From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

The Quilting Bee

We are each of us angels with only one wing. And we can only fly by embracing each other.

Luciano deCrescenzo

“This is a good idea,” my friend Sandy mused, reading the bulletin board in the church vestibule. “I wonder what our neighborhood could contribute.”

I sidestepped our three-year-olds and leaned over her shoulder to look at the announcement. A parishioner’s child had hemophilia, the blood transfusions were becoming expensive, and in addition to requests for donors, the parish had decided to run a raffle on the child’s behalf. Neighborhoods were encouraged to get together and donate suitable items.

“You’d never get anyone on our block to participate,” I reminded Sandy. She and I, brought together by our toddlers and a mutual need for companionship, were probably the only neighbors who shared any time together. Socializing among the women on our street seemed limited to casual waves while dashing to the office, quick over-the-fence comments and brief greetings at the supermarket. And Mrs. Witkowski, the middle-aged woman in the yellow bungalow, was downright irritable. More than once she had glared at Sandy and me—or actually gone in the house and slammed the door—when we pushed our strollers past her well-tended lawn.

Sandy was still staring at the notice. “Well, we ought to try something, at least. How about a sewing bee where everyone sits around and makes a quilt? A lot of the older women know how to do that sort of thing.”

“I think you’re out of your mind,” I told her affectionately, “and you know I can’t thread a needle. But I’d be glad to cut squares or serve lemonade. Hopefully, Mrs. Witkowski won’t come—she makes me nervous.”

“She never goes anywhere,” Sandy reassured me. “Don’t worry.”

We were wrong on all counts. Not only did several neighbors like the idea and volunteer their help, but at the first meeting Mrs. Witkowski appeared, too, bearing a bag of old fabric scraps and wearing her usual stern expression. She said little but went right to work, tacitly taking charge of the project.

There was something restful about the soft, rhythmic work that encouraged communication. At first, we talked in general terms. Except for Mrs. Witkowski, who stitched without comment, the rest of us chatted about food prices, the state of the union and the new house being built at the end of the street. Slowly we got to know more about each other.

Then one evening Mrs. Witkowski picked up a scrap of red-and-white cloth, and tears filled her eyes. Conversation came to a halt as everyone looked at her. “I remember this material,” she murmured finally. “It’s from a dress I made for my daughter when she was ten.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, and I blundered into it. “I didn’t know you had a daughter, Mrs. Witkowski,” I told her.

“I don’t. Not anymore.” The words were blunt. “She died of leukemia four years ago.”

The silence grew even more unbearable, and then another woman spontaneously reached over and took Mrs. Witkowski’s hand. “Carol was a darling girl,” the woman said, “and I miss her. It’s a shame these younger neighbors never met her. You must have some wonderful memories.”

The entire room seemed to hold its breath. And then, slowly, Mrs. Witkowski’s face relaxed. “Why . . . yes, I do,” she said hesitantly. “I remember the time . . . “ Her words stumbled at first. Then, as the rest of us listened intently, she went on, reliving some of the special moments, savoring the joy that a beloved child had brought to her.

Gently, other neighbors added their own memories of Carol—her beautiful brown hair, her boyfriends, her graduation from high school. . . . How long, I wondered, had Mrs. Witkowski kept her feelings bottled up because no one had offered her the time, the affirmation, the loving permission to express them? Perhaps she had seemed so angry with Sandy and me because our children were a reminder of her loss.

From that point on, the quality of our relationships in the quilting group changed. As barriers came down, we began to share deeper concerns. Midlife mothers voiced their fears about teens away at college: Would their family’s values stay with them, or would they be vulnerable to other ideas?

An elderly widow confided her desire to remain independent during her final years. Sandy and I voiced our frustrations in coping with endless diapers and toddler demands.

We talked about God, about our plans and dreams. And everyone, even Mrs. Witkowski, laughed—healing laughter all the more precious because it was shared.

We didn’t always agree, of course, and we didn’t solve any of the world’s problems. But during those sewing sessions, we gained something very special. We learned to care for each other, to suspend judgment, drop the facade of polite disinterest and explore each other’s spirits. We learned that being a friend meant sustaining each other in times of trouble, rejoicing together in moments of happiness, allowing our own weaknesses to show so that others might comfort us. As our quilt took shape, so too did our friendships with one another.

The day came, of course, when our project was finished, and we all went together to deliver it. The woman at the church hall was astonished when we told her how it had been made. “All of you?” she asked. “All sewing together?”

We nodded. “And we’re going to make another,” Sandy announced. “We need the therapy!”

Mrs. Witkowski and I exchanged smiles, then watched with the others as the quilt was folded and carefully packaged. Yellow corduroy, blue-and-white gingham, pink-dotted dimity—the fabrics of our lives now forever connected. It had started as a work for charity. But the quilt had made us rich.

Joan Wester Anderson
Originally published in Catholic Digest

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