Graceland

The first thing we did after our unwanted move, after the fire, was build it. A fifteen by twenty foot box on stilts with transom windows and a wine-sipping deck. After the fire, after the move, before the cancer, we had two months of innocence, so we built it. We christened it Graceland.

Grace was a quilter, which, to the uninitiated, might sound like I’m telling you that she had a hobby. Ha! To put it in perspective, Miles Davis played a horn, and Picasso liked to color. Grace was a quilter.

Like many passionate artists, she earned just enough money at it to keep her doing laundry at the B&B, but she actually was a professional quilter with clients in every corner of the country, and a guaranteed yearlong backlog. For those who appreciated quality, she was worth the wait.

With her vision of a dedicated space finally a reality, her first quilting studio instead of a spare bedroom or dining room table, she then began to furnish it. First, of course, was a new long-arm quilting machine. She chose the 12-foot APQS Millennium, her dream machine. Her previous one had been in a room untouched by the fire, but the firefighters had pumped tens of thousands of gallons into the building. That day and for the next few weeks, the temperature had hovered around zero, so her faithful long-arm was encased in solid ice. She specifically asked the insurance inspector, and he proclaimed it totaled, so Grace put out the word that anyone with a big enough truck and a blowtorch could have it for free. Montanans are resourceful people.

She then needed some storage, which gave her an excuse to comb through every antique and second-hand shop within twenty miles, but she came up empty-handed. Then she found an intriguing item on craigslist. We had to drive an hour to get there, but for Grace it was like she had stumbled into Willy Wonka’s factory. These two old guys, two bachelor brothers, had worked shoulder to shoulder as school janitors for forty years. When they retired, they bought an abandoned elementary school, and then started filling it with school and office furniture that they would buy in batches. Every desk and chair from a school that was upgrading, every cupboard and cabinet from a failed business. Room by room, the old school was the Costco of used furniture. We made the trip three times.

She found what she needed. Some panels of slat board with hooks, an 8-foot solid oak library table, and an entire law office’s set of solid birch tambour front cabinets. She bought every one they had. She also fell in love with a monstrosity of a wall unit, which she agreed to buy when they agreed to deliver it and all the rest. It was 12 feet long and 4 feet high, made of solid mahogany. It sat in the carport for a year until I took a chainsaw to it and put it out with the garbage, a few pieces each week.

With the addition of her many specialty tools, her countless cones of thread, and the thousands of yards of fabric that had taken her a lifetime to gather, her dream studio became a reality. We hung one of those carved wooden signs you can get at gift shops over her machine. It said, “Amazing Grace.”

Later, when she was too sick to quilt, I put a recliner out there so Grace could lie back and dream about the unfulfilled promise of Graceland.

Grace loved me with all her heart, more than anything, more than everything. I say that with astonishment and gratitude, but I also know she had other loves, other people, and one thing more. No, not quilting. She puzzled over quilts, labored over quilts, and drooled over other people’s quilts. If she couldn’t be with me, but otherwise had a choice, she would quilt. She enjoyed quilting, but she didn’t love it. What she loved with a visceral, lustful passion was the raw material of quilts. She loved fabric.

We’re not talking JoAnne’s or Hancock fabrics here. No acrylics or polyesters, no cheap, thin, soulless piece of cloth. She loved the heavy, 100% cotton, hand-dyed or batikked, $15-a-yard, special collections kind of fabric. She loved the feel of it, she loved the smell of it, and most of all, she loved the look of it. Her studio looked like a rainbow had exploded.

She leaned heavily toward warm tones and autumn colors, but sometimes craved purples, blues, and greens. Paisley, stripes, and polka-dots, leaves and feathers, bear and moose, tomatoes and potatoes, anything that had ever been printed on fabric, she had it, and probably in multiple colors. She filled Graceland with bolts, and stacks, and boxes of the finest fabric on the planet.

After Grace died, it was weeks before I could bring myself to open the door, but I had to, if only to see if a family of squirrels was making a nest in the fabric. It was another few weeks more before I actually entered to walk around, to gather the dirty coffee mugs, scattered food wrappers and apple cores. Everything was exactly as she had left it, cluttered and chaotic, unfinished work in progress poised and waiting for her return.

After another six months, I decided to move all of her fabric into the house, partly to protect it (it’s insured for $50,000), partly to look at it, but sadly, also because I had decided to sell it. Grace would hate the thought of all that fabric sitting in the dark, unused and unloved. Better it should go to a good home. But to sell it, I had to display it. I pushed furniture out of the way and set up tables. It filled my living and dining rooms.

I put out the word, and local quilters streamed through, expressing condolences and haggling for better prices. After a few dozen had shopped and hundreds of dollars’ worth had sold, the mountains of fabric looked undiminished. The quilters stopped coming, but I didn’t have the heart to pack it all up and schlep it back to the studio, so I left it there, covered it with bedsheets, and just stopped using those rooms.

Now, six months later, a little more than a year after Grace died, I have found a quilt shop willing to sell it on consignment. I have spent the past week shrink-wrapping bolts and boxing folded pieces. I’ll load it into a trailer and deliver it soon.

I told you the story of Graceland because, if I hadn’t, you wouldn’t have understood. Moving Grace’s fabric out of the house is every bit as difficult as scattering her ashes, which I have not yet done. I have spent hours now, sorting and folding and crying.

I teased her when she bought this one.

I remember the quilt she made from that one.

I sleep every night under the quilt she made from these.

I am keeping some of the fabric, foolishly saying I will someday learn how to make a quilt out of it. But really, I just can’t stand to let it all go, can’t stand to let her go again. How many times, and in how many ways do I have to say goodbye?

So I am now cleaning and organizing Graceland. Grace taught me how to make wool mittens from recycled sweaters, something to sell at holiday craft fairs. I’ve been doing it in the house, but now I’ll move it out there. I’ll also set up a desk and computer. Soon, I’ll be writing from Graceland, in the loving arms of my Muse.

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