How to Make an American Quilt *

We were going home from home to get home.

You've probably done it;
visited a place that was home-away-from-home (your college town),
gone to your folks' home (a-keep-returning-to kind of home),
before heading home (home where you live now).

In some way, each of these places are home, each place and her people with all of their love and quirky patterns make a part of you.

So, here we were at our home-away-from-home (Austin), headed back home (Magnolia) to finally reach home (Oregon).

This trip I was paying attention. My desire was to stitch all my home places into my ONE heart like a great heirloom quilt.

My first home-away-from-home was Austin. I spent five years there studying Architecture at the University of Texas, eating street tacos and wandering around dusty record stores. I lived in places on campus called Jester Center and places off campus my friends dubbed "the Sweat Box" and "Nanner Manor".

Square one.

I met and married Mike in Austin. Eventually wherever Mike was became my home. San Antonio. Portland. Philly for a summer. Portland again.

Square two.

Magnolia is home because it is where my parents, Gee and Pops, live now. It is the place my brother and sister and all the Whippersnapper's cousins gather around the pond where turtles bask in the sun. Here we visit and celebrate being a big ol' family.

Magnolia is kinfolk home.

Square three.

But Oregon is home too. I have lived here almost thirty years. All four Whippersnappers have grown up here and now the Wonders have been born on this rainy frontier. I have a church home here among the coffee shops and food carts.

Square four.

Church is another kind of home. Whenever I find one in the city where I live, I feel more as though I have feathered my nest. In places where I have not found a church (or even looked), I have lived in a howling wilderness.

Square five.

All three of these homes and a few childhood ones are threaded into my soul. Scraps of their language and their ways are stitched into my heart.

I know I will write about all of them one day, Louisiana, Holland and Tehran. "One day soon", I tell myself.

Squares six, seven and eight.

On this trip back home to Texas, I worked to integrate the people I love along with the sights, sounds, tastes and smells into my heart. I say "worked" because I don't think it happens naturally even when I set out to bind them together.

There is resistance on the wind, a storm always brewing to stop the gathering. Storms I think, are part of the deal. I feel it most when I am gathering scattered scraps into my ONE heart.

Square nine.

For me, this threading of home is a process of gathering, sorting, stitching and mending.

The process reminded me of the movie version of the novel How to Make an American Quilt.

Finn has come home for the summer to her Great Aunt, Glady Jo's, farmhouse in the middle of a quilting bee. She is writing her graduate thesis page by page within the friendships of eight women. Here among the orchards, these women she loves and misunderstands are making her wedding quilt, each one a square from their lives.

I think I am not Finn, but Anna who is finding the pattern, the color and the border; the thread to beauty and humility that brings the whole design together. She is integrating love with all its flaws, not forgetting grief, truth and forgiveness.

That is the work you do when you bring your homes into ONE heart.

Mike and I had just spent about three days seeing what I call friends-over-miles. Friends-over-miles are kindred hearts. These loves are the ones you may not see face-to-face very often, but when you do, you just pick up right where you left off.

As if time did not just rudely interrupt you.

Like the best sleep overs where you fall asleep mid-sentence and wake up the next morning and finish the thought, in a scratchy whisper. A good visit.

"So, as I was saying" . . .
(a moment ago, a day ago, a year ago or more).

This was the kind of moment that makes you sigh and wonder where does time get her wings?

We sat around the gathering table with a criss-cross of friends: some from childhood, some from high school and still others from college. Two were brothers. A handful of us who had been Resident Assistants in the dorm with it's own zip code, had even married.

Among us we have shared the stitches of life, high hopes, a few heartaches and a spool of common faith.

We once shared Austin, so it seemed right to meet again among the bluebonnets, the Tex-Mex and the heat. That and "Tejas" happens to be the Caddo word for friend.

Mike said to me one night when we were pillow-talking about our deep and lovely friendships, "We are all built on the lives of others." I think that's true of the family, friends and places we have called home. We certainly felt that kinship around our Texas table.

We felt full, blessed, content, home.

It is good I think, to keep criss-crossing with the ones who safely hold your history, your heart and your heartache. You can hold theirs too. When you are together, you can be home.

Watercolor by Ryan Conlin.

Mike and I were spending our last night in Austin in a corner room high above the city watching fat raindrops splat the window and big lightning shock the sky. For hours the clouds illuminated by flashes of light, held an eerie silence.

This is Texas country and stuff is loud, proud and larger than life. The land is swaggering and barrel-chested. But there was not a rumble of thunder even in the distant hills. The air was sticky, weighty and still as the grave. It was as if the wind had been knocked clean out of Texas.

I typically crave the quiet, but this silence held a warning. It gave me goose bumps and flyaway hair. I knew from my girlhood in gulf coast Louisiana that silence holds in the eye of the storm

There were likely earlier signs that weather was shifting and a storm brewing. Some say cows lying down means rain. Some say that's not nearly true.

I do know birds get extra noisy and then suddenly quiet before a storm. By the time we headed back to Magnolia, the cows were lying down in the fields and I heard no birdsong.

While we slept, rainfall in the low hill country had reached over nineteen inches. The serpentine Brazos River spread over her banks - big, brash, gaudy. Texas-style.

And every creek for two hundred miles followed her lead leaving broken fences, animals gone to higher ground and only the tops of gravestones in view. We kept driving down winding roads to find the center line underwater - under wild, snake-filled, raging water.

Our trip back to Magnolia should have taken three hours. Instead, it took nine hours and we never got there, not really. We tried so many roads where water swirled the roadway and made us turn around. At one crossing the blacktop was sliced clean off like a melon rind.

When the sky grew as inky as the watery roads, we stopped and spent the night in a musty hotel twenty miles past Gee and Pop's home.

We woke the next morning to birdsong and sunshine brilliant and clear. The storm had passed. I thought it would be a Saturday to take a dawn walk with Pops, bird-watch with Gee and read a good book before catching our plane back to Oregon.

But we never made it back to Magnolia. The roads were still drowning in the Brazos River. That storm was having the last word. She was a wild, free spirit all her own; fierce, smart-mouthed and sassy like a cowgirl. Pure Texas.

Finn knows about storms too. At the end of the summer, her work, a stack of hard-earned pages, is scattered to the wind. Her quilting circle and her mama (now returned), help gather her pages back together again into her ONE heart.

That last Saturday in Texas, we did finally find one highway far out of our way and met Pops on higher ground. He was as close to home as we could get that day. He took us to the airport to catch our flight home.

I did not get to bird-watch with Gee or give her the bluebonnet speed balls for her garden. Maybe on my next trip home.

The next time I go home, I am taking needle and thread. I am taking heart, my whole full-circle ONE heart.

And a raincoat.

*Written in parts at three of my home places: Portland, Oregon, Magnolia, Texas and Vintage Heart Coffeeshop in Austin, Texas where the napkins are cloth. (happy sigh)

Quilt by Kate Conlin at age 14.