Laurel’s Bride Quilt
from The Girl Who Stopped Swimming
Twice in my life, both times when I was gestating a child, some sort of latent Amish traditional-female-role pregnancy hormone has viciously attacked my brain and caused me to perpetrate sewing. It wasn’t like I had a mild urge to put a button back on a shirt; I have never, pregnant or not, had the slightest desire to do THAT. But I had a fierce need to hand sew quilts for the whole of both pregnancies. I wanted to make something enveloping and mother-y, both useful and lovely.
I soon discovered I have ZERO talent for quilt making. None. Nada. I am unremittingly dreadful. But the desire to make art quilts led me to start looking at them, and I discovered the work of Canadian Folk and Fabric artist Pamela Allen. Her quilts are bold, visceral things that have little to do with comfort or comfortableness or sappy Hallmark card motherhood. Her work haunts me. You can see some of her things on the web at http://pamelart.homestead.com/titlepage.html.
Because of Allen, I spent around seven years thinking about writing about an art quilter. I developed a character who publicly embraces very traditional female roles. She is a stay-at-home mom and a good wife, and a quilter. All that she thinks she isn’t – a warrior, a visionary, a haunted creature, a sharp-toothed mother bear — seeps into her quilts: blades and yellow eyes hiding in the shadows behind Sun Bonnet Sue. She became Laurel Gray Hawthorne, ladylike and kind, sitting with ankles properly crossed on a chair made from the bones of the dead man in her past. She is the central character in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.
Laurel constructs a fictional and thematically important quilt during the course of the book, and last year, I commissioned Pamela Allen to create it in real life. She responded with something phenomenal. Below are some of the excerpted paragraphs I sent to Allen, and pics and details of how she interpreted it.
I think it’s pretty dern cool. I hope you do, too.
Excerpts from The Girl Who Stopped Swimming
The bride’s eyes were bright crescents, and she had smile lines embroidered in her cheeks, but she had no mouth yet. Laurel was hand sewing red satin ribbon into tiny roses. They would form the bride’s mouth, a grinning, three-dimensional bouquet. The bride lifted the inverted bell of her skirt as she hurried pell-mell forward, showing boots with daisies on the toes. Her feet were huge and her head was very small, as if someone was looking up at her from the ground.
Laurel had already glued down lumpy, oval potato pearls to make the daisies’ petals, binding them with silver wire after they dried. The boots were the old fashioned kind that buttoned up the sides, and the buttons on the front boot really opened. Under the boot was a dark blue space deepened by plush velvet. Inside, Laurel had embroidered one of the eyes that served as her signature. The eye was looking toward one odd petal, too sleek and pointed for a freshwater pearl. It was a human tooth, an incisor.
When she’d first planned this quilt, a year ago, she’d thought she would use one of Shelby’s baby teeth. She had them all upstairs in the false bottom of her jewelry chest. That small space was filled relics and that hadn’t made it into one of her quilts: An amber doll’s eye, a broken plastic Christmas bulb, a mouse charm from an old bracelet. But in the end she didn’t want to use Shelby’s teeth in a quilt she planned to show and sell. She’d put the bride quilt off and made others, until she’d stumbled on a stash of baby teeth in an old bureau drawer at an estate sale. She’d bought the ugliest bureau she’d ever laid eyes on to get them.
The bride was already quilted in patterns that seemed random on the front but made pictures and letters and more of her eyes that showed up perfectly on the hand dyed cotton she’d used to back. The quilt was bound in yellowed satin cut from a musty old wedding gown, another estate sale find. She wanted to enter this piece in the Pacific International Quilt Festival at the end of the month. She’d won 1st prize in Innovative Quilts last year, but this year she was gunning for Best in Show. Or she had been. It seemed stupid now. The mouthless bride leaned forward, eager, like at any second she might step into some big adventure in her high buttoned boots. Laurel couldn’t remember what had made her feel a connection, to want to do this piece.
The only picture Laurel had from her own wedding was a Polaroid the clerk of the court took. In it, David’s chin was set and his brows were down, like he was planning to grab Mount Everest with his bare hands and pull himself straight up it. David’s father took a long walk when he was six, and in the wedding picture, it’s plain he’s already decided he’s not going to be that guy. Laurel looked trembly and puffy-eyed, Shelby already faintly pushing out the skirt of best blue Sunday dress.
Her busy fingers made scarlet roses, one after another, doing their regular job
Mother stepped farther into the room and looked at the quilt. “Why, that’s pretty, Laurel. I like that.”
“Really?” Laurel said, faintly surprised. Mother didn’t like Laurel’s quilts, taking umbrage at the lift-the-flaps and hidden panels and found objects.
“Why stick all that mess on? It’s not comfortable,” she’d said once, as if the value of Laurel’s work rested on how cosy it was to wrap around your legs while watching television.
Thalia didn’t like her quilts either, for the opposite reason. “You hide everything that’s at all interesting down in secret pockets until it looks like a freakin’ blanket. Grow a pair,” she’d said.
They’d both been speaking the same piece, a quilt called Eye Bones. It had multiple layers that could be unfolded and attached by hooks and buttons, so that what was hidden and what was seen was changeable. No matter how it was arranged, the face of the woman at the center could never be symmetrical or whole. It was one of her more disturbing pieces. She almost didn’t like it, and Thalia said she almost did. Laurel had sent it off to one of the galleries that showed her work. It sold in less than a week for eighteen thousand dollars, so someone must have liked it.
This year she had tried to pull back a little, gunning for Best in Show instead of Innovations. But if Mother liked it, she might have pulled back a bit too far, all the way to Sunbonnet Sue gets married.
“I’ll let you get back to it,” Mother said, stepping back. She pulled the door closed.
Laurel dashed an angry hand across the bride’s face and the loose rosebuds scattered, flecking the dress in red. She stood to pick them back off, but the small splashes of red were both diffused an intensified by being scattered onto all that white.
It was interesting. This bride had secrets. Maybe she didn’t need a mouth at all. With the mouth gone, there was an implied urge to search her, to find her secrets out another way. Laurel stopped picking the rosebuds off and started moving them, repositioning them in random little spots and streaks of color on the bride’s hands, spattering up her arms almost to the elbows.
She added a few streaks with loose ribbon, twisting it, then stepped back and gazed down at the quilt for a long time.
It was exactly right.