Sometimes a dream needs time to cook. It stews on the mind's back burner, bubbling in the juices that form thoughts, lodged in the wrinkly grey meat of one's brain.
It was Chicago's fault. In the early nineties I was the new kid, fresh off the farm and too dumb to stay away from Cicero. One evening in the parking lot behind my apartment building, I saw children playing a game. It wasn't like any game I'd ever seen in rural Ohio. The boys had removed seat belts from parked cars and swung them around like bolas, smashing car windows with the weighted ends. They laughed and cheered at the messy destruction.
It amazed me that any parent would ever let their children behave in such a way. I was about to go speak to the boys when my landlord placed her hand on my shoulder. "Don't go out there," she told me.
"We don't like to advertise our whiteness." That is verbatim what she said.
"This has nothing to do with race. This has to do with vandalism." I don't know if the children saw us, standing there arguing in the stairwell, but by the time I turned to confront them, they were gone. Thankfully, my car had been spared. I started looking for a new place to live.
The new commute was in some ways easier. I no longer drove the eight minutes downtown, but let the bus driver do all the work. And that's when the trouble started. For laid out before me like a living museum was a daily tour of the city's carved faces. I stared at the lions and acanthus leaves. There were saints, arches, clean lines of art deco shapes. There were flowers that looked lifted from my old girl scout sash, their petals curved as neatly as skilled embroidery.
Every day the bus driver showed me the sights. She took me past these buildings again and again, as if deliberately trying to impress the architecture upon my memory. Yet none of the other passengers took the slightest notice. They dozed, or read newspapers or books, or simply stared straight ahead, firmly clutching their bags. I wanted to grab someone by the elbow and say, "Hey, look at this!" But I got the impression they had seen it all before. If they had ever been mesmerized by the beautiful carvings, those memories had turned to dust and crumbled away.
I could not get the designs out of my mind. I started sketching them, a little each day as they unrolled past the bus, but my skill was poor. One of my co-workers was a photographer. I asked him if he would take some pictures for me. "Sure. What do you have in mind?"
I described the views I wanted: the long panorama for drama, the close-up shots to capture the breathtakingly fine detail. I was excited that he would help me. But then he started talking about money. It would cost hundreds of dollars.
Meekly I said, "Well I thought – I would cover the cost of materials –"
Tom stared at me in disbelief. "You're kidding. You thought I'd do this for free?!"
"Forget it," I mumbled. My face was tomato-red. Where I came from, of course he would. I didn't know how to explain to this person, who was little more than an acquaintance, what it was like to grow up in a small town. It sounds corny, looking back on it now. But neighbors really did help each other. If you had a skill, you shared it with someone who lacked that ability. If you were in need, someone in turn would help you.
Talents tended to develop along gender or family lines. This meant that mostly you would see men doing the heavy lifting, but once in a while a girl grew up loving carpentry, and there was no problem with that. Or a family might be known for its soap-making, so the male head of household might commonly be seen stirring a pot, and there was nothing wrong with that, either.
My problem growing up had been my remarkable lack of ability to fit in, anywhere. Frankly, I didn't like my mom. She tried to teach me sewing and I hated it. For 4-H I was supposed to sew a project that would go to the county fair. In the evenings my sister and I would wash the dinner dishes, and then I would get my sewing lesson. I went through the motions, gritting my teeth as I pressed and cut the fabric.
"Always cut with the grain." She demonstrated, her thick hands deftly guiding the silver blades. "If you don't, it will never hang straight, no matter what you do later."
She hung in there, night after night, trying to teach her sullen, unresponsive daughter the craft. Finally one night we had our explosion. She had been watching while I cut, critically supervising my efforts. My mother was a chain-smoker and the smoke curled upwards from her lip. She took the fag from her mouth and exhaled smoke along with her words. "You don't really like this, do you?"
I looked up. "I hate it. I will never sew. Never."
To my shock, she scooped up the project and stuffed it in a bag. It would never be finished. While she put away her sewing things, she muttered about trying to teach something to an ungrateful kid. I could only stand there, stunned. "Go on!" she snapped. "Go read a book. That's what you really want to do."
In fact that was what I really wanted to do. Reading was all I had ever really enjoyed. But still, something like rejection flowed like ice water through my veins. I had done something wrong, but wasn't quite sure what it was.
* * *
And now I was twenty-five, a shiny new professional, right off the boat of grad school. This was where all that reading had gotten me. Yet still I didn't fit in. In the city I was a naïve country kid. And a visit back home drew the frequent tease, "Oh, she's smart. She's a city girl now." I never knew what to say to those taunts. The first in my family to go to college, I was handed admiration and guilt on a plate... all I could eat.
I kept sketching the stone reliefs on my daily commute but soon became frustrated. The bus would pull away just as I was focusing in on a detail I wanted. Or it would cruise by too quickly for me to see. Finally I decided to take my own walking tour, and this turned out to be a grand idea. I could park myself in front of any building for as long as I liked.
The buildings were an extended family of sorts. They shared a rough similarity of height and size, but beyond that, pixilated into unique detail. At a certain point, brownstone surrendered to glass and metal; old world gentility became lofty new age. I swear, each and every building carried its own persona. It didn't matter which one I was studying at the time. It seemed to be the best in the city, almost demanding to be worshipped. Every skyscraper carried the arrogance of a man's erection. "You may have seen one before, but you've never seen mine." It was true. Through the forest of phallic symbols, I wandered in a daze.
One day I knew what I had to do. There was no conscious decision. The vision had braised in my brain long enough. How many weeks, months, had my fingers sketched the patterns? How long had I been enslaved by the images in my dreams? Long enough.
On Roosevelt Road I timidly stepped into Vogue Fabrics. The ladies stared at me. I stood out like a fox in the snow as I hesitated my way through the store. The fabrics in there were astounding. Never had I seen turquoise feathers next to orange pleather, let alone women seriously contemplating either. They held up the yardage with the same expressions on their faces as farm women eying calico. Although our skins looked different, I knew exactly what they were thinking: Will it drape well? Will the edge ravel or curl? How much of a pain in the ass will this be to work with? Is it the right shade for Esther's wedding? They might have been surprised to know how much we had in common.
I hunted until I found the one hundred percent cotton. Shyly I asked the clerk if I could leave the bolts at the end of the counter while I kept shopping. "Sure, honey." She seemed amused. I found the right kind of thread, a multi-pack of needles, and the best quality scissors my seventeen thousand per annum would bear. Good tools make a difference.
The woman looked over my purchase. "Now is this the thread you want? This is one hundred percent cotton, honey." Her dragon's-claw tapped the label on the end. "You use this for quilting."
I smiled, still feeling very shy. "I know. It's what I want."
She smiled back at me. "You know what you're doing, then."
Oddly, for the first time since coming to this big strange city, I felt a tiny spark of warm affection. My smile broadened. For just an instant, I felt at home.
Excitedly I raced back to my apartment, stopping only long enough to grab my laundry supplies. Again, it wasn't a conscious decision. It seemed like my body knew what to do.
At the laundromat I stuffed quarters into the machines. Make sure the fabric doesn't bleed. Press it while it is still damp. In a fever I followed the genetic directions. A good-looking Italian fellow watched me intently but I didn't have time for him. I flashed him a quick smile and went back to concentrating on my task. Press, don't iron the fabric. Don't push the fibers out of shape.
Back at my apartment my hands knew what to do. The knife-edge shears yielded long, smooth lines, the way they were always meant to do. I borrowed my roommate's sewing machine and stitched the patches into blocks with quarter-inch seams, pressing each section to one side before starting the next.
The project spilled out of me whole, like a baby that was ready to be born. I labored until I couldn't keep my eyes open, then got up the next day and worked some more. The blocks took shape just as sweet as you please. The faces of the buildings looked back at me. They seemed satisfied, even proud.
At last the top was finished and I felt a small measure of relief. Laying out the backing and batting was a bitch in that little apartment, but I managed it. There wasn't room to set up frames, and I couldn't have afforded them anyway, so I found an eighteen-inch hoop and used that.
If someone had asked me what I was doing, I couldn't have said. My hands had all the instructions, neatly spooled away until it was time for them to be used. Or maybe some part of my brain carried a time capsule of sorts. It stored away the knowledge of my line until it was needed to help me survive.
Sometimes a dream needs time to cook. It simmers in the back of your mind but it also stews in the heart. The pump slaps the blood past the throat, out to the fingers and toetips and back, until it has traveled full circle. Finally I called home and told my mom, "I made a quilt."
- Add a