The First Tears to Touch the Quilt

by Kay Helbling


If I want to treat myself to some down time, my favorite hobby is making a quilt. But, I’ve never just grabbed scraps of unused cloth and sewn blocks. Mine have always had a purpose. My life’s passions, loves, and appreciations could be summed up by the quilts I’ve made. There are quilts that say thank you to special people, quilts to raise money for an important cause, and quilts that capture the lives of my loving family. And, quilts covered with tears.


The “White Oak by the Side of the Road” was raffled to raise money for the West Linn Senior Center, as did “ The Pythia” for the political women’s group, and the “Great Seal of the U.S.” for a Lincoln Dinner. “Travelling the Road Together” was an anniversary gift to my favorite Aunt and Uncle, “Snowbirds” for my in-laws and a “Family Tree” for  mom.


Quilts became a way to say thank you to teachers or men who coached our boys over the years. I would gather up team photos, action shots from games and close-up expression shots of the coach, award recognitions and other memorabilia. They would surround blocks with written notes of appreciation.


Probably the most profound quilts have been those I’ve made out of old clothing left behind by loved ones. It all started with an auction at Central Catholic High School and David Heller, a remarkable young boy.


I’d made  “Snuggle Blankets” for my husband and sons  from shirts & jerseys they’d worn in their sports and other activities. It was a way to preserve the memory of those events. For example, my husband’s covered thirteen years of the Cascade Run-off , Hood-to-Coast runs,  Seattle-to-Portland bike races, a Pole-Peddle-Paddle in Bend, and the pièce de résistance, the Portland Marathon. We called them “Snuggle Blankets”  because I always backed them in a soft flannel, so they’d be extra warm and cuddly. They have gotten lots of use over the years.


As my donation to the auction, I offered to custom make a memory quilt. Using my son’s blanket as a sample of what could be done, I expected a family to step forward with the usual bag filled with well-worn sports apparel. Instead the quilt offer was purchased by a family who just a year before had lost their 17-year-old son due to a heart condition.


David’s mom couldn’t imagine parting with all of his old clothes. Even putting them in storage still took him too far away. The quilt would be a way to touch him, feel him, and hold him close. When days got tough, they could wrap themselves in the quilt and simply remember.


He’d left behind not only shirts that told stories of his favorite things, but Varsity Letters that could be sewn onto a cloth block, and other award recognitions he’d earned over the years that could be copied and transferred onto cloth.  And, there were notes they’d found in his wallet after he passed—words written in his own hand that were encouragements or motivational sayings taken from a respected coach and scriptures from the Bible to guide him. These, too, we copied onto cloth.


My tears and prayers would be the first of many to touch this quilt. With my utmost respect for the memory of this fine young boy, I handed the quilt to his mom.


Since we all have, or will have, loved ones we’ve lost, I thought this may be a project you’d want to consider trying. Making a memory quilt isn’t hard. Of course the experienced quilter can take it to many levels, but even the beginning quilter can cut squares from a t-shirt and sew them together. Next week I’ll write up my tips on how to make a memory quilt.  If interested, check back on Thursday.


Kay was an insurance adjuster and executive for 15 years, a small business owner, and a teacher for 10. But, her most fulfilling work has been as a mother of her two boys. She is now enjoying an empty nest with her best friend—her husband.

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