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Many times during the months he was sick. I thought about asking my husband, Rich, what he would want on his panel for the AIDS quilt. But I never found a way. More than a year after his death, I began working on a project that I thought would feel safe and familiar, that would help me begin my healing. Sewing and quilting had been part of my life for years, and I looked forward to creating a tangible memorial that would show the times before AIDS, before pain and ugliness overgrew so much of our lives. I wanted people to know about Rich's politics, and his humor, and his love for our son, Ben.
Several weeks after he died in 1991, I donated all of Rich's clothing to a shelter for homeless men. All except his T-shirts. Those I meticulously folded into a large cardboard box that I put on the top shelf of my bedroom closet. Some of his shirts were so worn that they barely held together. Every one displayed a message "Free Nelson Mandela," "Peace in a United Ireland," "U.S. Out. of El Salvador." Each was laden with memories of demonstrations Rich participated in, articles he had written, political arguments we had had.
One evening the following winter, I cleared a large area to be begin my work. I spread out the three-by-six-foot piece of black fabric I planned to use for the background. This size had been specified in the literature I received from the NAMES Project, the organization that sponsors the AIDS quilt. Only later did I learn the significance of the dimensions. Each quilt panel is the size of a gravesite.
For the first time, I opened the box of T-shirts I had packed up so many months before. I smelled each one as I unfolded it, covering my nose and mouth with the fabric. Each time, I breathed in slowly, hoping to capture one last time something of the Rich I loved. Not the smells of his sickness and his dying, but the cucumber-celery smell of his sweat that had intoxicated me when we made love, years before. I felt cheated when I realized that every shirt smelled exactly the same. The floral-scented laundry detergent was unfamiliar. I wondered which of our friends had done these last loads of laundry for us.
For hours on that day and in the weeks to come, I played with those T-shirts, along with photos, political buttons, and memorabilia of all sorts. I lined objects up with symmetry and precision, then scattered them randomly. I balanced splotches of brightly colored fabric and then added more muted tones. I overlapped, rearranged, made sketches on graph paper. Nothing I did looked right. I hated every design I created.
One rain rainy afternoon, weeks later, I realized I was no closer to completing a quilt than when I'd unpacked Rich's T-shirts. Angry and frustrated. I refolded and repacked each one and put the box hack on the top shelf of my closet. Months later, I went to see a display of a small portion of the AIDS quilt at a local university. Along with hundreds of other people, I wandered among the panels. Every few minutes I would hear a Kleenex being pulled from one of the many boxes placed throughout the room. Quiet sobs punctuated the silence. Once a young man cried out loudly. Unwilling or unable to modulate his grief.
Some of the panels were elaborate, stunning works of art. Others were almost childlike in their simplicity. I returned home that day knowing that I had to make a quilt panel for Rich.
This time I took a completely different approach. I visualized colors and abstract forms. I drew shapes in peacock blue, indigo, violet, aqua, the colors I love. The black background made the colors vivid and alive. Inspired. I worked with renewed energy and excitement until I realized what should have been obvious. I was designing a quilt for myself. It was capturing my personality, my spirit. I knew, even if no one else would, that what I was looking at had nothing at all to do with Rich. The revelation and my total resignation came simultaneously. I would not make a quilt for Rich. Ever. That I didn't understand why made the decision no less immutable. AIDS had won. Again.
Ben walked into the room just as I finished cleaning up. He looked surprised. "Did you finish Iggy's quilt?" (Iggy was the name Ben had given Rich when he was a baby, just beginning to walk.)
"I do don't know. I just couldn't figure out how to make it."
For months, Ben had seen me working. I could tell by the look on his face that my five-year-old was confused by my giving up, with nothing to show for all my time. Without giving the question any thought, I aske Ben, "Do vou want to make a quilt for Iggy?"
It was so easy for Ben.
"I want it to be mostly red." Red was Ben's favorite color.
"What do you want it to say?"
"Iggy, was my dad. And we used to play guitar together and Iggy would write silly songs about me. And I want it to have a picture of me an Ig together. And I want some stars and some moons and a giant zigzag line, like lightning. Can we go to Pearl Art and get gold and silver paint? Or maybe they have glow-in-the-dark paint."
The next day we went shopping for Ben's supplies. When we got home, he was ready to begin work.
"I'll show you where to put my words. Make sure you write real light, so no one will see your letters after I paint over them. OK, Mom?"
Ben's bold, unselfconscious strokes with a large paintbrush filled much of the center of the red cloth. He proudly painted "Iggy was my dad" in wonderfully garish gold paint. Without a word of discussion, he grabbed another brush and dipped it into the white paint. He surrounded his letters with large, randomly placed blobby dots.
Later that day, we sat down with our photo albums. With great seriousness, Ben turned page after page and then announced decisively, "I want this picture, and I want this one on my quilt."
We called a number of places until we found one that would copy our photos directly onto our fabric. Rainbow Visions normally transferred photos onto T-shirts in quantities of a dozen or more. But when I explained that we were making a panel for the AIDS quilt, the man did not hesitate. "Why don't you bring your stuff over right now?"
Ben's questions were nonstop. He was fascinated by the machines and photographic equipment at the workshop.
"So how do you get the paint from the machine onto the Tshirt? And how do you do it so all the colors of wet paint don't smear all over the place? And, wait a minute, how did you get that picture on a shirt without taking it out of the magazine?"
One man spent nearly an hour with Ben answering his questions and demonstrating each gadget they encountered on their tour of the studio. We left with more copies of our photos than we needed and with Ben wearing a zebra T-shirt made from a picture in National Geographic that was still in the magazine.
Less than a week after he had begun, Ben's work was done. Unlike anything I had attempted, his quilt captured Rich's spirit. We took his panel to the local chapter of the NAMES Project. Ben looked proud, and he listened attentively as one of the volunteers explained what would happen next.
"Your panel will be packed up with several others and sent to California. There it will be photographed and given a number. That way, if you ever want to find out where it is, you can."
The woman paused for a moment and then wondered out loud, "You know, it is possible that you're the youngest, or at least one of the youngest people, to make a panel for the AIDS quilt."
Ben, of course, had no way to know what his making a quilt panel for Rich meant to me. This small boy, with a wave of a paintbrush, effortlessly beat back a tyrannical demon I was powerless to move.
All these years later, I still am grateful.
In 1985, Cleve Jones, an activist, organized and participated in a candlelight march. He had learned that more than one thousand of his fellow San Franciscans were lost to AIDS. Overwhelmed by this realization, he asked each of his fellow marchers to write the names of friends and loved ones who died of AIDS on placards. At the end of the march, Cleve and others stood on ladders and taped the numerous placards to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building. When completed, the wall looked like a patchwork quilt. Inspired by this sight, Cleve and his friends made plans for a larger memorial. A little over a year later, he created the first panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of his friend Marvin Feldman. In 1987, the NAMES Project Foundation was formally organized.
Response to the quilt was immediate and people from several large cities that were most affected by AIDS began sending quilt panels to the San Francisco workshop. The project has grown and now thirty-six countries have contributed panels to the quilt.
Today, there are 34.3 million people worldwide living with AIDS (17.3 million men, 15.7 million women, and 1.3 million children under the age of fifteen). More than half of those infected are not being treated. An alarming amount of HIV-positive women do not even know that they are infected.
The quilt is a powerful, visual reminder of the AIDS epidemic. There are more than 44,000 panels. Each panel is three feet by six feet -- the size of an adult grave -- and commemorates the life of someone who has died of AIDS. Sadly, this vast number of panels represents only a very small percentage of those who have died from AIDS.
If laid end to end, the three-by-six-foot panels would span fifty miles. Side by side, the panels would completely cover sixteen football fields, totaling more than 792,000 square feet. The whole quilt weighs more than fifty tons.
The last viewing of the entire quilt was in October 1996 in Washington, D.C. The quilt spanned the entire length of the Mall, from the Capitol Building to the Lincoln Memorial. Because the epidemic continues to claim more lives, and more panels are made, the quilt has grown too large to display in its entirety. Although there are no plans for future displays of the entire quilt, the planners are dedicated to displaying as much of the quilt as possible around the world so that more people can experience it.
According to research by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, an average of at least one American under the age of twenty-two becomes infected with HIV every hour of every-day. Twenty-five percent of the forty thousand Americans who are newly infected with the HIV virus every year are thirteen to twenty-one years old. The majority of these young people are infected by sexual contact.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 733,374 cases and 430,441 deaths reported through December 1999 in the U.S. alone. The mission of the NAMES Project is "to use the AIDS Memorial Quilt to help bring an end to the AIDS epidemic." Its goals are to provide a creative means for remembrance and healing, to illustrate the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, to increase public awareness of AIDS, to assist with HIV prevention education, and to raise funds for community-based AIDS service organizations. The project has raised more than $3 million to date.
The AIDS quilt has redefined the tradition of quilt making. It is a memorial, a tool for education. It is a healing response to the tragic loss of human life.
For more information, please visit the AIDS Memorial Quilt Web site at www.aidsquilt.org.
Copyright © 2002 by kathy Lamancusa
|Chapter 1||Sharing Special Moments|
|The Double-Wedding Ring Quilt||21|
|Too Cool for a Quilt||26|
|Going Back in Time||30|
|A Broken Cup||35|
|To Be Remembered||39|
|The Patchwork Footstool||43|
|Necessity or Passion?||47|
|Sunshine and Shadows||49|
|The Bandana Quilts||52|
|Love for Louisa||55|
|Succeeding Against the Odds||58|
|Chapter 2||Heirloom Memories|
|The Wedding Quilt: A Tradition of Comfort||65|
|Seasons of Time||70|
|The Quilt That Never Was||80|
|Under the Quilt Frame||87|
|Mount Pelee, Martinique, 1902||90|
|The Pioneer Spirit||94|
|Remembering the Lessons||96|
|Works of the Heart||98|
|Chapter 3||Gift Giving|
|Patches of Love||103|
|Wrapped in Hands of Love||109|
|Grandma's Memory Quilt||112|
|Blessed Be the Thread That Binds||115|
|A Special Gift||120|
|Leslie's Healing Quilt||122|
|Stitched Together with Love||126|
|The Fruitful Tree of Life||130|
|Chapter 4||Language of Quilts|
|A Long Way Home||135|
|Dreams of Peace||141|
|A Personal Patchwork||145|
|The Day God Called You Home||154|
|The Heart of the Matter||159|
|The Magic Quilt||167|
|Sustained by a Thread||169|
|Threads of Time||175|
|Heaven's New Star||178|
|The E-Chat Friendship Quilt||181|
|Chapter 5||Unexpected Surprises|
|Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder||187|
|The Garage Sale||190|
|Significant in the Life of a Child||193|
|The Mystery of the Missing Sunbonnet Sue||195|
|The Littlest Granddaughter||200|
|Stitches in Time||203|
|The Postcard "Name" Quilt||208|
|My Quilting Lesson||212|
|The Secret Garden||217|
|Contributor Earned Designations||231|
|About the Author||235|
|Information on Submitting Stories, Receiving E-Male Newsletters, and Booking Live Presentations||236|