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A Quilt for Dr. Wallace
by Frances O’Roark Dowell
© Copyright 2017 by Frances O’Roark Dowell. All Rights Reserved.
She has waited too long to begin.
Lisa knows this now, although until five minutes ago she thought she had all the time in the world. Two weeks until Christmas, a simple pattern, no special rulers or techniques needed. Just cut, sew, pin, piece, baste, quilt, bind. She has taken two days off work, ostensibly to run Christmas errands and wrap the packages she’s sending to her brothers’ families in Chicago and St. Louis, but her real plan is to spend big chunks of each day getting this quilt made.
But when she pulls the fabric out of the dryer, she can’t remember why she liked it. Why she thought Dr. Wallace would like it. Dr. Wallace is a serious woman who wears cream silk blouses and black skirts under her lab coat. Why did Lisa think a woman like her would appreciate red fabric printed in green and white candy canes?
Lisa throws the fabric in the laundry basket and goes to search her stash. All of her fabric, she realizes, is frivolous. Is flowery, is polka-dotted, is tiny children on tiny sleds. None of it’s right for the quilt she wants to make Dr. Wallace, and the pattern she chose in October isn’t right, either. Now she can’t even remember why she was so taken by the idea of making Dr. Wallace a quilt. Some people are quilt people, some people are duvet people. A subtle but important distinction. Dr. Wallace? Definitely Team Duvet.
Everybody’s a quilt person, she hears Carolyn scolding her, and it’s almost as if Carolyn’s hand is pulling her upstairs to her bedroom, almost as if Carolyn is urging her on, whispering, Go ahead, get them. That’s what they’re there for.
The dresses are hidden on the far right side of the closet, behind the plush terry bathrobe Lisa never wears, behind the size eight cocktail dress she’ll never again fit into but can’t bear to get rid of. The first dress she pulls out is the denim shirtwaist, “old-school suburban mom” was how Carolyn described it, but of course she’d gotten it from Boden, so it was chic instead of frumpy, almost elegant. The second is vintage thrift shop, a cotton shift with large blue and yellow flowers. Lisa had been there when Carolyn bought it, had glanced at the dress briefly without seeing its potential. But when Carolyn tried it on, it turned out to be the perfect summer frock (it helped she was a reedy 5’10” and looked fabulous in anything).
Lisa picks out two more dresses—the white cotton sundress worn as a cover-up at evening pool parties and another vintage shop purchase, this one a red plaid with a tightly-fitted waist and flared skirt—and decides that’s enough for now. Carrying the dresses downstairs, Lisa realizes she’s holding her breath. The dresses still carry a hint of Carolyn’s scent, a men’s cologne called Gray Flannel, soft and subtle, no floral notes, just a hint of sweetness, and Lisa’s relieved to find that she can breathe it in without sinking to her knees. When Sam had brought the dresses over in August, she’d backed away from him. “I can’t—I can’t,” she kept repeating, but Sam insisted. “Carolyn wanted you to have them. She said you’d know what to do with them.”
Lisa had no idea what to do with them, couldn’t imagine why Carolyn had wanted her to have them. But maybe now, here in the middle of December, she does.
Carolyn’s been gone over six months, and lately the ache Lisa feels every time she thinks of her friend—well, it hasn’t diminished, but it’s softened enough to be bearable. Sometimes she even forgets and picks up her phone to text Carolyn. The first time she did this, she spent the rest of the day in bed. When it happened a few days ago, she thought about typing up the text—Ballet moms are the worst, and I say this as a ballet mom—and sending it, just to see what would happen.
Lisa has her sewing machine and cutting mat set up on the dining room table. When she lays the denim dress on the mat and picks up her rotary cutter, she has to close her eyes for a moment. Is she really going to do this? Can she do it? Why is she doing it?
She has no answers, so she opens her eyes and begins to haphazardly slice up the dress, weaving around the buttons and the pockets. When she is finished with the shirtwaist, she does the same with the shift, cutting it into long strips without use of a ruler, and with the other dresses, too, so by the last one, she doesn’t feel so much like she’s committing a sacrilege.
By the time she’s pinning pieces together, she feels as though she’s in a trance. She has moved beyond improvisational piecing into totally intuitive piecing. She looks over the strips of fabric and feels it when she sees two that are meant to be joined together. Sometimes it’s two pieces of the shirtwaist, sometimes it’s a wide piece of shift married to a narrow piece of denim. When she begins sewing, it’s with a certainty she’s never felt before. Even when following clearly laid-out patterns, Lisa is the sort of quilter who measures three times before she cuts, reads instructions until she’s practically memorized them. She never trusts her instincts, preferring to rely on experts.
She suddenly realizes she’s putting this together the way Carolyn would have. That was the beauty—and, she has to admit, sometimes the downside—of their friendship. Lisa is careful, thoughtful, a planner. Carolyn’s motto seemed to be “What the hell!” But it worked—they worked—because they shared a raucous sense of humor and a distrust of people who seemed to live perfect lives. It worked because they both hated housekeeping and loved red wine. It worked because they trusted each other enough to be honest. My kids suck! Carolyn would text. Mine are completely unemployable and right now they smell bad, Lisa would reply.
And Carolyn’s haphazardly pieced quilts? Stunning.
Lisa begins sewing pieces to other pieces, sections to other sections. At some point she looks up and sees that three hours have passed. She thought it had been fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.
Annie and Gus arrive home from school at the usual time, and Lisa waves them off to the family room, to the TV and computer, tells Annie to preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
“You’re letting us having frozen pizza for a snack?” Annie asks, her eyes wide. “But that’s what Daddy does, not you!”
“If you play your cards right, I might order you pizza for dinner, too,” Lisa tells her, and her daughter runs to the family room to inform her brother about the good news .
Lisa keeps piecing and the quilt top keeps growing. Jonathon comes home at 5:30 and offers to take the kids out for burgers. Just one more reason to love him, this gentle giant of a man who works so hard to make her happy. “You hit it out of the ballpark when you married him,” Carolyn always said, and Lisa rarely had occasion to contradict her.
The top is done shortly after seven. Lisa holds it up, as if showing it to Carolyn. “Very Gwen Marston, don’t you think? Very liberated. I think I’m in love with it.”
A wave of exhaustion rolls over her. Lisa sits down at the table and buries her face in the top, takes in the familiar scent of her friend. She is crying, but she’s also thinking about how she’s going to quilt this quilt once she gets it basted. She’s thinking about what kind of fabric she’ll use for the backing, and how she has a blue and yellow floral print, the flowers tiny and bright, that would be perfect for the binding.
She wonders if Dr. Wallace will love it as much as she does. She wonders if that’s really why Carolyn wanted her to have the dresses—to remake them and give them away to strangers.
Which is when she orders the flowers.
Dear Dr. Wallace, she writes in the text box for the card that will accompany the bouquet. Thank you for all you did for Carolyn Russell. She couldn’t have asked for a better oncologist. Thank you for the extra year you gave her. Thank you for everything. Merry Christmas.
She hopes Dr. Wallace likes yellow roses. Because she’s not getting this quilt.
If you enjoyed this story by Frances O’Roark Dowell, you might also enjoy her story “The Off-Kilter Quilt” and Frances’s first quilting novel, Birds in the Air. Sign up for Frances’s newsletter to access her short story “Persimmon Moon.” Thanks so much for stopping by!