All I Want for Christmas is a Break in the Spacetime Continuum, or Whatever it Takes to Quilt with the Dead

I dreamt about my dead Nana last night. It was crisp and real and I am shook.

She died April 17, 2002. Just weeks before my college graduation, before my life was full of things I know she would appreciate; a couple degrees, a real job, a nice husband, two children, you know, the things you hope your granddaughter might have.  

There are two types of grandparents – those that enjoy your from afar and those that take you under their wing. She had big, badass wings. She attended Tufts University in the 1940’s and majored in engineering. She met my grandfather there at Tufts in the same major, but he couldn’t hack the math (by his own admission) and switched to English.

She went on to become an engineer and statistician, before mothering three children and becoming First Lady of Vermont when my grandfather’s political career peaked…at 33. I’m over here excited about paying off my 2014 Subaru Outback. It’s easy to feel pale in comparison sometimes.

Her death, like many often are, was not a good death. She wasn’t ready for the lung cancer to win, and we, were in the throes of my parent’s gross and inelegant divorce. We weren’t functioning as human people, more like human cloth, draped over anger. It wasn’t good, add the matriarch’s passing, and all hell broke loose.

At the moment of her passing, I was in Florida with my mom and siblings on a quick vacation. My mom had planned it for a reason I can no longer remember. Which, looking back, seems completely bizarre. We knew she was dying. Treatment had been withdrawn. She was brought back to her own home, her own bed to be made comfortable.

We had just arrived at the hotel, and got the message (this was 2002), there was a small explosion via telephone as my mom and dad tried to speak civil words to each other in negotiating the terms of our return for the funeral. The service was just 3 days after her death, there was no time to waste in getting back to Vermont.

I returned north quickly. I don’t remember much about that day except the earthquake.

In Vermont, on the day of her funeral, there was an earthquake. IN VERMONT. Look it up, April 20, 2002 – 5.1 magnitude. I took it as a sign and wrote a bad poem. A few months later, when I moved to Boston and became an open mic regular at the Cantab Lounge in Cambridge, I was surprised I had to leave the stage in tears, unable to finish the read. Emotions hide in funny places.

My Nana was a gifted knitter, seamstress, quilter. (Yes, I do spend my children’s clothing budget on handmade items and hack away at my own sewing machine, why do you ask?) When I was born, the first of 9 grandchildren, she was only 52 years old. Ready to Nana. I got more attention than I deserved. She taught me how to knit, do needle point, let me eat A LOT of molasses cookies, and made beautiful things for me.

I have a hope chest, handmade by father (we Keysers have a thing with making stuff.) In that chest is the quilt my Nana made for me, with a square reserved for each life event to be crossed-stitched in. (Youths, imagine a Wikipedia page, but in fabric and thread.)

The boarders of each square delicately edged with purple flowers. The center square, a stunning monogram. Alternating squares with simple, but beautiful trees, and bunches of flowers. My favorite were the two pineapples.

Huge, it hung in my childhood bedroom, and filled the whole wall across from my bed. On nights I couldn’t fall asleep (many) I stared at that quilt; running scenarios for each empty square. What would fill it? When?

“I was born May 10, 1980, I lost my first teeth in January 1986, I’ll graduate high school in 1998…” then my mind would spin out of control with the what if’s and whens. The anticipation of a life outside my tense family home in a small Vermont town was delicious.

I took it out for a look last night, which probably triggered the dream. It’s not an artifact I visit regularly, in fact, I haven’t looked at it in 15 years. But there I was, looking at this quilt with my grown lady eyes. The three empty squares look so ripe and ready now, no longer place holders for a life to come.

For Christmas, I want something that no longer exists. I want my Nana to finish the quilt. My dream last night made her real again. If only I had thought to hand her a needle and thread to stitch in the date I graduated from MBA school, the date of my marriage, my children’s birthdays. All the things that make my life. All the things she knew I would have, even if I wasn’t too sure staring at those empty squares so many years ago. 

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