But Lori Fontaine, you made me weep. Mom, too. I could hardly get it together as I read through your essay the first, second, and third time. Really, the contest was yours at “plastic sheeting.” With humility and plain speech, you told the story of the power of quilts and the heart of a quilter. Thank you, and thank you to your group. May you make quilts a long time and put them in the mail.
My leaders and enders are yours, Fontaine. I’ll be in touch soon and congratulations. (I’ve left in all your funny Canadian spellings. They’re neat!)
1st Place Winner
“Trust me when I tell you you’ll want to quilt it and hand-tie it,” she said.
“Because they don’t have Maytag washers in the Third World. That quilt’ll be pounded on the rocks to be cleaned.”
Well, that made it clear. Suddenly, it wasn’t about the bright colours or the design; this was about the reality, which was scary. A stranger would treasure my work enough to clean it using back-breaking labour, scrubbing it on rocks, probably in muddy water. It would perhaps be the only treasure that person would ever possess. So my little quilt, with its wonky seams, had the ability to erase even for a second the world of not enough to eat, the constant scream of poverty.
That first quilt — how many lifetimes ago! — went to Nepal. A child receiving life-changing surgery was given a quilt rather than the plastic sheeting that was typically used during post-op. We were told to make the colours bright and happy, to make the quilts for boys or girls.
About five months later, our quilt group was asked to attend a slideshow so we could see the facility where the surgeries had been performed by volunteer doctors, nurses, and other kind souls that wanted to make a difference. There was a handful of photos scattered on an eight-foot table at the front of the room, but I was at the back, chatting with a friend and didn’t bother to look at them.
When the lights went down, we looked into their eyes. The eyes of strangers that were receiving our love from Canada. There were smiles reaching through a lens to greet those that wanted to help from so far away, even a little bit.
The world became so tiny.
I went to the front of the room and looked at the photos on the table. Then, my eyes got wet and I could no longer see clearly. My little quilt, with its bright yellow fabrics, was wrapped around a child with big brown eyes. A printed banner above the image said, “Thank you, quilters.”
My back doesn’t ache when I’m working on a quilt that’s going overseas. It’s always, “Just one more stitch, then I’ll head to bed…”
The quilt I’m working on now is an explosion of bright fabrics featuring creatures of the sea. Dolphins, coral, electric rainbow fish. Wherever on the planet this one lands, my name will be on the back. A stranger from Canada, sending love. Beating back some of the darkness that lives in the world, the only way she knows how.
On Monday, I got an email telling me I didn’t get this thing I wanted. It was a relatively small (but sizeable-to-me) publication grant offered by my university’s student government. I wanted to print a 16-page newspaper I made in my Design For Writers class last semester called “The PaperGirl Review: Extreme Quilt Edition”. The grant would’ve given me the funds and the boost I need to do that project and offer it to all of you. I spent a long time on my application. I wanted it really bad. But I didn’t get it.
I wanted to tell you that before I announce the First Runner-Up for the essay contest. Because if it’s not you, you’re probably gonna feel at least a little lousy; not winning feels lousy. But not winning everything (or anything) is also totally universal. Like I’ve just confessed, it happened to me last week! Don’t let it get you down if you didn’t win this time. You just can’t let it let you down. Shake it off. I will if you will.
As I said yesterday, every essay y’all sent was winning. But choices must be made. And this essay has such a lovely twist at the end and was so unique, it stood out. Congratulations due to Ms. Kurke, Lucy, and Einstein, of course.
It was never about the orange, one way or another. It was all about the dog collar.
I bought it because it looked like Log Cabin pattern. Lucy, the yellow lab of my dog duo, got the quilt-like collar because she was the girl. Einstein, the chocolate lab of the duo, sported a more masculine (but not resembling a quilt block) collar. I looked at Lucy’s collar many times a day as Lucy and Einstein pulled excitedly aheadof me on all our walks, day after day. It worked out well for Lucy, actually, because instead of me sternly telling her to stop pulling, I’d look at her collar and saying to myself, “That collar would make a great quilt.”
One day, I decided to do it: I’d make a quilt like that collar. I started pulling pink and purple from my stash. There was some obvious red in the collar, so I added red to my pile. Off I headed to hang out with my “WDMP Girls”** for a day of stitching and chatting. Upon settling in and starting the chatting part of the day, I unpacked my piles and started ripping strips: lots of pink, lots of purple, and a little red.
I had started constructing the Log Cabin when one of the Girlz asked, “Where’s the orange?”
“What orange?” I asked.
“Well, there’s obviously orange in the collar.”
Orange? I’d never noticed! Turns out, I was orange-blind. Every day, mile after mile, walking the dog and staring at the collar, thinking, “That collar would make for a great quilt,” I’d never noticed the orange.
Generous as quilting pals tend to be, The Girlz quickly pulled from their orange abundance and added orange to my pile. I ripped orange strips and returned to creating my Log Cabin blocks. I picked up red centers and added strips. Pink, purple, red, and now orange strips. Completed block after completed block hit the floor. The collar — I mean the quilt — was coming to life.
I returned home to lay out my blocks and compose the quilt top. Since my “design wall” is my sewing room floor, I share the space with my dogs — and they expect participation in the layout process. (Quilt blocks go down on the floor and they lay on top.) More than once, their squirming antics have resulted in a rearranging that led to a much more attractive layout than I had originally envisioned.
The quilt blocks came together beautifully and I saw on the floor what I had dreamed about all those days I looked at Lucy’s collar, except…something was missing.
I couldn’t put my finger on it. I double-checked my color selection against the collar, thinking perhaps my color bias was bigger than just orange, but the colors in my quilt top mirrored what I saw in the collar. I closed my eyes to rethink the vision I had in starting the quilt. I pictured Lucy, pulling ahead of me. I pictured her collar. I pictured Einstein, walking next to her.
And then my eyes flew open, realizing what was missing in the quilt: It was Einstein! Not Einstein literally, but the color of Einstein, the spirit of Einstein. The quilt needed chocolate love! So, out came the brown — and the border came to life.
The quilt is complete, now. My love for my yellow lab, in her quilt collar, and her brown buddy Einstein is now immortalized in my quilt.
This post is about the results of the first-ever PaperGirl “Leaders & Enders” Essay Contest. For all those of you who didn’t get around to writing, never fear; there will be future contests.
Which brings me to the first point I want to make in my opening remarks, before I announce the Second Runner Up. (That’s right: You have to wait till tomorrow to know who the First Runner Up is and the next day to know won the whole thing because it’s my contest and I’ll create tension if I want to. Also, this was getting really long.)
Over and over again — not in every letter but almost — came some version of the refrain: “Thank you for giving me a reason to write.” This essay contest/writing prompt was all a lot of you needed to do something you were clearly itching to do: write about your life. I’ll take credit for suggesting you put hands to keyboard (or pen to paper!) but those who wrote about their quilts and quiltmaking practice and sent it to me, that’s all you. You did the work. And you did it for you, but, as I said in the original contest announcement, you did something good for posterity, too. Writing your life is writing the history of you, your family, your time on this planet, etc., etc. It matters. As a person who is reading more and more (quilt) history all the time, I cannot tell you how important it is, how crucial it is, to have these personal accounts.
What my reading partner and I read in these sixty-or-so accounts is hard to describe without sounding dramatic and sentimental on account of the humanity on display. As we read, phrases such as “life’s rich pageant” came to mind, as did Thoreau’s observation about lives lived in quiet desperation. And then we’d laugh because one of you would be so charming, so fierce, so Unsinkable Molly Brown about it all.
There were essays about family. Mothers-in-law (the angelic, the not-so), sisters, granddaughters. Many of you have really wonderful husbands, brothers, boyfriends, girlfriends. One of you had a very bad boyfriend who lied to you and hurt you terribly (but you win, because you’re a quilter and he’s not.) Some of you, like me, have quilted with your mom, while one woman has fought her whole life to “quiet [her] mother’s voice.”
We read tales of quilts that weren’t appreciated, while other quilts were loved till they were rags. Teachers, doctors, and cancer survivors wrote to the PaperGirl mailbox. Some of you volunteer in prisons and teach people who live there how to sew. Some of you live in London, Canada, the Netherlands. And two of my favorite people in the world sent essays: my friend Kater and my dear assistant, Carmen herself. You both said you figured you couldn’t be the winner, but to see your names and read your stories (both about your fathers, interestingly) made my heart swell with love and affection. You’re both very special to me.
Also: My mother made me promise to mention how PaperGirl readers and writers possess terrific penmanship and grammar and format letters beautifully. What an audience I have! You are intelligentpeople. As a group, you have class and excellent taste! I expected nothing less, but it was cool to hold the proof in my hands, to stuff all your tidy letters into my Modern Quilt Guild totebag. That said: Everyone needs copyediting and a second pair of eyes on a piece of writing. If worrying about crossing every “t” kept you from entering, don’t ever let that stop you again. If I publish your work here, I’ll do all that stuff. Don’t ever let a fear of not “sounding” a certain way stop you from participating in this sort of thing, okay?
And so, thank you. Every single one of you. Thank you for the lunch box notes and the book of poems. Thank you for the stickers, the drawings, the time you took. I loathe dead phrases like “Picking a winner was very difficult” but how else can I put it? It was terrible, in many ways, having to do this. And here I am telling you we’ll do it again, and soon.
Don’t stop writing. At the very least, whenever I prompt you to write an essay and send it, write it and send it. You have absolutely nothing to lose and perhaps fun prizes to win that come from my house.
And now…the Second Runner Up, with her phenomenal essay (condensed-for-space and copy-edited-by-yours-truly.) I’ll be sending you something good as a prize, Ms. Morrow; standby for that.
About five years ago, I was asked by a dear friend if I had a bucket list. In my early fifties at the time and being a firm believer that every day after fifty is a gift, I’d actually given the matter some thought.
“I’d like to make a quilt before I die.”
Her response: “Oh! Eleanor Burns will be in town next month for a three-day workshop!!! We should go!!!”
I said, “Who?”
We went. I learned to use the rolling cutter thing. I learned to press, not iron. I learned about UFOS. I dubbed it “Quilt Boot Camp” and I loved it. I fell in love with making quilts, which is good, because I was burned out in my career.
I am a veterinarian.
“Oh,” people say, “How lucky! I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I love animals too much.” Or, “Why didn’t you become a real doctor?” (It’s true: People actually say these things quite often — but that’s for another essay.)
Veterinarians are often GPs, surgeons, OB-GYNs, dentists, ophthalmologists, proctologists, parasitologists, internists, nutritionists, and funeral directors, all rolled into one little degree. If the client has no money (or claims to have no money yet drives a much newer, nicer vehicle than ours), we’re expected to work for free because we love animals.
The sad truth is that veterinarians have a suicide rate six to eight times higher than the general population. I desperately needed a distraction and I jumped on quilting as a hobby. It’s become an obsession.
In March of 2016, I had a heart attack, totally unexpected, and it seemed like a good time to take a professional break, catch my breath, spend time with family, and make quilts. I thought I’d miss medicine and be ready to go back in a few months. It didn’t happen. I don’t want to make life or death decisions anymore.
I’ve sold my practice and retired, broke and happy.
I want to make quilts. I want to make quilts that mean something to someone; quilts that give comfort. Memory quilts. Quilts made from Grandpa’s flannel shirts, or Dad’s ties, or the baby’s clothes, or a decade of t-shirts.
I have eight quilts I’m actively working on at this time for myself, friends, and family, but the one I just finished is significant. It just happened that recently I was perusing a veterinary suicide prevention site, and someone posted asking what other veterinarians do for relaxation. I posted a picture of one of my quilts. A veterinarian from a thousand miles away saw it and messaged me. She asked if I could turn her t-shirts into a quilt and I said I’d be happy to, for a fee.
My new business has begun. I have just finished turning her 27 t-shirts, one silk shirt, two scarves, a pair of pajama bottoms, and her graduation gown into a queen-sized quilt. It will never win a ribbon, but to this veterinarian, who has served in the armed forces (yes: a veteran veterinarian!), it will have meaning. And when she passes it on — I pray it will have meaning to those who love her — it will live on. And in a tiny way, I will live on.