If At First....





"If at first I don't succeed, stop," she said. She stood by my side with several scraps of fabric in her hand. At least, they looked like scraps.

"Try, try again," I said. "Not stop."

"Not with this quilt," she said, holding up the scraps of fabric. At close range, I could see they were not scraps at all. Well, they were not scrappy scraps. They were small pieces of fabric that had the look of having been carefully rotary cut into scraps.

"Is that the new quilt you started?" I asked.

'This is the quilt I just stopped making," she said.

"But, but, it's barely begun?" I said, the words actually a question, which is why there was a question mark in my voice. I wanted an explanation.

"It's too much of a challenge. I'm putting it away. I'm not in the mood to paper piece this or appliqué this or string piece this or anything that requires my mind to hurt." She put the scraps into a clear plastic bag and pressed it closed.

"It's a UFO now," I said.

"No, it's a USO. It's unstarted so it can't be unfinished.

"I met you at a USO," I said. I did. Many years ago in San Francisco when I was a young soldier and she was a hostess volunteering to make young soldiers smile far away from home.

"We're talking quilts here," she said, not willing to reminisce about our first date and forty-three years of marriage.

"But you liked the pattern, you liked the design, the colors. And you have all the fabric."

"I never have all the fabric for anything," she said, not wanting to make me think her fabric buying days were over or even delayed.

'So, you're giving up?" It was a cruel thing to say to a woman who never gave up on a quilt.

"I haven't started it for real, so I'm not giving up. I'm just going to rest for awhile until I am highly motivated, very highly motivated to begin this wall hanging that I want to make but which is too crazy a challenge for me to make right now."

"So, you'll get back to it."

"If and when and maybe," she said, which meant she would or she wouldn't.


But she did. A dozen or so times in the following six months, each time she finished some other project, she opened the plastic bag, looked at the fabric, opened the magazine to the pattern, thought for a while, told me she might begin, and then put everything away again, including any desire to make the wall hanging, And then one day, a day when the sky was blue and birds sang in our garden (actually one crow which cawed loudly), she jumped up, ran into the house, up the stairs to her sewing room, into her closet where she poked her hand into a drawer and yanked out the project she hadn't begun yet. I followed right behind her.

"I'll try it," she said, "but no guarantee," she told me as she came out of the closet. "But if it's impossible, or if it turns ugly on me, or if some other quilt project puts a gun to my head, I might have to stop."

"I didn't know quilts could threaten you like that. A gun?"

"A quilt that wants to get made can be very bold, sometimes too aggressive to ask nicely. I have to be careful around fabric and patterns. You know that."

"I should know that," I said.


Six and two-thirds hours later, she frowned at me. "I don't think I can go through with it, but I don't want to stop. Can you stop me?" she asked.

"Stop you from quilting?" Better ask if I can stop the earth from rotating around the sun. I'd have a better chance.

"I need to stop."

"Then stop," I said, ever helpful.

"Yes, of course. I will stop now."

"Is there a reason for stopping?" I asked slowly, very reluctant to hear the answer.

"The asterisks again," she said.

Now, I understood her immediately, for she had once almost had a quilter's breakdown trying to paper-piece a pattern which had sections so small the pattern had to show an asterisk in the space which was too small to allow any word of description inside the lines she had to sew over. "But you did asterisks before. You can do them again now," I said.

"Yes, I can, but I don't want to. I'm not in the mood to squint my eyes off. I'm not in the mood to spend the time making mistakes over and over again until I get it right and I'm left behind an exhausted rag doll."

"Me, neither," I said. Empathy on my part.


Two days later, she said, "I'm going to do it."

"Do what?" She had spent some time that morning cleaning her sewing machine and washing the ironing board cover and vacuuming up five and one third tons of scraps and lint.

"The wall hanging. It needs to be done."

"No matter how challenging?"

"I'm not a quitter."

"No, you're not," I said firmly.

"Let me at it," she said firmly.

She was very firm for a day and a half.


"I quit," she said as she came down for lunch with her fists bunched up and a scowl hiding what normally would have been a sweet smile.

"For how long?" I asked. I didn't add, "This time."

"I don't know how long."

"What DO you know?"

"Now I have to do string piecing."

"As in kite string?"

"I never did string piecing before," she went on, waving my question aside, batting it down to the floor, and stepping on it.

"Is it difficult?"

"No, just different. The quilt keeps having everything different. I want to stop."

"What else is different?"

"Buttons. Lots of buttons."

"You've done buttons before," I said. "Eyes and stuff." Now, "stuff" isn't a technical term in quilting, but it is a good word to use when there was no way of my remembering what else she had used buttons in a quilt for before.

She gave me a long look, which had to have been a warning to me of some kind, but she just sighed. "I can't go on with this quilt," she said

"Not now or not ever?"

"No, I have to finish it," she said, suddenly reversing herself (as I suppose all quilters do at times). I could see she was having the kind of conversation with me that really had nothing to do with me. She seemed to be talking to me, but in reality she was talking to her inner-quilter, that woman deep inside her soul who usually ran her life regardless of what normal life her outer, real self wanted to live. It was a wrestling match between her ambition to finish the wall hanging, her desire to pummel the weeks of work she'd already completed and cram it into a giant Ziplock bag and toss the bag into the loader of the trash truck which was that minute beeping around our neighborhood.

"Then you're going to finish it once and for all?"

"Can't you give me some encouragement?"

"To go on?"

"No, to stop this nonsensical drive I have to work on a quilt that's almost impossible to do."

"You said, 'Almost.' Anyway, Dear," I went on pleasantly, "I am not going to aid and abet you in any criminal activity such as giving up. Let me see what you have so far."

"You want to see it already? It's not finished."

"Already? You've been working on it for a hundred years or so."

"Thinking about it is not working on it. Struggling with it is not working on it. Batting my head against the design wall is not working on it."

"Show me," I said. Lunch could wait, couldn't it, for something this important in the future of our lives together?

She showed me. But she showed me only a small part of it, a paper-pieced iguana. It was a lovely, happy, friendly iquana. "It looks as if it's saying something," I said.

"It's not saying anything now. But it did say something before." She paused. I waited. "The iguana said to finish its home. It lives in a rain forest."

"Of course. What else would it say?"


It's finished now, that saucy little quilt is, that irascible wall hanging that drove her to distraction, that piece of work that called out to her to start and to go on and to finally finish.

"It's all in the planning," she said.

"It was a good plan."

"I had to work on it a little, but it was worth it."

"It certainly was worth it," I said. "Feel better now?"

"I always felt fine. I feel fine now. I found a new project to do next. I am very fine. How about you."

"Just fine," I said. Now I was just fine.

Copyright 2003 by A.B. Silver

Click here to see finished "Forest Quilt"

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