During my first manic episode in 2007, on a chilly November night, I opened the wooden hope chest at the foot of the bed, careful to not awaken my sleeping husband, and pulled out my favorite quilt. It has a bold, red diamond grid with scraps of various colors and patterns pieced together around and in-between the diamonds. I have always loved this quilt because the red grid stabilizes the surrounding chaos.
I put the quilt over my shoulders like a cape and walked out the front door. I wore thin, gray sweatpants and a t-shirt, and the quilt provided just enough warmth for my mission. I continued down the brick steps, along our driveway, and across the street. I stood on the corner of 55th Street and 5th Avenue South, stationed beside the concrete wall of the train track underpass. I was supposed to be there, but I didn’t know why. While I waited, I watched freight trains come and go. I also felt them come and go. The rumbling on the tracks above my head reverberated throughout my body and seemed to shake the ground below my feet. I was hallucinating.
I saw a long, winding string of cars that couldn’t have been on the street at that hour. It was like one of the funeral processions that originate on occasional Saturday afternoons at the small church across the street from our house. I watched the cars that weren’t there pass. The drivers and passengers stared. I stared back. When I decided my mission was complete, I crossed the street and went back inside my house.
I kept the quilt near me for the next several months. Even after my mind healed and the paranoia and hallucinations subsided, I continued to keep it out in the open, out of the wooden chest. It’s a life preserver in my illness. It’s an anchor in my wellness.
The quilt was made in the 1950s by my great-grandmother, Granny Boyd. She passed it on to her daughter-in-law, my Grandma Boyd. She had it for several years before passing it on to my mom when I was a teenager. I remember it hanging on a wall in my parents’ guest room when I was in college. I asked my mom to give it to me for Christmas several years ago. One day, I’ll give it to my daughter.
Granny Boyd died before my first birthday, so I have no memories of her. My mom recalls seeing Granny quilt regularly. Granny and her sister, Oma Threat, often quilted at Granny’s house. She had a large quilt frame that they would set up in the kitchen and den area. Granny and Aunt Oma laughed and talked and reminisced as they quilted for hours at a time.
Stacks of colorful fabrics and pin cushions with shiny sewing needles were usually scattered around Granny’s house. If I had known Granny Boyd when I was a young child—if she had lived longer—I would have entertained myself for hours with her fabric swatches.
I can see a younger version of me sorting the pieces by color—all of the reds in one pile, all of the greens in one pile, all of the yellows in one pile. If I think about this enough, I might be able to create a memory of something that never happened.
In the book American Quilts: The Democratic Art, 1780-2007, Robert Shaw writes, “As a democratic art accessible to anyone with basic sewing skills, an urge for self-expression, and an eye for beauty, quilts and quiltmaking have been a major form of communication and expression for American women and an important part of this country’s cultural landscape since the early 1800s.” During the 19th and 20th centuries, quiltmaking afforded American women a creative outlet and a way to express themselves when few other options were available. With World War II, quilts and quilt-making fell out of favor because millions of women entered the traditional workforce and didn’t have as much free time.
By the 1950s, when my favorite quilt was made, many viewed quilt-making as antiquated and out of sync with the modern world. Most working women weren’t setting aside time for sewing, and those who were primarily in their homes and had the time for it looked down on sewing and handiwork as demeaning and unnecessary. Mass-produced blankets and bedspreads were readily available, so why make quilts? In some poorer rural Southern communities, like Granny Boyd’s, quilts were still celebrated—because people couldn’t afford to purchase mass-produced items and they enjoyed making them. They didn’t care that the rest of the world spurned the handmade blankets.
I will never know the answers to most of the questions I have. But I can guess. I can ponder the questions and the possible answers because maybe I’ve inherited more from Granny Boyd than a quilt. Where did the various pieces of fabric come from? I examine a piece of blue and white striped fabric stitched onto the quilt. Did she slice up her husbands’ old dress shirts? I notice the different types and textures of textiles. Did she gather unwanted swatches from friends?
I try to imagine what kind of quilt I would make right now if I were a quilter. What was going on in her life when she decided on the pattern and cut out all of the small geometric shapes and sewed them together? Bipolar disorder is genetic—did Granny Boyd have manic episodes, like I have? Did she create this quilt during a bout of mental illness?
I posted a photo of the quilt on Facebook to see if any of my quilter friends know the specific name for the squares of triangles and rectangle strips that create a grid of large vertical and horizontal diamonds. One of my neighbors down the street, Lisa, has quilted for several years. She goes to quilting conferences and competitions. An acquaintance, Lillis, started a sewing co-op—a sew-op—a few years ago. Women gather weekly and quilt together. The more experienced quilters teach the beginners and they all work on each other’s projects together. My friend Katie goes to the sew-op most weeks while her daughter is at parents’ day out. She says it’s always a breath of fresh air. She’s forming friendships with the diverse group of women who participate, and she is making her first quilt. Maybe Lisa, Lillis, or Katie will be able to help me. Maybe I should go to Lillis’s sew-op with Katie.
After receiving no response to my Facebook post, I contacted Lisa directly. She told me the pattern is called Rocky Road to Kansas. Finally, I possessed a significant detail that might help me learn more about the quilt and Granny Boyd.
I felt a spark of expectation—having one piece of the puzzle is better than having no pieces of the puzzle. According to one website, “Some quilt blocks are named after the time or event when they first appeared. The Rocky Road to Kansas is such a block, referring to the period of early settlers in the late 1800s and their difficult traveling conditions along routes such as the Santa Fe Trail. This strip quilt was a way to use up leftover fabric scraps, letting nothing go to waste.”
Now I like to imagine Granny Boyd gathering scraps, cutting them, and positioning them in a way that made perfect sense to her. I think of her forming something good and whole from what others might view as discards, as items that should be thrown out and ignored. I see her working on this quilt, stitch by stitch, named in honor of people who longed for a new life after traversing hard terrain and surviving a dangerous journey. I see her creating a story of hope where I’m one of the characters, one of the survivors.
I used to feel immense guilt and grief whenever I thought about how my mania and depression might have affected my kids in the past or how it might affect them in the future. But now I accept reality for what it is. It’s not my fault I have bipolar disorder, and it won’t be my fault if my kids end up with their own diagnoses. During a recent meeting with counselors at my daughter’s high school, I described my history and how my illness has impacted my children. One of the counselors asked how I was able to discuss all of this without getting emotional. “It’s just part of our story,” I told her. “There are more pieces of us.”
I’m not sure why the quilt grabbed my attention when I first got sick. Maybe something in me wanted to connect to the quilt and what it represents. Maybe I needed tangible evidence that I’m a part of something bigger than myself. I know I need that evidence today. I know I bend toward the quilt and absorb a form of nourishment I can’t name.
The quilt covers me during cooler nights while I sleep. It’s one of the first things I see when I wake each morning. Sometimes in the early hours of the day, as the sunlight is starting to sneak into our bedroom, I examine the various pieces of fabric sewn together. The colors of the individual swatches don’t always coordinate, and some of them seem like they shouldn’t be beside each other. But together, as a whole, they create a work of art.
The pieces of my life and the pieces of the lives of others in my family who have used and will use this quilt are all woven together in a similar fashion. There are common threads throughout our stories that knit us close to each other and point to a larger, more beautiful narrative. That narrative holds more than my illness. It holds more than any illness Granny Boyd might have had or the current and future illnesses my children have or might have. This larger, more beautiful narrative holds the scraps of our lives that have been stitched together to make us who we are, who we will become.