far away from all her other connections. That was really hard for her. But I think it’s her second year now. I know it’s her second year.

Student, New York, NY

Nancy Sosa settles onto the couch of her grandparents’ apartment. They live on the fifth floor of a Lower East Side high-rise, in the shadow of the BrooklynBridge. She is, at the time of our interview, a 10th grader at the School of the Future. Nancy has made a quilt, or a piece of one, for the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which consists of more than 32,000 such panels. Nancy‘s cloth rectangle is decorated wish stars and bears the message “In Loving Memory.” She designed the panel to reflect how AIDS has affected her family.

Last year, my teacher offered to take us to see these people who died of AIDS and to show panels that their family members or lovers or whatever made and we’re like, Sure, yeah, we’ll all go. It was a whole class trip. One of my best friends went, too. Her cousin had passed away — but her favorite, you know? She was hysterical when she went through. She was happy, sad, and then she wanted to laugh and then she wanted to cry. She didn’t know what to do so she started busting out crying. We had to leave. I had to take her out.

There are many kids now in my class who have family that passed away. Many. But not last year. This year, yeah, but last year — that’s when I went to see the exhibition — it was just me and a couple of kids. But this year, a lot of family members have died. So other kids can understand when I think about my moth­er. They understand, so they’ll just leave me alone.

My whole entire class went on the trip to see the panels. All the people there thought we were going to be immature because we were ninth graders, you know? But they were very shocked. We gave them a lot of respect. We just looked around and we left. And then the manager who got the organization together, she said if you wanted to make a quilt and give it in, you could. And so she gave us the materials and the sewing machine equip­ment. She gave anything we needed. So I was like, Yeah, sure, yeah, that would be a great thing to do.

They had the AIDS quilt inside a building at Queensborough College; we had only seen, like, one-third of the quilt. I thought it was just going to be the same: I love you, this and that. But some of the quilts had what the person who died was like, what they loved. If they loved theater, they had Miss Saigon or Cats and stuff. Some of them, you’d be like, Oooh, that’s nice. And some of them, they just had glitter on them or rainbows. For little kids who died they had rainbows and their little toys on it. I was going to put my brother’s and sister’s dolls on their panel. And some of the panels I saw had little dolls on them, too. That brought ideas to me when I was making mine.

When my mother died and everything, I never really got a chance to say goodbye because I never saw her when she died. So to me, the quilt panel is just a memory, a little goodbye gift to her. And to my brother and my sister, because I ain’t seen them either, for a while. So it was something that I gave them, a little memory, souvenir, a goodbye gift to them. Before that, I felt bad because I thought my mother could have been there more for me and I thought I didn’t do a good job as a daughter, youknow, giving her presents.

It was a couple years after the twins died that my mother died, because she didn’t have the AIDS virus as bad as my brother and sister had it. They had it full-blown, so it was like a couple of years and they were going to die. But my mother didn’t have it that bad. She just had it at the beginning stage, you know: HIV and that’s it. And then as years passed, she got it real bad. I was young, but not too young. And I thought she left me too quick and it was not fair. And I was mad at everybody: Why she left me so quick? That’s not even fair. I was, like, that was my puberty stage, you know?

I was 10, going on 11, and there was a stage, like: That’s not fair. And so I had rough times with my grandmother. I knew that my grandmother would always be there for me, but I was like, That’s not my mother, that’s my grandmother. It was hard for me to accept it for a while until I was like: Oh well, I’ve got to deal with it. I’m going to be alive for a while, so I just might as well deal with it.

I know the quilt is a good thing, but I’m, like, so angry at my father, you know? He just left me when I was 2; I never really knew him. I can remember his face back then, but I wouldn’t know what he looks like now. And I just will never forgive him for that, you know? He had HIV. I’m not positively sure, but that’s what I feel, because I don’t know how my mother got it, and my broth­er and my sister.

My grandmother’s best friends say, “You so lucky that you’re still alive,” but you just don’t want to go through the things that I have to go through, you know? They’re just too painful. It’s, it’s, like, you have somebody die every other year. When I saw my mother die, I didn’t want to let her go, even though she was in the casket. Then they went to close her up, I was like, No, don’t close her up. I felt like she was asleep. Her eyes were closed; it’s not like they were all gone or any­thing. She looked asleep in a little tiny box. And when they were closing her up, I was like, You can’t do that! And then I don’t know who pulled me away, but some­body had to because my fin­gers were right there; they couldn’t close it with my fin­gers on it. I wanted to be strong when we went to the burial. I wanted to be strong. I didn’t want to cry. But the tears came to my eyes. My grandmother was hysterical, and I just kept looking every­where, just to keep myself oc­cupied, to make sure I was really strong. But in the long run, it just hurt more.

It took a while to make the panel. It was just, like, a hassle just to make time just to do it. I worked on it at school, in a real tiny room. There was just me and my other friend, Rashaqua. She never got the time to do it, either. But I forced time into it. My teacher would excuse me, and I would just go and do it ’cause, like I said before, I thought I never got the chance to give my mother anything special. And she gave me a lot of things, and I thought I never gave her nothing good, you know? And my brother and sister. I never got old enough to get money to buy them a little toy, a little something.

They were twins, two years younger than me. They died a year apart. My brother died when I was 5 and my sister died when I was 6. I was just a little girl, finally in kindergarten and going into first grade. I didn’t get grown up enough to give them anything special. So I thought, I’ll do something like that for them. I felt good after I did it. But I didn’t want to give it up at first, I wanted to keep it. But then my teacher was like, Oh, but this is a good thing, this is beautiful; I think when everybody sees it, it’ll be beautiful.

So I was like, No, I don’t want to! But then I thought I was like, Yeah, my mother and the twins, they’re going to like it. I just had that feeling like this is going to be their gift, and everybody’s going to see it, so I was like, All right. And I gave it up. But I thought, man, I should’ve made another one.

Artist, Wynnewood, PA

Dottie Weisbord lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where she and her husband have raised four children. Dottie was only 20 years old when she had her first baby, fresh out of art school and still herself “a very unformed human being.” Dottie has never quilted, but she loves fabric. She has framed and hung on a wall the coat she wore as a small child in the Soviet Union, where she was born. Among her quilts is the first her daughter made, now lying on a guest bed.

This one is an old quilt, it’s in very bad condition, and I haven’t known what to do with it. Is this somethin’? I think it’s extraordinarily beautiful. It’s all made by hand, and I think it’s from around the turn of the century. This is an old family quilt from my stepfather’s family. I was adopted by this man and he never had any other children and I inherited this quilt. He talked about it coming from his mother’s family: Her name was Effie Harrison Barclay, and she was born well before the turn of the century. She looked like a female Charles de Gaulle. The family were French Huguenots and she was very strict, very determined, a farm woman. This quilt was made by her elderly aunts. And it was just kept. It was hardly ever used that I remember because it was always a little on the sad side. But giving it away would be like giving away a piece of history — or destroying it would be like destroying a piece of American history.

Effie came from a very proper family in Illinois. In fact, she was a Daughter of the American Revolution, and her family, the Harrisons, were related to the Harrison who was a president of the United States for a month. But the quilt was always like a family artifact that couldn’t be let go because somehow it stood for something more.

I think it’s the most beautiful-looking quilt. The only thing I can relate it to is maybe some Amish quilts that are so subtle and — severe, almost. This isn’t a pretty quilt. It’s not like a pretty person, it’s a handsome quilt with character. You know, it has quality.

But the balance and thee symmetry and the combination of the colors, I think, is so subtle, and I wonder if they thought it out or if that’s just what they had and they put them together. These green ties that hold it together are the original ties. Neon green [laughs]. But to me, it’s perfect ’cause it goes with the navy blue and with the burgundy red. I’ve seen a lot of quilts, but this one is so strange. And their family was very severe, and she was a very severe woman, very, proper, until she married an Irishman. And somehow, the quilt is like her. It’s a severe, proper piece of cloth.

This has been in my possession about 10 years. And I don’t know what to do with it. I can’t get rid of it. It’s a mystery, full of mystery. I’d love to turn back time and see the people who made it. I’d like to see them making it; I’d like to see them in their lives. At the same time, it’s so fragile. It’s no good for anything except to take out and look at every once in a while. I do that. I take it out and just look at it once in a while. It reminds me of the family. I came into the family as a young child; I wasn’t born into it, but I came as a young child, so they had a great deal of impact on my life. And the quilt almost serves as an object of contemplation, for thinking back on what all the parts of my life were, pieced together like the pieces of the quilt.

I adored my stepfather. I really adored him. He was a wonderful man, like a character out of John Dos Passes, out of U.SA., or Tom Joad. That’s the kind of man he was. He was a man of the earth and a real American in that he had all the best of what I call American qualities. That may be romanticism on my part. It probably is romanticism, but I grew up with black and white movies. Tough as an old shoe. So maybe that’s what I think about when I look at the quilt, although this poor old quilt’s not tough anymore. It’s pretty shabby. Any other quilt would be thrown away in this condition. But it reminds me of when my kids had those little security blankies, and they got tattered and tattered, but we couldn’t possibly throw them away because they meant so much.