Family Memories, Stitched Across Time

Florals and gingham, linens and lace—each scrap of fabric reminded her of her grandmother's love.

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- Posted on May 16, 2016

A pillow crafted with love, made with fabric swatches sent by her grandmother

On my lunch hour I liked to hunt down handmade cards for my grandma Duke.

Today, I picked one with two gorgeous scarlet begonias painted on the front. Back at my desk, I tried to plan what to say. It’s hard to write to someone who never writes back, I thought. Quiet and reserved, Grandma Duke was getting older and her memory was failing. My mom lived near her in Connecticut and saw her every day.

Mom kept me updated on Grandma’s condition, so I knew she had no idea who I was when I called on the phone from New York. Clearly Grandma had no idea who sent the cards. Still, I wanted to find something that would resonate for her, pretty artwork, a friendly word and, most important, a carefully chosen scrap of fabric.

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“Dear Grandma,” I wrote in the begonia card. “I’m making a skirt out of this fabric...” I described my latest project in detail—A-line, just above the knee, hidden zipper in back. Grandma had always loved sewing. After I took up the hobby, she gave me this piece of dark brown cotton fabric covered in tiny, colorful flowers among piles of her old material.

“Won’t I be the picture of summer,” I said. I tucked a sample into the envelope and sealed it up.

Years before, on one visit to her cozy Connecticut home, she brought me into her big craft room with the glass-panel ceiling. She had laid out boxes heaped with fabrics from the 50s and 60s and said, “Take whatever you like.”

Many of the materials were wrinkled from being washed and cut into uneven shapes. Signs that they’d already been used for projects decades before I was even born, when Grandma Duke sewed clothes for all seven of her children. I imagined that every finished piece was her saying, “I love you.”

My mom and her siblings were always the best-dressed kids in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t wait to continue the tradition with these family heirlooms. It would be like wearing history. If only Grandma Duke knew what a treasure trove she’d given me.

“Maybe these cards just confuse her,” I sighed to myself, stamping my latest letter. But something wouldn’t let me stop sending them. Something in me wouldn’t let go of Grandma Duke and the hobby we shared.

At the end of the workday, I glumly dropped my card into the mailbox in the building lobby. I gave my mom a call on the train home. “How’s Grandma?” I said.

READ MORE: INSPIRED BY A GRANDMOTHER'S GIFT

“Some days are better than others,” Mom said, “but she adored that card you sent last week.”

Mom had never mentioned my cards before. “She did?” I asked.

“Sure, she loves all of them,” Mom said. “It’s such a bright spot in her day, finding a letter meant just for her instead of the usual junk mail. I figured you knew.”

My mom went on to describe cards I’d sent weeks, even months ago. “But her favorite part is the fabric swatches. What a good idea that was! Dark blue cotton with tiny white dots. Tawny brown with a pattern of flowering vines. Crisp sky-blue gingham.... She doesn’t always know who they’re from, but she sure recognizes that old fabric.”

That material was a special gift from Grandma, but I didn’t know how special until right now. Grandma’s quiet and reserved “I love you” message was in every single piece of fabric, and in sewing them together I get to love her back, stitch after stitch.

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