Rebecca Davis, Honeycomb Quilt, 1846


Before it happened, I was stitching together the red-orange flower that would eventually find its home at the far edge of my quilt. I was bone tired after a day of cleaning and cooking and running after the children, and this was a special time of reflection.

There is something divine in the devising of a quilt pattern and the piecing it together. I gather my fabric scraps in one place and—as if by divine will—I know which colors to put together. I know which floral patterns and stripes will look best together and which ones to place at opposite corners to balance each other out. I feel like Saint Matthew, my hand guided by God.

And so I sat there each evening in the day’s waning light, giving my hands over to a higher power. I have been sewing for as long as I can remember. Sewing with my mother and sisters and aunts is my earliest memory. I remember hushed rooms, the quiet murmuring of women’s voices, and the crinkling of their crinoline petticoats.

That evening, my fingers were moving quickly, and since I was working alone, I heard nothing but the fire crackling across the room and the gentle hum of the thread as I pushed and pulled my needle through this orange-red cotton. With each stitch, my mind was somewhere else: As I brought together two hexagons, I recalled Josephine’s tears from earlier that day about a broken doll, her face crumpled in sadness and a heartbreaking self-reproach. I had been cooking and brushed her off. One, two, three . . . Stitch, stitch, stitch . . . As I stitched the next hexagon into my flower, I thought of John and his aching back. He moves more slowly lately. He is looking stooped, like an old man. I try not to think about it, but it comes back to me over and over: the image of him tripping awkwardly over the threshold, the firewood falling to the floor. I stitch, stitch, stitch . . . and let go of my own aches from the relentlessness of cleaning. Of the endless tasks that threaten to bury me. Of my ceaseless fatigue.

And then a sudden glimmer of orange flashed in my peripheral vision. At first I ignored it, assuming it was a reflection of the colorful flower I was piecing together. But then the glimmer grew. I looked up and out of the window. Out across the snow-dusted lawn, framed between the distant oaks at the foot of the hill and the gnarled apple tree that stands guard over our house, I saw our barn, blazing. The roof was already half gone,  and the fire was moving on to the the back, where we had recently stacked our store of hops, apples, and potatoes with such care. They were ready to send off to the city markets—to keep us afloat through the winter.

Stunned, I sat there in my chair, the quilting square balled up in my lap. I heard shouting and the faint roar of the swelling fire. I saw John and the boys running around frantically, but I didn’t get up to help. I knew it was useless. I knew we were in trouble then, and I didn’t want to face it.

I wanted so badly to return to the ignorant bliss of a few moments before, when God was guiding my hand as I washed away the frivolous stresses of my day, when I counted my stitches, connecting these little scraps of nothing, trying so hard to make them into something large and meaningful.


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