Stitches in Time

by Maria Theresa Maggi on February 7, 2015

hand made quilt by Maria Theresa Maggi

The year of my diagnosis, I began learning to quilt. A friend and colleague made beautiful quilts, all by hand. Besides being a fantastic writer about life in the west, I knew she loved to sit in the evenings, listening to classical music and sipping bourbon, as she stitched one lovely stitch at a time. I asked her if she would teach me. She generously showed me the basics, carted me around to fabric stores for the proper rulers and cutting instruments for piecing, and supervised a sampler of a star made with triangles. I still use it as my arm rest while typing.


Before I settled on learning to quilt, the activity of piecing compelled me. At first, since I couldn’t teach, I thought I would engage my mind with working jig saw puzzles. But as it turned out, that was way beyond what  my cognitive and physical stamina was up to. The pieces were small, and their connections to one another a mystery to me. My hands dropped the stiff pieces. The posture I needed to sit upright at the table evaporated within a few minutes. I had to put the first puzzle I bought back into the box, and wait for something else to occur to me.

I had a keen sense of the pieces of my old, seemingly “healthy” life, needing to be incorporated into some new design. And I had a strong impulse to honor the design of my life with the raw materials I had at hand. So I decided I would make two quilts, both out of old garments and fabric from the past. One for me, out of clothes from my “old life,” and one for my son, out of shirts and pjs he wore as a small child. Perhaps it was my way of wanting to cover and protect him from my diagnosis.

Like Abraham, who I wrote about in Picking Cherries, Part 2: The Power of Refusal, I had little, if any, sense of the permanence or intractability of what was to come. I had barely begun to grasp even the slightest of the implications of the cognitive deficits I was experiencing, let alone the physical ones. When a serious and long term health diagnosis comes down the pike, it can take a long time for it to sink in. Perhaps that’s just as well. While I knew I was having serious problems with being able to grasp, hold my head up, track words on a page, or that my legs might buckle out from under me at a moment’s notice to the extent that I couldn’t teach anymore, I still somehow thought I only needed to switch activities and my hands would somehow magically “work” again, that it was just a matter of finding what I really wanted to do.

I soon found that while handling the soft fabrics of our old clothes was comforting, the process of quilting was going to take me a very, very long time, perhaps even my whole lifetime. Since I wanted my son to be able to have his quilt before he grew up and left the house, I took the blocks of log cabin pattern I had pieced together with his old clothes to a woman who ran a thrift store just down the street from my house. She was also a quilter, one with a huge quilting machine that ran the length of a whole room. And, in that way of magical symmetry the universe often hands us, her name was my name backwards: Theresa Maria. To me, our mirrored names were a good sign. I paid her to quilt the top I had pieced to a flannel sheet on her big quilting machine, so Mike had his quilt by the time he began high school. He was 10 when I was diagnosed with MS.

Meanwhile, I had also gone to work on the one made out of my own old clothes, the clothes I thought of as embodying the memories of my life before the MS. There was a nightgown and a shirt I had worn while nursing. There were two favorite skirts I had worn when teaching at the University of California, Irvine. There was a dress I wore on a wonderful day Mike’s Dad and I once spent together. Scraps from pillows and tablecloths I had made. Muslin from when I was learning to strain herbal tinctures. A floral pattern from a pair of Ralph Lauren pants I had found at the Good Will, and a favorite cotton shirt I had worn the day I left southern California for good. My old teaching and mother and wife clothes would now become a blanket to comfort me and help me heal. In fact, I called it my “healing quilt.” I believed the process of making it had a power to transform that I would trust.

As time wore on, I sometimes felt as if completing the quilt was my own extremely humble version of trying to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For months, sometimes years, I could not hold the needle to stitch.  But there were also many months or evenings when I could. While I was piecing the blocks together, I’d sit in front of the masonry stove and sew, listening to jazz, while Mike was down the street at his first job washing dishes at a pizza joint on Friday nights. When it came time to arrange those pieced blocks into the quilt top, there was a period of time I could climb the stairs, and I pinned them all to a mattress up against a wall in the upstairs bedroom that had once been my office, trying to decide on the right arrangement. When I began the actual quilting process, I loved the feeling of making one stitch at a time in a sea of stitches, and that I could be covered with what I was making, literally immersed in it. Even though my stitches were imperfect and my arms got too sore to use a small quilting frame or my eyes refused to focus for very long, I kept stitching, even if it was only for a few minutes at a time. The rhythm of sewing by hand is like a meditation for me. It keeps me in the present while also making me aware of each corner turned, each piece outlined, each block done, each row of blocks.

Throughout the last nineteen years, the making of this quilt has been synonymous with learning to pace myself for the long haul, and in trusting there is a larger picture beyond what I feel and experience in the moment, and that the two are somehow connected, or even synonymous, a paradox I trust but can never explain. Sometimes the stitching would ground me through times of immense change, like the Spring my mother died of lung cancer. Sometimes even thinking of the quilt would ground me and give me hope, as I wrote in this journal entry from Valentine’s Day 2o11:

“February 14, 2011

Just now I remembered I am making a whole quilt by hand, stitch by stitch. It’s taken me years and years, but it is coming along. And as I take it up again, can take it up again, it whispers to me. I hear all the voices from the past in the fabrics from my dresses, my shirts, my tablecloths and sheets and pillowcases, and all the things I reflected on as I stitched in the past, even the quality of light on an afternoon of my birthday, as I sat stitching and A came to visit me and brought me a potted violet, I believe, and I was surprised, and she was contrite–that moment of self-awareness in her of her harshness softened, the forgiveness in her, of me, and my acceptance of it all in that moment. That that forgiveness is woven into the quilt and can heal with its memory. It’s right in the fabric. I look forward to whatever else comes up. Even my thoughts about how many stitches to make, my jumping ahead and ahead to it being all done, my despair that it never will be, or will fall apart if I ever try to wash it. And the image that made me laugh out loud, of a way to get around that: hanging it on the clothesline under the sprinkler and letting it dry.”

And now, though I am not a deft and beautiful quilter like my friend, after nineteens years, it is done. Before I’m 60, and before I die. That I have lived to finish it is a gift beyond measure. And so is the fact, too, that I, still, am very much a work in progress.

Me and My Quilt

This Valentine’s Day it will be 19 years since I was given the diagnosis of MS. It’s also my 7th year of eating low fat (no oil) whole food plants. And the first year I will not be working on this quilt in a long, long time. Instead, I’m sleeping under it. And when it’s warm enough, maybe I will hang it  out on the line and let the sprinkler wash it. But nothing can ever wash the memories out, or the vision I had to redesign my past into a comforting blanket to wrap myself in,  which now happens after a day of  activities like walking up and down hills with Romeo in my new neighborhood or writing this blog or working on a drawing, things I never would have dreamed possible when I began the first stitch. But I kept faith in the soft, whispering colors and textures, and in the process of sewing my imperfect stitches, one by one. This quilt as a work-in-progress taught me to appreciate how we are all works-in-progress. We are always on the way to somewhere else, though we might not know exactly where or how to find it on a map. The way I see it, that’s a quirky blessing beyond compare.

Maria (moonwatcher)



Leave a Comment

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Marge Evans February 8, 2015 at 7:33 am

another wonderful, inspiring story for my Sunday morning.
thank you.


2 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 9:02 am

You’re welcome Marge–and thank you for your thoughtful long time readership!


3 Nicole O'Shea February 8, 2015 at 7:48 am

Amazing!!! xoxo Nicole


4 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 9:03 am

Thanks, Nicole! xoxo back 🙂


5 Kathleen February 8, 2015 at 7:56 am

What a fantastic journey you have stitched into your quilt. I am four years into a quilt that I expect will take another two or three to finish. It’s all pieced and in the frame and I’ve quilted a small portion. Piecing a quilt that became a wedding gift to my niece carried me through the difficult final year of my father’s life as he battled cancer. It’s strange the comfort holding cloth and needle can bring. You have surmounted so many challenges and grown into such a beautiful woman through it all. Thanks for sharing your quilt and your story.


6 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 9:06 am

Thank you Kathleen–I really enjoyed reading about your own quilting experience, and thus your experiential understanding of how the process can bring us through so many transitions in life. The cloth and needle really does seem to carry with it a restorative maginceYour kind words about my own journey, too, are very much appreciated. <3


7 Veronique February 8, 2015 at 8:38 am

O Maria, such a beautiful post.
Your story is so inspiring: your sense of hope, your perseverance, your ups and downs but most of all your resurfacing and growing stronger beyond your wildest dreams. Whenever I have a weak moment (passing a bakery with lots of cakes covered in rich buttercream and chocolate) it is of you I think and that makes it easy to pass on the cake. Whenever my MS sees fit to slap me in the face, I am reminded of you and how you made your way back.
Your quilt is beautiful of course but what it stands for is even more beautiful, a work in progress yes, but also a tribute to the dreamer and the hopeful. Keep stitching your story of healing so we may all wrap ourself in the possibilities we know are ahead.


8 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 9:14 am

Oh Veronica, thank you for this beautiful comment. It’s inspiring another incipient blog post, though I couldn’t tell you just what it is. I am humbled and honored that you think of me when tempted, and reminded when you have your own flare-ups with the MS that bouncing back when things are tough becomes more easily doable when we eat this way. I believe we are all, always, making our way forward, and back, somehow at the same time, from whatever ails us. This way of eating just makes that ongoing process much more gentle and easy to embrace. I cherish that you are on the same path. xo


9 Carollynne Kelly February 8, 2015 at 9:02 am

Dear Maria, I loved this story of your quilt and your diagnosis year. It is beautiful, too, your quilt to look at!


10 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 9:16 am

Dear Carollyne, thanks so much, both for your interest in the part about my diagnosis year and your sentiment that the quilt is beautiful to look at. You are making me smile from the heart!


11 Glen February 8, 2015 at 11:33 am

Thank You for that heartwarming story. Whenever I have the pleasure of reading your stories of your life experiences and struggles, these stories stir such gratitude for what you have been able to accomplish and what others may aspire to accomplish also. Thank You again for being so generous with sharing these life affirming accomplishments.


12 moonwatcher February 8, 2015 at 1:33 pm

Thank you for this wonderful comment, Glen. It’s always good to read when someone else enjoys reading these stories as much as I enjoy writing them–makes for a nice full circle, which is what it’s all about. 🙂


13 Donna McFarland February 9, 2015 at 1:36 am

Ohhh dearest Maria! Once again, your writing has completely drawn me in, captivated my senses…i was one with your words!!. Such an gift you have and this piece, truly exceptional!

Envious I am that you’ve been able to overcome the cognitive issues that plague us to go on and create ~such a beautiful!! quilt!! Your contagious smile ~ so wonderful to see this morning…thank you dear one, for the writing as well as the heartwarming photo too!!

xoxoxo Donna


14 moonwatcher February 9, 2015 at 9:27 am

Oh Donna! It’s always such a deep pleasure to hear from you–thank you so much for these kind words! The drive to create is so strong in me that I’ve learned how to sit with those issues, be patient as they slowly soften, and take the openings I get to bring something to fruition. But they are still with me, although less acute than before. Exhaustion or stress can make them more pronounced. Still a slow motion miracle after so long a time is infinitely better than none at all, and to less intractability. It’s my wish for you as well. So here’s to the patience and fortitude to believe in the slow miracle process. xoxo


15 Debbie Maslov February 9, 2015 at 7:10 am

Such beautiful words & a beautiful “life” quilt Maria. Your spirit & perseverance are wound through every thread.


16 moonwatcher February 9, 2015 at 9:21 am

Thank you Debbie, for such a beautiful comment too. I will treasure this sentiment.


17 Veronica February 9, 2015 at 10:12 am

Oh, Maria, I have a tear in my eye – this was such a beautiful post. I don’t even know what to say. Your perseverance in making the quilt over so many years, through so many struggles, is a testament that we all just need to keep at it. And hand-stitching it, to boot (it’s a gorgeous quilt, btw)! I’ve been knitting a few years, and have just gotten a sewing machine to try my hand at that (and possibly one day attempt a quilt!) – hand stitching was something I didn’t think would be possible for such a large project; but after reading this, I might just try it. And using material from the past, is a wonderful way to keep memories with you. A way to make it truly yours.
You inspire me with every post, every word; you help me stay the path, give me faith that time heals and that all the efforts, failures, and successes in life will result in a hand-sewn “life quilt” of my own. You’re right – it is a quirky blessing beyond compare.
Here’s to starting another quilt? 😉


18 moonwatcher February 9, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Dear Veronica, thank you for such a heartfelt, beautiful comment. You all are kind of leaving me speechless–in a really good way. . .I never could learn how to knit, so I applaud you. And operating the sewing machine makes me swear. But stitching by hand is meditative and relaxing to me. Here’s to the quirky blessings beyond compare, and to starting another quilt. I’m taking a little break for now, but there are two more I would like to make–we’ll see how that shakes out. xoxo


19 Pam February 9, 2015 at 9:48 pm

Maria, I love what this quilt represents. Your “stick-to-it-iveness” is impressive! 🙂


20 moonwatcher February 9, 2015 at 9:55 pm

Thank you Pam 🙂


21 nothy February 10, 2015 at 8:57 am

I just finished a small rag quilt and I love the process. Quilting is really an understated treasure.


22 moonwatcher February 10, 2015 at 9:19 am

Welcome, nothy, and congratulations on finishing your rag quilt! I love how you put it–quilting really IS an understated treasured. Thanks. 🙂


23 Kiwi Fan February 10, 2015 at 3:05 pm

Dear Maria, what a beautiful quilt you’ve stitched and what a wonderful achievement to have completed it after so many challenges over the years. An inspiring bit of writing again- thank you. – and a really lovely photo. XX


24 moonwatcher February 10, 2015 at 10:34 pm

Thank you so much Kiwi Fan! I always smile every time I type your “name”–just love it. I so appreciate your kind words. xo


25 Marylyn Nolan February 13, 2015 at 5:34 pm

Congratulations on completing your beautiful quilt. I enjoy reading your stories/blog. Happy Valentine’s Day!


26 moonwatcher February 13, 2015 at 6:37 pm

Welcome to the blog, Marylyn, and thank you so much! Happy Valentine’s Day back to you. 🙂


27 Rosi May 10, 2015 at 12:01 am

You are so sweet Maria!


28 Maria Theresa Maggi May 10, 2015 at 6:47 am

Thank you Rosi! 🙂


Previous post:

Next post: