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Creative Patchwork

A quilter finds a creative way to use her craft to reconnect with her estranged father.
Jill Wolpert
Credit: Jeff Schultz /SchultzPhoto.com

I sat on the sofa, coffee in hand, and flipped on the morning news. Anything to distract myself from the gnawing worry.

Or maybe it was sheer disbelief. What on earth was I thinking? A few days earlier I’d impulsively offered to fly all the way across the country to Florida for my dad’s eightieth birthday. Sure, 80 was a milestone, but my dad and I didn’t even like each other.

I hadn’t seen him in years. We hadn’t had a heart-to-heart since…well, had we ever had a heart-to-heart?

Actually, I knew exactly why I’d offered to fly to Florida. Same old Jill, hoping this time I’d manage to please him. I was 52 years old, for heaven’s sake! I had a husband and two grown kids of my own.

Yet it was as if I’d never left that little house in Bay Shore, New York, where every evening Dad came home grumpy and exhausted from the auto-body shop and I made sure to stay out of his way.

I couldn’t honestly say whether he loved me. Every so often I tried some extravagant gesture, only to fail. This time I’d made arrangements to fly to Daytona Beach and surprise him with a fancy dinner out with my mother, my uncle and his wife.

Not only had I set myself up for failure, now I was on the hook for a gift! What do you get the man who never wanted anything from you in the first place?

I thought back bitterly over the years. All my life the word family meant one thing: stress. When I was very little Dad went into business for himself, opening the auto-body shop. When I was five the shop nearly went bankrupt. We lost our house and moved in with Mom’s parents.

Dad worked like crazy to bring the business back and Mom just about went crazy too. She didn’t get along with her mother and there we were, all piled on top of one another.

My older sister rebelled and spent all her time with her friends. I was the shy one. I holed up in whatever quiet room I could find and played a little chord organ that we had.

Then I got into studying grasshoppers and butterflies. I made a net out of one of Mom’s old stockings and started a collection. The beauty of the butterflies comforted me.

The constant refrain of my childhood was Mom warning us, “Don’t bother your father.” He wasn’t tall but he was built like a football player and, boy, did he have a temper! Any time I was bad his thick hand drew back to spank me. When he talked to me it was mostly to correct me.

Right after I went off to college he and Mom sold their house (the body shop eventually made money and we moved out of my grandparents’) and decamped to Florida. It was like they couldn’t wait to be done as parents.

The final break came when I was 25, pregnant with our son. We’d had a daughter two years before and, just as I’d expected, Mom and Dad didn’t think much of my parenting. “You’re too permissive,” Mom would chide.

One day on a visit I dared to disagree and Dad confronted me. “Don’t you ever disrespect your mother like that!” he thundered. Shaken, I walked out, vowing never to speak to them again.

The coffee had grown cold. I swirled it around in the cup and sighed. What was I going to do? I’d already bought the plane ticket. I needed a gift. But what?

Go get the quilt. The voice spoke calmly and clearly. Startled, I looked around. The morning news hosts chatted away. California sun shone through the window–we were living in San Jose at the time, close to my husband’s work.

Suddenly I remembered. Ages ago, in yet another ill-advised attempt at a peace offering, I’d begun sewing a quilt for Dad. I loved quilting and all things crafty. I’d set the quilt aside pretty quickly. He wouldn’t appreciate it anyway, I’d told myself. “Do I even still have it?” I wondered aloud now.

I got up and walked to the bedroom. Deep in the closet were my plastic quilt-storage bins. I rifled through one. My breath caught. There, near the bottom, were several partial sections of quilt. I pulled them out and ran my fingers over them. Was this what the voice meant?

Well, I didn’t have any better ideas. What if it was God nudging me to make this quilt? I gathered the pieces and studied them.

Gradually it came back to me. I’d decided to make this quilt using a repeating pattern of squares and triangles that ends up looking like rows of open monkey wrenches. Perfect for a mechanic, right?

How else could I personalize it? I looked online for embroidery patterns and quickly found one called Mourning Cloak. A butterfly. Mourning cloaks–Nymphalis antiopa–were the first species I ever collected. They were beautiful–mahogany wings bordered with bright blue dots and a yellow stripe.

Suddenly my heart leaped with a memory. I’d brought a mourning cloak caterpillar home and raised it until it turned into a butterfly. That day, totally unexpectedly, Dad took me to meet Augie Schmitt, a professional butterfly collector in a nearby town.

I’d ended up working in Augie’s shop. He’d taught me everything I knew about insects. I always considered his shop a refuge from home. And yet–it had been Dad who brought me there!

I found another butterfly pattern, Tiger Swallowtail. Another memory engulfed me. I was 12, at home one humid summer day. Dad called from the shop. “Get down here,” he rumbled. I pedaled over in terror on my bike, certain I was going to catch it for something.

“Look in my office,” Dad said when I arrived. There, inside a jar on his desk, was a gorgeous tiger swallowtail, a black-and-yellow beauty every butterfly collector yearns for. “I found it trapped in a customer’s car,” Dad said gruffly. “Thought you might like it.”

I stitched butterflies onto the quilt –mourning cloak, tiger swallowtail, Papilio ulysses from Australia. My childhood bedroom had been lined with so many lovely butterflies. I’d taken all that beauty with me when I left home. Now I could give some of it back.

I embroidered a bee because once, when I was away at college, Dad had actually added a few words in his own handwriting to a letter Mom sent. “Daddy says BEHAVE!” he wrote.

That was a joke. Any time my sister and I left the house he always barked, “Behave!” I didn’t need to add -have to the bee. He’d get it.

Finally it was time to choose the quilt’s backing. I drove to the fabric store praying I’d find the right thing. As soon as I saw a big bolt of cotton printed with a sheet-music pattern I stopped, remembering the one thing I’d been able to do to make Dad happy.

As he flopped into his chair exhausted from work I’d sit at my organ and play for him. He never said anything but I knew he liked it. He’d have told me to stop otherwise. I pictured his thickset body, his big, grease-stained hands–and I felt an overwhelming rush of love.

Oh, Daddy! I wanted to cry. You did love me. You just never knew how to say it.

I went home and finished the quilt, sewing the last stitch the day before my flight. My uncle and I had planned the visit as a total surprise. I arrived in Daytona, drove to my parents’ house and parked outside.

I called them on my cell phone to make them think I was still in California, then walked to the front door and knocked. They practically fell over when they saw me!

“I’m taking you out for dinner,” I said. At the restaurant all I could think about was the quilt. We returned to their house. The big moment had arrived. I could hardly breathe.

“Happy birthday, Daddy,” I said, bringing out the quilt.

Dad didn’t say a word. Was he surprised? Indifferent? I put the quilt in his calloused hands. He felt the fabric. He peered at the design. I told him what everything meant, how God had led me to each part of the design meant perfectly for him. “Remember the time…?” I kept saying.

All the while a smile slowly spread across his face, as if a lifetime were spooling through his mind. He held the quilt close and whispered, “This is mine.” He looked at me a long time, tears trickling down his cheeks. In his same old gruff voice he murmured, “I love you, baby. Thank you.”

I wiped away my own tears. “I love you too, Daddy.”

The funny thing is, Daddy and I never had to come out and say, “I forgive you.” The quilt did that for us, reminding us both of the love that had always been there between us. I don’t dwell on the lost years or ask what could have been.

Instead, Daddy and I talk all the time. I always pour myself a cup of coffee before I call him and I sit on the sofa, making believe we’re right next to each other. There’s so much to say. A lifetime of love to catch up on.

I suppose forgiveness is a little like a butterfly. Even when it seems impossible, as lifeless as a dry brown chrysalis, that’s when it’s preparing to burst forth in new and beautiful life.

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