My favorite is always on my bed. Even in warm weather.
It is not a large quilt but very beautiful, I think: comprised of numerous brightly colored knitted-wool squares of every imaginable color—red, yellow, green, blue, purple, magenta, brown, cream.
The pattern is neither simple nor complex. It isn’t, like some quilts, a labyrinthine design.
From the start, I loved this quilt. Just to look at is to feel comforted.
Several generations of cats have slept on this quilt. (Even as I write this, my little gray cat Cherie is probably sleeping on it, asprawl in a patch of sunshine.) How many years have passed since my mother gave the quilt to me and my husband Ray Smith, I can only estimate: thirty years? Thirty-five?
The beautiful little quilt in all the colors of the rainbow has followed me from one residence to another. The same bed, in different bedrooms in different houses in different phases of my life.
In this most recent phase, in which the bright-colored quilt is laid on a pale blue comforter on my bed in a house in Princeton, New Jersey, into which I moved in 2009, with my second husband Charlie Gross. My mother has been absent from my life for nine years.
Nine years! That seems so long, yet my memory of Mom is so vivid, I can glance up and “see” her in the doorway of my study—I can “see” the expression on her face, and (almost) hear what she is saying.
My mother never visited this house. She would love it, I think—especially the large curving flower beds, so like the flower beds she’d tended in our yard in Millersport, New York, years ago. When she’d visited Ray and me in my former Princeton home, less than five minutes from this house, Mom had always helped out in the garden, as in the house; we would garden together, and we would prepare meals together, while my father, a gifted amateur pianist/organist, played my piano in the living room.
Whenever my parents came to visit us in Princeton my mother would bring gifts for us: mostly items she had knitted, crocheted, or sewn. Several lovely afghans, including one that is entirely white, with a subtle, delicate design, and another, large and heavy as a comforter, that’s made of orange, brown, and white wool. She’d knitted me several sweater-coats, one of them in a vivid crimson wool; she’d sewed the most exquisite blouses—a white long-sleeved blouse in raw silk, which I used to wear often; a pumpkin-colored silk blouse; a dove-gray silk blouse with a fine-stitched collar. For years I wore these blouses and dresses and jackets my mother had sewn; in many of my “author photos” I’m wearing Mom’s clothes. Those I no longer wear are enshrined in my closets—I look at them often, marveling at the fine stitching and hemming, the exquisite small touches, mother-of-pearl buttons, pleated bodices. Dresses, skirts, vests, shawls. Often I wear the shirts she’d sewn for me—white, pink, red, magenta; one of my favorite sweaters is a pink sweater-coat with a knitted belt.
There is nothing so comforting as wearing clothes your mother has sewn or knitted for you.
After my mother died in 2003 for a long time I would imagine her with me, in my study in particular; though “imagine” is perhaps a weak word to describe how keenly I felt Mom’s presence. In writing the novel Missing Mom I tried to evoke Carolina Oates—well, I’m sure that I did evoke her, not fully or completely but in part. Mom is so much a part of myself, writing the novel was the antithesis of an exorcism, a portrait in words of a remarkable person whom everyone loved.
In February 2008 when Ray Smith was hospitalized, and after he died unexpectedly a week later, often I lay in bed too exhausted to move, beneath the rainbow-colored quilt. The bed became my haven, my refuge, my sanctuary, my “nest”—with my mother’s quilt predominant, a sign of how love endures in the most elemental and comforting of ways. Warmth, beauty, something to touch.
In extremis we care very little for the public life—the life of the “career”—even the life of “literature”: It is comfort for which we yearn, but comfort can come to us from only a few, intimate sources. I know that I have been very fortunate, and I never cease giving thanks for my wonderful parents who bequeathed me their love and their hope for me; for this quilt on my bed, as singular and beautiful in 2012 as it was in the late 1970s.
Joyce Carol Oates is a recipient of the National Medal of Humanities, the National Book Award, and the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction. “Quilts” is from the anthology What My Mother Gave Me: 31 Women Remember a Favorite Gift, edited by Elizabeth Benedict, to be published by Algonquin Books, Spring 2013. She is also author of the forthcoming story collection Black Dahlia & White Rose (September, 2012, Ecco). A professor of the Humanities at Princeton University, she has been a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters since 1978.