On writing “Cantata 147: The Final Chorale”
by Amy Andrews.
The beds in my granny’s Kentucky farmhouse were covered with “old work quilts” my great-grandmother hand pieced from scraps. The “nice” quilts, patterned, like the Double Wedding Rings, were displayd on a quilt rack in the corner. As a child, my mother slept in featherbeds with warmed bricks near her feet and the weight of those work quilts piled on. As an adult, she moved to the suburbs. Once, when we visited the farm, I watched my mother rub her finger softly across different triangles of one of the scrap quilts, remembering: her grandmother’s work dresses, her daddy’s Sunday trousers, the suit her mother sewed for her when she went away to college . . .
and, in effect, left her childhood home for good. Not completely unlike others had done decades earlier, only a few miles to the north, when they huddled on the south bank of the Ohio River and considered the lights of Cincinnati. On the Underground Railroad, I once read, the fugitive slaves followed the quilts hung in the windows, draped over the porch railings, hung out on the lines. Each block pattern contained a code. The Monkey Wrench meant to make ready, to gather tools. The Log Cabin pattern signaled a safe house. A Bowtie pattern cautioned to don a disguise. But I recently read the so-called “Code myth” lacks historical corroboration. It simply “materialized” in the 1980’s when interest in folk art surged and women’s studies programs proliferated . . .
and my friend who loved books and feminism and cigarettes and knitting and who was sadder than we understood quilted obsessively. Once, at a summer cottage in Door County, she handed me a stack of quilt blocks and invited me to play at arranging them. She showed me how many different quilts could be made from the same pile of sqyares depending on how we positioned the light and dark colors, whether we massed or dispersed the blue and how carefully we attended to the subtlest shadings of white. We spent hours, flipping and swapping and repositioning blocks, standing back, squinting . . .
playing at juxtaposition, delighted by secondary patterns emerging, layer upon layer upon layer. In this way patterns we neither intended nor imagined, patterns we recognized but could not explain, materialized. And if we did not know, could not say for certain, exactly what those patterns would have meant to a stranger, or a fugitive, traveling through a dark wood, we did know that, in the process of making the quilt, we had gleaned something valuable, necessary even, to the next leg of our journey.
When I am writing an essay, I often find myself holding a block of memory, or a fact, in my hands, and considering its lightness or its darkness. I play with it, spinning it in its place, pairing it, or repositioning it completely to another quadrant of the essay. Squinting, I try to glimpse the quieter patterns that seem always just beyond my knowing.