Quilted Northern

Quilted Northern

by Taylor Riley

Quilted Northern

Lying on a pile of blankets in my grandmother’s upstairs bedroom on a breezy, October night, I was feeling both chilly—the window was open to my left— and mentally exhausted after an eight-hour drive from our home in central Kentucky to western Pennsylvania. I rested beneath my grandmother’s patchwork quilt where my boyfriend Heath and I were bedded down. I clung to the warmth of the quilt, its scent a mix of musk and mothballs.

We were helping my grandmother move to Kentucky after selling the house she’d lived in for fifty years. While I was excited to have her closer, we had to say goodbye to the old farm house on Allegheny Street for the final time. Growing up, I visited Grandma frequently and loved the familiar scent of her big old farm house down the street from Allegheny College. I found peace under the pine trees out front and in the yard full of yellow and orange autumn leaves blown in from neighbors’ yards. The memories crept up on me that last night I would stay in the drafty upstairs bedroom, which I always feared was haunted.

With Heath gently snoring next to me, I closed my eyes and cried.

In my hope chest, a wooden container of memories symbolizing a girl’s growth into adulthood, I have many of my Grandma Euliano’s quilts. She signed everyone she ever made for me with “Love, Grandma E” and the date. I have the pure white one that she made for me on the day I was christened, and the pink triangle quilt she finished for me when I was a toddler. It came with a matching blue triangle quilt, assembled for my favorite Cabbage Patch doll, Baby.

When my parents divorced when I was eight, I took most of my belongings to my mom’s house, where I spent seventy-five percent of my time. One thing that didn’t come with me were any of my grandmother’s quilts, because they stayed at her son's house. It was a rocky transition for me, going from living with both parents to one and then having a step-dad come into my life shortly after. I had this new family with a new sister and brother, but I never felt so alone. At night, I wished for my old life back and to feel comforted and safe. I rested my head each night as tears streamed down my face, and I muffled the uncontrollable whimpering sounds with my pillow.

In middle school, I went to a sleepover birthday party and admired the modern bedrooms clad in pink or purple or even the coolest one I remember— it featured a black wall that visitors could sign with chalk. It was one of the sweetest episodes of my life to go over to my friend’s house to spend the night on a Saturday in the summertime.

On Sunday, I came home and seemed to forget the sadness I felt and begged my dad to change my room from the “baby” room I’d had since I was born to a hip, teenager room with new décor.

“That’s fine, but you’ll keep your grandmother’s quilt on your bed,” he told me about his mother's blankets.

“But it doesn’t match anything!” I whined.

It was a patchwork quilt, like all the others she gave me. I was embarrassed. I was thirteen and I just wanted to be like everyone else. I wanted a cool room.

“You’ll appreciate her and the work she does one day,” he told me.

I rolled my eyes and stomped to my room and slammed the door. I peered up at my Mary-Kate and Ashley poster on the wall, one of the only teenage things that dad allowed. What would it be like to be as hip as MK+A? They were so cool. On their show, their rooms had lime green and purple bubble chairs that they would plop into at the end of a school day and dial up their besties on their hot pink cordless phones. I dreamed of a day that I could replace my antique, wooden furniture with all white, plastic IKEA drawers and a flowing canopy bed with a bright striped Limited Too bedspread, to replace the old quilt that my grandmother stitched for me.

Every year for more than thirty years, my grandmother traveled to and from the home she was now leaving in Meadville, Pennsylvania, to Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, my hometown. Most of her family lived in Pennsylvania, but her two sons and the other half of her grandchildren, including me, grew up in Kentucky. Well into her eighties, she spent what would be rough winters up north in Kentucky and mild summers in Pennsylvania. My dad joked that she always came to Kentucky with a normal quantity of luggage and left with three times as much. And now we were all making the final journey between the two states.

Although the Amish in coal country shared my grandmother’s hobby, for some reason, the commonwealth had better backing, borders and patterns. The Amish specialized in geometric patterns and central medallion square-in-a-square with wide borders, which my grandmother tried her best to imitate. But, her style mostly was rag quilts, ones without matching patterns and an exposed seam on their fronts and finished, traditional seams on their backs. They have three layers: a top, batting and backing.

During the winters in Kentucky, Grandma quilted in front of the fire with her mother, who was in perfect health until she passed away at the ripe old age of ninety-nine. The two, along with my great-aunts, scoured garage sales, which were gold mines for material.

“How long does it take you to make one quilt, Grandma?” I asked as a teenager.

“About a month,” she answered in a drawn-out Southern accent. She may have lived in Pennsylvania for fifty years, but no amount of time could ever erase the “country” accent she learned on a Kentucky farm when she grew up with five siblings and no running water.

Lula Rose Bowen was born in Bloomfield, Kentucky, in 1933 to Mary Bertha Royalty Bowen and Calvin Hunt Bowen, Sr. Earliest records of my grandmother include a photo in the Anderson News in Anderson County, Kentucky, my hometown, of a class in the Kirkland School in Washington County, Kentucky, in 1941.

My grandmother only went to school only until the eighth grade and married my grandfather Riley in the early 1950s at around eighteen years old. They settled in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, and had my dad, Gary, in 1954, and quickly had four children by 1964. She was pregnant with her fifth child, Larry, the year my grandfather passed away. With four young children and a baby on the way, she moved in with her mother, and her sisters helped with the kids. She didn’t drive, so she relied on others to get her to work at random jobs to support the kids.

I’m not sure how my grandfather, who my father and his siblings barely knew, died; my grandmother doesn’t talk about that. She does, however, talk about the struggles she faced raising five kids on her own, with nothing more than a widow’s Navy pension. Eventually, she met the kids’ stepfather, an Italian man, Neil, who did well for himself and his children. He had Muscular Dystrophy but was physically fine until his seventies, when he was bound to a wheelchair and later died. Grandpa Neil moved the family to his hometown of Meadville, Pennsylvania, where he raised my dad and four siblings.

My dad was not super happy, understandably, about leaving his friends behind and starting a new high school up north, but he shined as a star basketball player, as well as playing on the baseball and football teams. He helped raise his siblings in a new household, with a new dad, but quickly moved out when he met my mom at seventeen. My mom, Vikki, and my dad moved to New York for college and graduated around 1975. After a few odd jobs for the both of them, my parents moved back to Lawrenceburg in 1988 where they would finally marry and have me in 1990.

As a family of three, and then a family of two, when my parents separated, my dad and I traveled back and forth to Pennsylvania and Kentucky to bring my grandmother back and forth. When my grandmother returned to Meadville every April, when the northern ground was officially thawed, she brought back two, sometimes three, finished quilts. She sewed the blocks by hand, until she turned eighty, when arthritis crept into her rough hands. After that, she used a sewing machine to finish her works of art. These weren’t just any quilts; they were masterpieces. But I wouldn’t discover that until later in life.

Before I left for college, I collected the many cards that I didn’t read and counted the money I was awarded from family members and friends. Being a money hungry teenager was my game at this point; I couldn’t wait to get new outfits to wear to sorority rush parties.

One-thousand-three-hundred dollars.

It was the most money I had ever seen, and yet I still wanted more.

“Has grandma sent a card yet, Dad?” I asked.

“She wants to know what colors you want in the quilt,” he answered.

Ugh. Another quilt. Not what I needed or wanted. She finished the quilt in August; it was pink and purple, what I had asked for, but I still didn’t appreciate it.

“Thank you, Grandma! I love it. I can’t wait to take it to my dorm,” I lied on the phone to her one day.

I didn’t take the quilt to university with me. I bought a lime green and brown comforter set that Target successfully advertised to incoming freshman. The quilt just didn’t match, and so there it stayed: on my bed at my dad’s house. And the others rested in my hope chest.

The nights when my crush didn’t text me back or a test I wasn’t ready for was looming over my head, were the worst. Crying underneath my Target blankets, I wished that things could be the same as they were when I lived at home, underneath my quilt.

College flew by, graduation came, and my grandmother again asked me what color quilt I would like as a gift.

“Blue and white,” I replied, wanting a reminder of the colors of my University of Kentucky degree.

Grandma gave me my present, quilted with love and I thanked her. Starting over in a new city, in an apartment for one, I didn’t have many household items, so I took one quilt to put on my bed.

One night, my friend TJ and I were coming back from dinner, and he reached down to turn on a song to play through the Bluetooth setting in the SUV he was using for work. It was only a moment later that I screamed, realizing he had gone through a red light. A car t-boned us, sending our small SUV through the air flipping three-hundred-sixty degrees forward.

We both survived without a scratch, as did the other driver. the helpful policeman at the scene said many times we were lucky to even be alive. And that’s what went through my head the next few weeks as I lay in bed underneath my quilted cover, unable to move, paralyzed with anxiety. “I’m lucky to be alive. I could’ve been dead.”

It’s a weird feeling living through something you probably weren’t supposed to survive. You begin wondering why you were spared while so many others are not each day. I cried and cried in my bed, in and out of sleep, the weekend of the accident. I couldn’t even muster the strength to reach for the remote to turn on the television, let alone answer the many phone calls streaming in from concerned friends and family. I was nestled quietly underneath the dark quilt, away from anything that could hurt me.

A few years later, my dad asked me if I wanted to take my hope chest to my new apartment when I moved in with my boyfriend, Heath. The hope chest had memories that were from childhood: newspaper clippings, school pictures and significant awards. It also held three or four of my grandmother’s creations. I declined, but I went through the wooden box with Heath to show him the significant items that make up my childhood. We discovered the white christening blanket, the matching girl/doll blankets, the purple and blue patchwork blanket and the blue and pink high school graduation gift.

My grandmother promised one more quilt for me. The last gift to signify my final move into adulthood. Visiting Grandma in Pennsylvania two winters ago, I brought my boyfriend, of only a year at that point, to meet her. Heath, a charming personality who made the other members of my family fall in love with him, talked to Grandma with ease.

“Do you think you’ll get married soon?” Grandma asked.

“We don’t know. We’re still trying to feel each other out,” I said at the dinner table, the smell of baked ziti making my mouth water.

“Well, if you do, you’ll know what my gift will be,” she said.

“I know, Grandma. I know,” I said, holding her hand in the house on Allegheny Street.

About the Author

Taylor Riley

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Taylor Riley is a writer and journalist living in Louisville, Kentucky. She is currently a news producer and features writer at the Louisville Courier Journal and will receive her MFA from Spalding University in May 2019. She is an award-winning journalist and photographer whose work has been published by Refinery 29, USA TODAY, Associated Press, Eckleburg, The Santa Fe Literary Review, Riggwelter Press, as well as other national publications. She also does essay readings at local and regional libraries, bookstores and universities.