My grandparents watched me after school. Mom was at work until after dinner usually, first when she owned a restaurant, then when she worked almost an hour away from our home. Our house sat tucked away in the valley of the Appalachian foothills, while my grandparents’ home sat atop the valley, the matriarch and patriarch of our sprawling family looking down upon us. Watching over us.
On nights when my mom worked well past dinner, my grandparents and I would make our way into the living room, settling in to our respective seats. My grandpa in his leather recliner, my grandma in her polyester chair, and me splayed out on the thickest carpet I’ve seen to date. I would know, I’m constantly sitting on floors.
Jeopardy was first, then Wheel of Fortune. If it was basketball season, a game followed. My grandpa loved women’s basketball, and while Ohio State was always to win, he couldn’t help but cheer on the University of Tennessee girls. It wasn’t the team or the school, per se. It was the coach, Pat Summitt. Pat was, let’s just say it, a hardass. A borderline threatening figure. Known for her no-nonsense coaching style, she had no problem ripping her players new assholes on national television. Or at least regional television. My grandpa loved her, and I loved a lot of the things my grandpa loved.
My grandma was never shy when it came to criticizing women, especially strong, loud, proud women. Pat was all of these things, which infuriated my grandmother. When I think of my grandmother, I think of how easily these adjectives apply to her. My grandmother was no doubt a stubborn-headed, proud woman. The qualities my grandfather admired in women, my grandmother simultaneously embodied and could not stand. I wish her jealousy could have dissipated for just a moment to see that my grandfather adored her.
She had a lot of flaws, my grandmother. We all do. We would butt heads often. But her pride was earned. She raised seven children, had a husband of 68 years until his passing, touted the most gorgeous penmanship, and hand quilted.
Her quilts were magnificent, each one so beautifully unique. Each one a labor of her love and undivided attention. The nights when my grandpa and I watched basketball (with me usually giving up on sports to read instead), she’d sit in her chair with her hoop and her pin cushion. She had the pattern in her mind, and patch by patch, a quilt for a friend or newborn baby would be held up. My grandmother would fake modesty as the recipient gushed over their new treasure.
It’s a tradition in our family that each grandchild receives a baby quilt as well as a full size quilt when they graduate high school. There are 15 grandchildren, with me bringing up the rear. I knew the tradition well from the examples before me, and I was in no way subtle when reminding my grandmother that purple was my favorite color as we walked by the Walmart fabric section.
Arthritis riddled my grandmother’s hands by the time I was a high school freshman; the quilting hoop in her lap replaced by mail-order catalogs. Still, she talked about my quilt. She reassured me that the quilt would be done, one way or another.
I graduated high school as my grandfather’s Alzheimer's worsened by the weeks, which would soon turn into days. My grandmother’s personhood was intertwined with caretaking. Suddenly, there was nothing she could do, and she hated being confronted with her helplessness. With my grandfather’s helplessness. I went off to college with a down comforter.
Often the mediator between me and my grandmother, my grandfather’s passing left a gap, which we would try to force closed. We argued, then acted like nothing happened. We talked until there was nothing else to say, turning our attention to the TV, both retreating into our own minds.
My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's during my final year of college. Just like my grandfather, she began to fade away. The strong, proud woman with whom I had verbally spared with for so many years suddenly had no words. The hands that were always busy suddenly had no life in them.
I’m ashamed to admit that after she passed away, one of the first things I thought about was my quilt. I was sad, and angry — angry that I was the only grandchild without this piece of our grandmother.
A few weeks after her funeral, my mom mentioned that my grandmother had pieced my quilt together, probably years before her passing. My mom was determined to get me this quilt, to give me this piece of my grandmother that we both loved so much. But stubborn like her parents, my mom insisted the quilt be quilted by hand just as my grandmother would have done. There are many talented quilters, but few have the time, patience and, quite frankly, the skill to quilt by hand.
Yet after months of searching, she found someone.
When my mom laid the quilt out, I immediately noticed the purple. I noticed the hexagons, my favorite quilt top pattern. I noticed the small florals and the little white triangles that she knew I would appreciate. That I would see them, point them out, and admire the contrast they presented to the vibrant patches surrounding them. My grandmother noticed what I had spent years noticing. The sporadic compliments I gave to her work, sitting on the floor all those years ago, now in the details of the quilt. My quilt.
I never lived with the “glory day” version of my grandmother. Unlike the other grandkids who came years before, I grew up with the curt and harsh version. The one who could tear you down in seconds. I held my own, fought back, to her surprise. And so my stubborn grandmother had pieced together this quilt top, knuckles surely knotted and swollen, so that this stubborn woman could receive her quilted trust fund.
I don’t know if the strong, formidable Pat Summitt loved her players. But I do know these two things for certain: my grandmother loved me, and she’d be so pissed that I compared her to Pat Summitt.
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Pat Summitt was the University of Tennessee Lady Vols coach from 1974 until her retirment in 2012. She was asked twice during her career to consider coaching the University of Tennessee’s Men’s Basketball team, which she declined both times. She passed away from complications related to Alzheimer’s in 2016.