Clare couldn’t stand the quiet at dinner. Why wasn’t anyone talking about him? Did they think about him every minute, as she did? Clare got a terrible feeling she was going to cry and there was nothing she could do about it. It seemed impossible to fill up the hole someone left when they died.
“Clare, why don’t you go upstairs until you feel better,” her mother suggested.
“Yeah, Clare,” her brother said. “You’re not the only one who feels bad.”
“Well, you don’t act like you even care.”
“Oh, Clare,” Aunt Nettie sighed. Her eyes looked sad, twisted by wrinkles that tried to close them up.
Clare was glad to get away from the table. She lay down on her bed and tried to picture herself walking with her grandpa, the way they had every summer night after dinner. He would walk fast, talking all the time. And then he’d sing, loud schmaltzy songs that embarrassed Clare but gave her a secret pleasure. They’d pass a neighbor’s house here and there, and watch the lights come on as darkness came down through the trees. By the time they’d get home, stars would be out and crickets would be singing all over.
“In the city, a light in the window gets lost,” Grandpa would say. “But in the country, it really means something. Every light looks important, like a bright star that dropped down to rest among the trees.”
Aunt Nettie opened the door a crack. “Clare,” she said, “I’ve got a job I want you to help me with.”
“What is it?” Clare sat up, realizing she had been asleep.
“I want you to help me cut up your grandpa’s shirts.” Nettie turned on the light. “For a quilt I’ve been wanting to make.”
“I don’t want to cut up his shirts.” Clare grabbed for the box under Nettie’s arm. “Why can’t we just leave them? Put them away somewhere?”
Nettie was silent for a moment. “I’d like you to help me make a quilt,” she said, sitting down on the bed. “That’s something you and I could do together this summer.”
“I don’t think so. Thanks anyway, Aunt Nettie.”
The next day Clare was drawn to the guest room by the quiet, methodical slice of scissors. Seeing Nettie there made it seem like Grandpa might walk in at any moment. They had always come to visit together. Nettie was cutting up a blue striped shirt. Clare had to smile, remembering Grandpa in that shirt, sneaking her a piece of candy after Nettie had said, “Absolutely not!”
“Sit down,” Nettie invited. The floor on either side of her was piled with long strips of fabric, light colors on one side, dark colors on the other.
“All those shirts,” Clare sighed, seating herself on the floor by one of the piles. She tried to picture Grandpa in every one of them at once. A blue work shirt seemed alive with his long, tanned hands as they searched the shadows of his garden, his whole face smiling when he brought up the first carrots and tossed them to Clare.
On a moleskin shirt, she could imagine flecks of sawdust as Grandpa bent to his workbench, sanding a birdhouse and testing the finish with his palm, over and over. Clare sniffed the limp sleeve, delighted to find a trace of that fresh wood smell. But she mostly felt sad watching those shirts come away from the scissors in long ribbons of blue, white, brown.
“A quilt is a wonderful thing, Clare.” Nettie stopped cutting. Then her head bent to work again. “There’s a story in every one. Somebody put in every stitch, and they thought a thought for every one of those stitches—sometimes humming, sometimes laughing or crying, sometimes just dreaming. There,” she said, the last shirt slipping through her fingers. “Tomorrow we set to piecing.”
Clare found Nettie at work early the next morning. “What are those for?” Clare asked, noticing a new pile of small yellow squares.
“They go in the center of each block. That’s how the pattern goes.” Nettie picked up a yellow square and stitched it to a blue strip. Then another strip went on, and another. The block grew. Nettie rocked and stitched. Her old alarm clock ticked.
Grandpa would never have chosen yellow, Clare thought. It would get dirty too fast. Grandpa had worked hard. He was the only man Clare knew who could wear down a shovel.
As the days went by, the piles of strips became a little smaller. First there were five blocks, then ten.
“Set them together and see how they look,” Nettie said one morning, handing the finished blocks to Clare.
Clare played with the blocks. They were kind of like a puzzle. As the colored strips came together, they raced across the blocks like railroad tracks. Clare and Grandpa had walked along the tracks a lot, collecting things. He collected anything he came across—rocks, songs, lighted windows, even people. Grandpa had a friend wherever he went.
Nettie held up a strip for Clare to examine. “Now that was your grandpa’s favorite shirt,” she said, laughing. “He always thought he looked so fine in that shirt. ‘Nettie,’ he’d say, ‘it’s a crime for anyone to look as handsome as I do.’”
Clare laughed. “Some of these work shirts are pretty faded,” she said, fingering the fabric. “They might not look very good.”
“Won’t matter,” Nettie said flatly. “That’s one reason I chose this pattern. Every little piece doesn’t matter. It’s how they all work together that makes the quilt come alive.”
Aunt Nettie was always wanting to teach you a lesson. Grandpa had just talked for fun, about everything.
“What pattern is it?” Clare asked. She knew Nettie was waiting with the answer.
“Log cabin,” Nettie said. “There’s a name for every pattern and a reason for the name. Look at the way those strips go round and round. Don’t they remind you of a log cabin? It’s had that name for a long, long time. The men built the cabins, but it must’ve been the women who made them warm inside. With their quilts,” Nettie added. She smiled at Clare’s arrangement of blocks. “There, that’s not so hard, is it?”
“I guess not,” Clare said. She tried to picture the finished quilt. “But I’ll leave the stitching to you, Aunt Nettie.”
One day when the strips were nearly gone, Nettie called Clare.
“Ninety-nine blocks and one to go,” she announced. “That one’s for you to do.”
“Oh, Aunt Nettie,” Clare complained. “It will look so much better if you do it.”
“Nonsense,” Nettie said, handing Clare a spool of thread. “You’re going to put in one block of this quilt, Clare, if it kills us both. Your grandpa would’ve been proud of you.”
Clare tried to follow Nettie’s instructions. Her stitches looked big and wobbly, but the block did grow. It took her most of the afternoon to finish, with Nettie rocking patiently all the time.
Clare’s brother poked his head in. “The little homemaker,” he said. “What a sweet picture.”
“You look out, buster,” Nettie said, shaking her scissors, “or I’ll set you to piecing with her. You wouldn’t be the first man to make a quilt. Your grandpa put in a stitch or two in his day!”
“He did?” Clare laughed with her brother. “Imagine Grandpa quilting!”
“You bet he did,” Nettie went on. “He’d sit and work with me at night sometimes. But you should have seen how fast he could get it put away if he heard someone coming up the drive!”
They all laughed.
“Finished,” Clare said. “Block one hundred. It’s a good thing I didn’t do them all. I’d have been a hundred before they got finished!”
“Look at all those yellow squares,” Nettie said, laying out the blocks. “Do you like it?”
“I guess so, sure,” Clare said. “But why did you choose yellow?”
“I told you there’s a reason and a name for every quilt,” Nettie said slowly. “Well, in the log cabin quilt, a red square in the middle of each block stands for the hearth.”
“I think Grandpa would have liked red better,” Clare said.
“Maybe,” Nettie nodded. “But this isn’t his quilt; it’s yours. And a yellow square stands for the light in the window.” She smiled. “I loved him for a long time too, Clare. He was always saying things like that.”
Clare felt warm and somehow lighter. It was as if the sadness had been pushed back a little. Suddenly she couldn’t wait to finish that quilt. She wanted to wrap up in it, to smell it and feel it all around her. She wanted to keep it forever, with its hundred lights and Grandpa smiling through the window of every one. “Aunt Nettie,” she said, “if I practice, could I help you join the blocks?”