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Connections | Magazine

Eight years after my mother died, her friends finished the quilt she started

Even now, her story and theirs continues to unfold, piece by piece.

The writer’s mother, Barbara Jo Chaffee, started making this intricate quilt. After she died, her friends took on the task.Catherine Gorman

When my mother, Barbara, passed away eight Decembers ago, the world lost a treasure. An accomplished physician devoted to her family, she lit up every room. The day after her funeral, while helping my father go through her belongings, I opened a long-untouched closet containing a bounty of quilting supplies. Color-coded fabric bins stacked floor to ceiling, stitching tools, cloth frames, and magnifying lamps — evidence of my mom’s impeccable organizational skills but also a sad reminder of the debilitating stroke that had robbed her of this beloved activity years before she died. “What should we do with it all?” I asked Dad. He paused before replying, “I’ll call Anne.”

Mom had become an avid quilter in her midlife, after she and her colleague Anne decided to join a class. Mom loved the warm community she gained from her new quilting group as well as the challenge of working on a piece. Quilting side by side, she and Anne quickly went from colleagues to great friends.


A few weeks after Mom’s death, Dad and I piled the bins into the car and headed to Maine, meeting Anne halfway between our home and hers. As we transferred our cargo, we shared stories about the woman who’d produced such exquisite works of art but who was also her own toughest critic. We paused on one of the last bins — it contained the pieces of Mom’s final, unfinished project. “Grandmother’s Flower Garden,” Anne reminded us. “It’s one of the hardest quilts to make and the one your mom most wanted to tackle.”

I immediately pictured my mother, stitching under the glow of her quilter’s lamp long after the rest of us had gone to bed, perfecting each stitch. As we lifted that same lamp into Anne’s trunk, she told us: “We will finish this quilt for Barbara. It will be an honor.” Heading back to Massachusetts, my heart was full. Placing Mom’s materials into such devoted hands meant her memory would live on.


I was intrigued when a card arrived from Anne this past December. “It’s finally done!” read the opening line. “It is a wonderful work of art that belongs with the family she cherished.” The enclosed photo brought tears to my eyes, but it was nothing compared to the thing of beauty — eight years in the making — that arrived days later on the anniversary of Mom’s death. It felt surreal holding Grandmother’s Flower Garden in my hands. Knowing that a single flower took over four hours to hand stitch, and the quilt had over 100, I marveled at how much time Anne had lovingly dedicated to finishing what Mom started.

Anne’s accompanying note provided an unexpected epilogue. “I wanted to share some of the wonderful things that happened to Barbara’s fabric,” she wrote, “because as you know, there was a lot of it.” After we’d parted ways, Anne had contacted her quilting group — several of whom helped complete Mom’s quilt — and made sure each received materials to enhance their own projects. A woman unaffiliated with the group had requested fabric donations through a newspaper ad to make dresses for an African orphanage, and Mom’s fabric went to the cause.

And one friend, who’d been in a deep funk after retiring and had parted with all her quilting supplies, had them replenished thanks to my mother’s closet. Inspired, she set about creating eight quilts — one for each of her grandchildren. She’s now been sewing cloth masks for her community in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Mom would’ve been delighted by all the good that continues to flow from her fabric.


As I admired the details of the quilt in my hands, I noticed the label the women had sewn into the bottom back corner. Acknowledging all the contributors to this magnificent production — Mom included — it read: “A Labor of Love, Completed 2019.” Completed, yes, but what an unexpected gift to learn how my mother’s quilting story continues to unfold, piece by piece.


Sue Cuyler is a writer and marketing director in Newton. Send comments to magazine@globe.com. E-mail your 650-word essay on a relationship to connections@globe.com. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.