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The Miracle Of The Quilt

by Jason Nemrow last modified 2018-03-29 15:43

A short story about a handicapped woman teaching a lesson on charity.

Winter is the sort of season that seems to draw out the deepest emotions. It could be the pleasure of waking to a deep sheet of white snow covering the earth or watching the whitened animals frisk in the crispness. Sometimes, winter brings a deep depression, especially as one who is so accustomed to laboring outdoors and now must stay cooped up inside. Winter also has the ability to humble as storms and blizzards rage, threatening to dismantle all you may have worked so hard to build. When I think of winter, a few particular examples reach out to me and, in their own ways, humble me.

My first wintry recollection is of the weekly chill I developed when forced into some dress, exposing my skinny legs to the poor heating of a humble chapel. Church was a horrible place in my childhood. It seemed to me that Sunday was a perfect opportunity to either sleep or play, but my parents always had other ideas.

Mother was always in my room by 7 o'clock, throwing open the curtains and singing some song about how wonderful the morning was. I almost never agreed. I would lounge about in bed until my mother returned to rush me into clothes and off to the breakfast nook. Sunday morning was always oatmeal, toast, jam, and juice, without fail, come disaster or plague. Both of my parents were the ultimate creatures of habit. I can still see my father, with the sun streaming through the window behind him, reading his newspaper, as he did every morning. I am positive that if you were to be at my parent's home this morning, you would find it just as I have described.

My parents were also quite well-to-do, though they never allowed it to affect them as wealth does so many others. Our home was modest and in a low middle-class section of town. "This is our first home and our last," Dad used to say with a reassuring smile that my mother echoed as she washed the dishes or laundered the clothes. He might say it twice on bright Sunday mornings like the one I am remembering, and I still feel twinges of the sourness I felt then.

I found my parents utterly foolish. I had friends that, in my mind, had income equal to my father's, and they had better clothes and toys and friends than I was permitted. They went to elite private schools, but I was sent to the local public school which was in a poor part of town. They went to summer camps with other children of the well-to-do, but I stayed home in the summer with my parents and was forced to associate with neighborhood children that were rude, crude and completely unkempt. The neighbor children, knowing all too well my situation, would often taunt and ask, "Why don't you buy some better friends?" They never knew just how much I wished I could. I wanted so much to be a rich kid and do rich kid things, and I hated my parents at times for preventing me. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to be haughty.

In their never-ending desire to keep our family modest and humble, my parents chose to go to the church that they had both grown up in. Mom spoke in deeply religious tones of how Dad and she had fallen in love with each other at one church group activity, been married by the very pastor that led the congregation today, and would never even consider going anywhere else for worship. This also infuriated me as a child, for our church was the sort that sought out the poor and needy to bring them to God. I wanted to be in the church on the highest hill in town where all of the influential people came and heard sermons on how God made some people rich because they deserved it. In that church, the people were all beautiful and no one who was dirty and poor was allowed and you had to put at least ten dollars in the collection plate to prove that you belonged there. I often saw Dad slip a pile of twenty dollar bills in the donation box at the back of our church when no one was looking. He never told anyone and he got very angry on the one occasion that I tried to use that fact to gain the envy of the other kids in Sunday School. In most cases, I did the best I could to be a good daughter, though I sometimes wished I was in a family where my parents behaved normally.

I could have tolerated all these injustices, but there was one more that destroyed me as a child. On our way to church each Sunday, my parents insisted on picking up a poor member of the congregation and bringing them along. This, of itself, was not a bad thing, but that person was one of the most thoroughly disgusting characters I had ever known. Her name was Minnie.

On one occasion, I let slip my feelings about Minnie in front of Dad, and he proceeded to tell me her hard story. Her own parents lived in another town far away and had abandoned her as a five-year-old who didn't seem quite right. The orphanage in our town took her in and gave her a home of sorts. Dad's father, who was also an obnoxiously good person, singled out Minnie and brought her to church every Sunday, a tradition which Dad kept up after his father's death. "We do what Christ would have done," he always said, but this made me feel no better about my situation.

Minnie, as I said before, was a disgusting woman altogether. She was now too old to live in the orphanage and stayed in what could kindly be called the world's largest concrete block, which was surrounded by a decade's worth of debris. She came to our car in one of her two moldy dresses every Sunday, reeking of cheap perfume that vainly tried to cover the smell of filth. I doubt that she had either a washing machine or a functioning bathroom. I always wanted to roll down the window as she entered, since the creature always sat beside me in the back seat, but my parents said it was a cruel thing to do. I did my best to hold my breath until we got to the church parking lot, but I always had to draw in the fetid air at least once, causing nausea to flood over me.

I could have even gotten through those car trips, except that my parents insisted on having Minnie sit with our family during services. During the hymns, she sang too loudly and off-key. During the sermon, she would often blurt out something unintelligible, or she would belch and pass gas. The adults in the congregation would politely ignore her, but the little ones would start giggling and have to be hushed, and the children around my age would turn to look, first at Minnie with disgust, then at me with contempt as I tried to hide beneath the pews. It was bad enough that I had to associate with these low-class children, but it was worse when they thought they were better than I was! No blow could have hurt me deeper.

Sunday School, which followed services, should have been a blessed time as I was able to get away from Minnie for about an hour, but then the taunts began. Word was among my cohorts that Minnie and I were actually sisters and all seemed to expect me to come to church someday smelling of skunk. Jokes about Minnie were constant and I was always associated with her in the punch line. I often left the room early, crying, which just seemed to add to their glee. Teachers for our class seemed to come and go with great frequency as they were not up to the task of battling such evil. I can only remember one woman staying with us for any length of time, and on the particular Sunday I am thinking of, she had given us an assignment.

In my memory, it was the standard cold and slushy winter's Sunday morning, the pretty snow having given way to the grimy, gray wasteland of frozen tire-treads and boot-prints. For me, a gawky-looking girl of fourteen years, the service offered up the regular serving of humiliation as Minnie belched twice and massacred "Rock of Ages." The normal spat of jokes followed in Sunday School, until our hard-nosed teacher announced an assignment, without warning, at the end of class.

The assignment was really quite simple, though I never dreamed it would have such an effect on me. Our teacher had asked us to do something nice for someone we knew. It was really a small thing, which I could have done without anyone knowing, but my mother insisted on knowing what the lesson was about that day. My mother knew a wonderful learning experience when she saw one and immediately took over the project. In a short hour, this little assignment had blossomed into a mission of sorts. We were going to make a quilt to give away to someone.

I must report that I am not now a quilter, and I was much less a quilter at the tender age of fourteen. I labored for four weeks on what we began to call "the masterpiece," and my mother spent many a late night over the following four weeks repairing the damage. When the last stitch was made, it really was quite a nice quilt, but I believe the final product was the result of my mother's expert hand applied to cloth that I had mindlessly pieced together. It was one of the few things that both my mother and I participated in and enjoyed doing together.

When we had begun the project, Mom had not revealed her plan fully. For about a week, the quilt was displayed in the front room for my parents and various guests. We received some very nice compliments, which made it all the more difficult when my mother revealed her true intent. She wanted me to give the quilt away, but that was not the worst part. She wanted me to give the quilt--my quilt--to Minnie.

I frowned and shifted in the seat beside my mother as we drove to Minnie's house, wanting somehow to disappear into the cloth. In my lap was the quilt, which, in a fit of ungodly pride, I had quickly sewed my name onto. I knew that was not proper, for Mom had carefully explained to me that we are blessed more abundantly for the gift given in secret. I really didn't care; this was the best thing I had done thus far, and I would get credit for it, no matter what. The drive seemed much shorter than normal, as I looked up at the stars and tried to make sense of all the things my mother and my father seemed to find so important. I had not even had a good chance to collect my thoughts when Mom stopped the car about a block from Minnie's concrete block shack.

The snow crunched loudly under my boots as I frowned even harder. Mom had planned for me to sneak the box onto the front porch and ring the doorbell, then steal away into some nearby bushes, where she would be waiting. The snow would surely crack as I crept forward and Minnie might detect me. What would she do? Would she run to me and plant some putrid, blacktoothed kiss on me? Or, would she angrily drag me back into her alleged house and do something too disgusting to even consider? These thoughts made my skin crawl. I tried to walk carefully and the noise of my passage seemed to lessen somewhat.

Mom picked out her observation spot and I swallowed hard against my fear. She almost pushed me out into the open and there was nothing else to do but go forward. I picked my way around piles of junk that seemed to grow out of her tiny front yard instead of grass. My trail took me by a grimy window and I caught a glimpse of Minnie's silhouette against the glare of the television set, the only thing lighting her front room. She seemed to be eating something, and I forced myself not to contemplate the contents of the tin can that reflected the pulsating light. I finally reached the door and began to search around for a doorbell. The light of the flickering TV did nothing to help as it stole through cracks in the doorframe and kept my eyes from adjusting to the blackness. I was probably right to assume that there was no doorbell, so I gave up the search. Putting down the package, I rapped loudly on the door and sprang away as quickly as I could, tripping over some debris in my flight.

Minnie must have had wonderful reflexes, for I barely reached the bushes when she flipped on the yellow porch light and ripped the door open. Her face looked angry in the eerie light, as if this kind of interruption happened often and was unwelcome. She looked in both directions down the street, curled up her lip, shook her head, and prepared to shut the door. Just then, she noticed the box and opened her door wider. She looked at it suspiciously, as if it might contain something sinister, and then I thought back to all those plans the kids in Sunday School made to pull tricks on the "creature," so I couldn't blame her for being wary. She took a stick that was propped by the side of the house, and poked at the box until she was satisfied that it wouldn't explode. She maneuvered the stick around and down, prying the lid of the box and revealing the quilt to the bland light.

Minnie got a very strange look on her face as she hooked a corner of the spread with her stick and brought it out. She looked down into the now empty package for any lingering surprises and then marched the quilt, still dangling suspiciously from the stick, into the house. With the door slammed behind her, I was left to that "good feeling" I was supposed to have for doing a good deed. There was no such good feeling, as I crouched there in the bushes, waiting for a "thank you" or an "it's beautiful" to pass her wretched lips. My reward seemed to be just a slammed door and an extinguished light that plunged me back into darkness.

The next week, as Minnie came with us to church and sat with us, she gave no indication that anything had happened. I thought that since my name was stitched in a very bright pink on one corner of the quilt, she would have surely noticed it and said something. Instead, she just sang off-key, passed gas, and made me the laughing-stock yet again in Sunday School. I didn't even have the pleasure of telling about my good deed in class, for that teacher had already joined the ranks of "those who couldn't stand the heat," and some other woman was trying desperately to teach us something. The injustice was almost too much.

Winters and years seem to pass by so quickly, and I find it difficult to believe that I actually survived my teen years. I continued to try and be the "good girl" everyone was sure I was, and I thought I had turned out to be the good woman that my parents had always hoped for. I joyously fled home at eighteen and went to a very prestigious college out-of-state, which I thought I would never be able to do given my parent's thrift. I met a young man who came from an affluent family and finally fulfilled my dream of becoming "one of the rich folks on the hill." My husband is a lawyer of good reputation, and I spend my time being the dutifully social wife. I very much thought I had accomplished my life's desire I had become quite haughty and I loved it.

We moved back to my hometown, probably due to my parent's unending training that we should always give back to the community that raised us. My husband set up a practice, and I did what a rich woman did that had too much time on her hands; I went to work for a local charity. With the money I was paid to administer over a housing program, I was able to have a nice car, a separate bank account, and some very stylish clothes. I also had an open invitation to every award dinner and social event in the county. When I first returned, I was surprised at how everyone remembered me in such a glowing way. It seemed that I was charmed. Even before I rose to prominence in the agency I worked for, I was being showered with awards and honors, which I began to feel was undeserved. The head of the agency "knew" I would replace her, and, in not too many years, I did just that in a seemingly effortless way. Sometimes, I felt that I was being mistaken for someone else, someone who had done some wonderful thing in the past. On occasion, I thought to ask someone what I had done to deserve all this, but I'm sure they would think I was joking and would not even venture an honest answer. Many times, I was really too busy enjoying my position and prestige in life to care how I had earned it.

The unexpected knock at my door came on a cold, wintry night during this part of my life. I was not expecting visitors that evening and my husband was away on business. We lived in a very nice part of town, so I was not particularly afraid to answer the door, but some chill seemed to catch me, as if something fateful was happening. I opened the door with a smile, but no one was standing on my porch. I looked up one side of the street and down the other, but I could not see who could have rung the bell. Just as I was closing the door, I noticed a dirty, openfaced box on the step. I looked again up and down the street, the hair on the back of my neck seeming to rise a little, fate breathing behind me. I craned my neck to see its contents, and folded neatly inside was a quilt.

Once I got back inside, I spread the quilt out on the floor, not knowing quite what to make of it. It looked so very familiar, and when I finished smoothing it, I couldn't be mistaken. My maiden name was stitched erratically in one corner. Was this the quilt I had left at Minnie's house fifteen years before?

At first glance, I thought it was the original, but I noticed that the color scheme was all wrong. This was not the material I had pieced together. The stitching looked very much like my mother's, but it was becoming obvious that this was a copy of the quilt my mother and I had produced so many years before. I was completely baffled as to who would do this, and why? I scooped up the quilt and ran outside.

My neighbor must have been put aback when she answered my knock at her door. There I was in my night clothes and robe, with a quilt over my arm, looking a bit confused. If it would have been me, I would have recommended her to a good counselor that I know, but she just smiled broadly and said she already had one of my quilts which had come the night before, thanked me for the nice gift, and closed the door. I was even more baffled than before. I went back to my own house and tried to work out the puzzle. What was happening here? I determined that I needed more evidence to unravel this mystery, so I decided to return to the last place I have seen the quilt I had helped to make so long ago.

Minnie's concrete block house had not changed much in the fifteen years that had passed. Rusty junk still cluttered the yard and I felt the return of familiar pangs of disgust and fear that I had left behind long ago. I must have been flustered because I had neglected to change clothes--I was still going about in a night-gown and robe! I found myself at the bushes where my mother and I had hid on that night, and I must say that on this occasion, I felt pushed again to go forward.

This time, the television set was not on, nor even in sight. Light blazed from the window that was now so encrusted with grime that I had to take a dirty rag from a nearby pile to scrub the glass sufficiently to see inside. The sight was a wonder to behold.

Minnie did not seem to have changed at all. Her face looked unwashed and she still wore the dumpy clothes that were a step below her Sunday best. The wonder to me was the work set out around her. It was difficult to see the walls inside the house because they were obscured by frames that kept quilts, in various states of construction, taut and ready for the needle. Minnie herself was hunched over one that was up on stands, squinting and carefully passing the needle up and down in small, even stitches. On the floor close to the window where I peered in, the pieces of our original quilt were laid out, carefully picked apart, and used as a pattern for the nearly twenty quilts that were slowly being fashioned by this grotesque beast of a woman. I was discovering some new facts, but they were not fitting together in my mind as yet.

As I peeped inside I found that Minnie worked on each quilt as her fancy drove her, some completed and in grimy boxes, others just beginning, and a majority somewhere in between. She stitched for a few minutes longer, but then seemed to lose interest in what she was doing. She carefully lifted the frame from the stands and propped it against a blank section of wall, took up a box with a finished quilt, and headed for the outside door.

I panicked for a moment and managed to crouch behind one junk pile as Minnie, with a waddling shuffle, left the yard and began her trek into the night.

I left the car where I had parked it and decided to follow her on foot. She took a meandering route, sometimes down a now-deserted main road, and at other times, down an alley that gave me the shivers just thinking about what kind of evil might be lurking in wait. She seemed oblivious to everything around her, but I kept ever vigilant as I sought out danger in every corner and nook.

Minnie's march was halted only by the cry of two old men squeezed together in a doorway, trying to shield themselves from the cold with yesterday's newspaper. An unsteady light swung above them as a gust of wind tore through the alley, scattering their meager protection. Minnie looked down on them, and without changing her expression, she dropped the box she had been holding, lifted out the quilt, and draped it over the two men. Then she turned around, almost mechanically, and began walking back the way she had come.

I had to duck away quickly to avoid being seen, and I stayed down until Minnie had turned a corner in making her way toward her home. I slowly rose and looked blankly at where she had been. The pieces of information that my mind had been collecting were still not quite coming together, as if I didn't have the ability to grasp how they fit. The two men began to tussle over the blanket, one not being enough to cover them both. I absentmindedly turned to face them and one caught sight of the quilt I had forgotten that I had been holding the entire evening. He yelled out to me and it seemed like I could do nothing else but hand over the quilt into his shaky, frigid hands. Both men began to thank me profusely for the kindness, but I turned my back on them and made my way back to my own car. Hugging my robe close, I suddenly realized how foolish I must have looked.

From that night to this, I have searched for the lesson that I began to learn on that cold night. It seems to come to me a little at a time, until now it is a rich and sometimes painful realization. Up until that night, the greatest thing I had ever done was be persuaded to give a blanket to a dirty wretch. When I did it, I didn't have an ounce of kindness or compassion in my heart, but it truly was my best act. I often become angry with myself for not accomplishing something better.

The miracle of the quilt is how Minnie, a woman I despised, had turned the selfish act of a prideful teenager into an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of our Savior. I found out later that Minnie had made thousands of quilts over the years, each one patterned after the one I had given her, and had placed them on the doorsteps and draped them over the cringing forms of nearly everyone in town, rich or poor. When all of those people credited me for being so generous, it was Minnie all the time. It should have been Minnie at all of those award dinners, not me; but then I think that for all the miraculous things Christ had done for man, he was scourged and nailed to a cross.

As I have thought more deeply, I also regret the many years that I pompously ignored those Sunday sermons, worried more about how I would look to others and how disgusted I was with Minnie. All the time, she was drinking in words and taking the teachings of Christ truly to heart.

I cannot say that my heart changed that night in the alley, but it marked the beginning. The following year, I often crept behind Minnie as she did her nightly acts of kindness. I even got into the habit of leaving boxes of fabric and thread on her doorstep and watching with joy as she readily turned them into quilts for others. I vainly hoped for a time that this would do for my penance, but I was wrong.

The next winter, work took me away for a few weeks from following Minnie. When I returned, she was gone. After some inquiries, I found that she had died in an alley, stabbed by some evil man who thought she had something he needed. I suppose that man saw something on her that he could take; but more valuable than a simple quilt, Minnie had something within her that no one could steal.

I made arrangements and had her buried in a plot that my parents had reserved for me, which seemed quite appropriate. In spite of her problems and handicaps, Minnie had managed to become the kind of woman that I should have been. As I worked with the funeral home, I realized that I didn't have any of the information the monument people needed for the headstone, so finally, I settled on marking her passing with what I did know of her: "Minnie, Daughter of God."

That graveside service was the first sermon I had heard in years. The pastor preached about a better and kinder place, where there is love and acceptance and where there is no pain or ailment. At one point, when he spoke of peace, I could picture only Minnie in her cramped home, steadily stitching; and when he spoke of heaven, I was back in that tiny, chilly church, sitting beside Minnie, smiling and holding her hand. I left her grave with wet eyes, a full heart, and, in time, a burning desire to end up in that heavenly place where she is.

Since her death, I have struggled to take up where Minnie left off. I have worked diligently on the quilts she had left unfinished, but I find I am not able to do the job. My mother, feeling in some way my frustration and grief, pieced the original quilt back together carefully and now it hangs in a special place in my home--a constant reminder of opportunities lost, then hopefully found. When I kneel beside my bed at night, look up at that quilt, and pray, I think I can see our Savior on his throne, and Minnie at his side, smiling down at me and forgiving me for every evil thought I harbored against her.

It is my hope that Mom and I can get together this winter, when the snow has just fallen and is so beautiful to behold, and finish the quilts. I also hope that I will be able to find a few concrete block houses with doorsteps waiting. And perhaps, in one of those houses, there will be a wretched soul who has had Christian charity shown to them by people like my parents, and find in that gift the desire to follow in Christ's footsteps.

But, maybe, if I work and love hard enough, behind one of those doors, I will find me.


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