A Legacy; A Quilt


I still feel nauseous when I think about it.

Two years ago, when my mom died, the assisted living facility where she lived gave me 30 days to pack her belongings and move them out of her small apartment. As much as it seemed like 30 days was a long time, it wasn’t. As we had relocated to New England from Florida, a few months prior, some boxes remained unpacked as we struggled with the transition. I felt like I had completely lost my sense of “home” and couldn’t imagine how, at 86, she must have felt during this challenging transition.

But I realized I just needed to stay in her room at the assisted living place and finish everything while we also planned a memorial service for her and my dad. Some boxes were easy. Sometimes, I knew immediately what to keep and what to donate. Other times, when I would open a closet or a drawer or look at a picture, I felt the immense sorrow and grief that went with missing mom.

Every time I opened the door to her closet and looked at her clothes, I felt sick. My sadness went on for another week and became more uncomfortable until I knew I had to do something because I was running out of time.

I took all of her clothes out of the closet and separated the ones I could donate from the ones I knew I needed to keep because of all of the memories they carried with them. Slowly and meticulously, I went through piles and piles of clothes.

When people die, I heard that there are websites listed on the internet where you can make quilts out of clothes. As I skimmed from site to site looking, they all seemed robotic and impersonal. When I told one of the staff members at the assisted living place that I was thinking about this, she said: “I have a relative who makes quilts.. all by hand.. they’re beautiful; let me ask her”.

A few days later, she returned with a phone number and said, “she hasn’t made a lot of quilts but would be willing to help you; just call her.”

So as I sat on mom’s bed among the piles of clothes, I called her and introduced myself and asked her about her willingness to help me with a quilt. She agreed and told me about the quilts she would be able to make and asked: “are her clothes dark colors?”.

I looked around at the piles of (mostly) shirts alongside me. “No,” I told her, “there are mostly bright colors; mom loved bright colors.” I hadn’t realized how bright the colors were, or how distinct some of the patterns were. But as I looked at them, my memories came flooding back. I saw the shirt she had on when we sat on the back deck of the boat cooking dinner as we looked out over the harbor in Block Island, and then one she was wearing more recently when we cruised around the neighborhood in our golf cart in Florida. I saw the one she was wearing when we sat together on a bench eating lunch as we looked out over the intercoastal waterway watching the dolphins. That shirt was a “must-have” in the quilt because of how beautiful that day was. Looking at the pile of clothes and remembering those days, I realized that, as sad as I felt, everything would eventually be okay. I wasn’t sure, I felt a little better, but I still really missed mom.

Mom and I with the “must have” shirt that I needed to have included into her quilt because of how wonderful this day was. The day I taught her how to take a “selfie” – best day ever!

“What should I do with the remainder of the clothes that I use or the ones that I don’t?” she asked. “Keep them,” I said definitively. I couldn’t explain why but the thought of some of mom’s bright colors going into making a quilt for another person – another family, seemed like a perfect idea.

Aristotle once said “the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” I felt that spreading all of the bright and dark materials, colors, and textures that mom wore broadened the perspective she brought to us all. When I ended my conversation with my new quilter friend, the intense sadness I felt became a little more manageable.

A friend had told me about a “fluff and fold” place about a mile away, so the next morning, I filled two large duffle bags with the clothes for the quilts and dropped them off. A few days later, when they were ready, I took them to FedEx and sent them to my new favorite Quilter in Virginia.

There were only two additional emails from the Quilter which followed our initial call. When she asked about an idea for a pattern, I sent her a photo I had of a quilt that mom’s grandmother had made for her. When we discussed size, I told her that a 60-inch by 60-inch quilt would be perfect and asked if she could make two of them, one for my brother and one for myself. I also told her to take her time as I wasn’t in a rush and knew that our loss’s most difficult memories were in good hands.

Six months later, I received an email informing me that our quilts were ready and on their way to my home in New Hampshire.

“I hope you like them,” she wrote.

Since sending her the two duffle bags of clothes, I had consistently thought the day I received them would be like Christmas morning. I knew I would receive a beautiful gift but had no idea how they would look.

They would be sent by a woman I’ve never met, who had agreed to preserve the legacy of someone she has never met whom I loved very much. Sometimes the world is impressive.

The quilts arrived in October. It was precisely like Christmas morning, and I couldn’t help but stare at them because of how beautiful they were (and are). I took pictures and sent them to friends as I was so impressed with the result. The hand stitching was lovely, as was the juxtaposition of color and texture in the materials used.

I told one of my friends, “it feels like I’m looking at a legacy in color and texture.” I remembered that poem, “The Dash,” about the quality of your life from when you are born until the time you die but in the form of the colors, textures, and fabric we wear.

When I think of all of the decisions I’ve made since mom died, having our two quilts made is one I will never regret. I challenge you to consider where your thoughts go the next time someone mentions the importance of “living your dash.” If you’re like me, maybe the subsequent thoughts you have will be more related to colors, texture, and the time you had that shirt on when you did that thing that you remember because it was such a great time.

Live your life; foster your legacy.

Not A Selfie – An Us-ie

“Usie” / S.A.Leys Photo

Teaching my mom to do a “selfie” or in this case, an “usie”. It’s almost been two years since she died and I miss her a lot. This is one of my favorite photos – not only because of how great she looks (and her smile) but how priceless it was that we got to spend the time with each other that we did.

A few months after she died, I went to Acadia National Park / Cadillac Mountain where she and my dad had brought my brother and I when we were little. I found myself getting frustrated as so many people were taking selfies that I went up to as many people as I could and said “please – can I take that picture for you?” thinking it’s always better to have arms around each other than it is to have them outstretched in front of you.

I took photos of over 25 families that day. I loved seeing the smiles on their faces.

And who wouldn’t love seeing a view like this with the people they love the most?

Enjoy your families this holiday season. Merry Christmas everyone.

It’s A Flag; Or A Guy

S.A.Leys Photography

It’s such an embarrassing story that it just needs to be shared in a “Don’t ever let this happen to you” sort of way.

Let me start by saying how much I love (LOVE!) looking at pictures of clipper ships. This is something I have loved since I was really little. I loved looking at the designs, the sails, all of the lines on the ship, the flags and my favorite part, the bowsprit.

I am so passionate about clipper ships that several years ago, when I was in Graduate school and attending a Student Personnel Conference in Washington DC, I asked my graduate school advisor (we had an extra day) to go to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum so I could look at everything related to American History as well as… yes, the Clipper Ships.

I didn’t realize I had been looking at all of the ships for an extended period of time – my professor, Dr. Champagne, came up to me and asked: “so how are you doing?” When I looked at my watch, I was astounded because it had been almost two hours that I had been in the same area, looking at all of the ships. Thankfully, she was an amazing and very patient professor. I loved (and still love..) clipper ships as well as old classic yachts. It’s a thing – when you grow up in Newport, RI, this is just a thing….

Fast forward to ten years ago. It’s my birthday and my partner and I are now living in the Washington DC metro area and are headed to the National Gallery of Art. – I am just so excited because.. whelp… two words – “clipper ships”.

As we walk through the gallery I see a beautiful, very majestic picture of a magnificent clipper ship. The intricate lines of the ship are beautiful, as are the sails and the waves around the ship. I move forward to look at the bowsprit where there looks to be a flag..or a guy..I couldn’t really tell because it was so small and delicately painted..that I had to move closer. Guy or flag? I leaned in a little closer…

That’s when all hell broke loose.

A loud voice from behind me “Ma’am!! YOU STEPPED OVER THE LINE!!”

I turned to see him glaring at me. He picked up his radio, pressed the button and responded: “yes, it’s me, I see her”.  Now vigilant of my every move. People in the gallery all stopped and watched. There was drama, intrigue … he said, “You touched the picture!!”

“No, I didn’t,” I said.

“Yes, you did!” he responded, “and you stepped over the line!”

“No… I didn’t,” I said. Like the flag above says, when you’re passionate about something and being wrongfully accused, you don’t give up the ship…EVER!

I watched as more security guards entered the gallery area which included his supervisor. He pointed at me and told him “she stepped over the line and she touched the painting!”

“Why would I do that?” I asked, “I was just trying to see if it was a flag or a guy?”

They looked at me; puzzled.

At that point, I felt a hand grabbing my shoulder. “Come on, let’s go.” It was my partner who had been a few galleries ahead of me because.. yup… again, I had spent too much time looking at the clipper ships.

“But…” I answered. I felt this strong need to remain and guard my honor (as any yachtsman would do if they were EVER questioned in this manner).

“No, let’s go.” my partner said, leading me to the exit.

At least two security guards were following us and one of them clicked the button to his walkie-talkie and said: “they’re headed towards the east exit!”

“Okay, we got ’em”. My partner and I had just rounded the corner to head for the door and saw the other two security guards glaring at us, ready to pounce..or um.. whatever the heck it is they do at the National Gallery of Art.

“Come on”, my partner said. And we exited the museum and headed out to walk along the mall to Legal Seafoods where we had reservations for dinner (and yeah, because that’s where you go when you’re a yachtie who has just been kicked out of the National Gallery).

I was flummoxed and defiant and just really very sad.

The baked stuffed lobster almost made all of my frustration go away. Seriously – who gets kicked out of the National Gallery on their birthday? And – I didn’t touch the painting or step over the line and sadly, I will never know if it that small thing at the end of the bowsprit of the beautifully and intricately painted clipper ship was a flag or a guy.

Not my best birthday, but definitely one of the most memorable.

Don’t ever let this happen to you.

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