After a whirlwind 24-hours in New York City to promote my book and attend an award ceremony, I arrived at my sister Sarah’s farmhouse in Northern Vermont ready to relax and enjoy the deep piles of New England snow.
Straight out of a Vermont Life calendar, Sarah’s house is a gorgeous 1850’s era farmhouse with a large pond and spectacular three-story red barn, and my first evening was spent enjoying a meal with some close friends who live nearby. But as we put away the leftovers and prepared to turn in, my good mood was abruptly punctured when my sister said: “I hope you don’t mind that I have Momma’s quilt on the bed where you’re sleeping. I’ve never brought it out before but I realized that the blue was a perfect match for the trim so I stuck it in your room.”
My mind instantly flashed on the blue-and-white quilt that had covered my mother’s bed during the final months of her life. “My God, I think she even died under it,” I thought uneasily, although not wanting to be overly dramatic, I kept the thought to myself. But I could feel my body recoil. Because I did mind. A lot.
“I’m not so sure I do want it on my bed,” I finally replied, not sure how to explain why I felt such an intense aversion to the idea. I’m not superstitious and I could have viewed this remnant of my mother’s life as a comfort, an opportunity to feel her presence in a loving and peaceful way. But I didn’t. Instead, I felt a painful stab of memory as scenes from the days leading up to her suicide flipped through my mind. In distressing detail, I saw her lying in her bed, lonely and unhappy, plotting how to kill herself — and all the time covered by that damn quilt!
“Really?” My sister looked over at me with surprise and perhaps a slight trace of impatience. “Well, maybe you should get over that,” she suggested. “Think of it as a nice thing.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said, still not wanting it on my bed but reluctant to insist she give me a different quilt.
Gathering up my suitcase and preparing to go upstairs, I realized that my mother’s old patchwork quilt — an item I’d described in my memoir, Imperfect Endings — was an emblem to me of her entrapment. Entrapment in her room; in her bed; and in her illness. To her, death was the means to free herself from that entrapment, something I came to understand and even sympathize with. But knowing that she’d chosen death because she no longer felt life worth living was still painful for me to confront, even after all these years.
And I couldn’t help feeling that if I slid under that same quilt, I would find myself similarly – scarily – yoked by it. I don’t believe in ghosts but I wondered: Wouldn’t this most intimate of her possessions, the very cloth she’d touched and lain under day after day, night after night, contain some energetic memory of her? Some psychic imprint of her spirit, her personhood? And not just of her, but of her pain, her desperate desire to escape.
Uneasily, I headed up the stairs and entered the room. There was the quilt. A lighter blue than I remember. Pretty. Simple. Just a quilt, I told myself. A quilt that matches the trim.
But the uneasiness stirred again as I climbed in underneath it and I had to resist the urge to unfold the extra wool blanket at the foot of the bed and cover it up. Drifting off to sleep, I wondered if I would dream of her and who she would be in those dreams. Would she be the mother I’d had as a child? The tall, beautiful woman with thick dark hair and broad shoulders who’d made me cocoa and tucked me in at night? Or the depleted, stiff woman who’d lain under this quilt at the end of her life, longing to escape the confines of her body, of the earthly realm itself?
It turned out that none of these ghosts would appear, imaginary or otherwise. Instead, as the snow fell outside my window, adding to the already impressive drifts piled up against the house, I slept as heavily as a child. And a funny thing happened. By the second night, the quilt no longer seemed to hold its aura of entrapment or pain. It was… just a quilt – simple, pretty. A good match for the trim. An object that happened to have belonged to my mother.
And as I pulled it up around me on my last night, ran my fingers along its soft edges, I felt myself held lightly in its embrace.