I am wary of posting about something so painful and personal, but feel it is important, so here goes.
A few weeks ago, my mother-in-law died. Her death was unexpected, very sudden, and very sad indeed. Belle was only 64, was looking forward to retiring, and, in fact, would have done so this week. She worked as a cleaner at a local school until the day she died.
Belle was a warm, generous, funny, and truly lovely woman.
Losing Belle is utterly awful, and especially so for her three sons.
There have been many painful moments over the past few weeks, but some of the most difficult and emotional have concerned Belle’s things. I am sure anyone who has lost someone knows exactly what I mean. In all the stuff she had around her, Belle is very vividly present and her presence in these material things makes her absence all the more powerful and terrible. She is there in the chance placing of objects all over her house — the scribbled note of train times; the pebble she kept in her handbag as a souvenir from Malta; the hyacinth now sprouting on the kitchen window sill. Every new discovery of an object in which her hands, her actions, are apparent deals another blow. And somehow it is the smallest things — the things that seem most incidental and unimportant — that are the worst of all. A swimming costume still damp in a bag in her car; a forgotten earring left on a bookshelf; a pair of gloves hastily placed in a pocket against the cold.
The shock of the materiality of Belle — of her presence in her absence — was particularly hard when preparing the outfit that she was laid out in. We selected a beautiful suit — one she had recently worn at a wedding — and I packed a case for her. Selecting her underwear, her cosmetics, the hair-rollers she referred to as her “space helmet”, I felt very much as if I was caring for her. But I would never have the opportunity to care for her again.
Belle’s was a very material life. Her job was hard and physical. At 64 she was still lugging around heavy bags of rubbish and scrubbing acres of school floors. She spent every day dealing with the stark materiality of other people’s mess. But she also liked to make things:
. . . and to make things grow
. . . and she was always a woman of style.
Yesterday, Belle’s sons and I began to sort through her lovely things. This was a task of terrible intimacy. It felt as if we were erasing Belle’s materiality, removing the her-ness of her from the rooms that she lived in. But we decided that instead of discarding all her stuff, we might make it into something new, and, in so doing, attempt to transform her loss into a material memory. So over the next few weeks, I shall be making three quilts — one for each of her sons — out of Belle’s clothes and her fabric.
Making is, of course, no sort of compensation for the material fact of Belle’s death, but I hope it will be an act of meaning and memory at least.
just came across your moving post about your mother in law’s passing and the quilt you’ve made, (it’s beautiful). It’s inspired me to think about my mother in law’s shawl and how I can incorporate it into a quilt for my daughter, quite a challenge but better than languishing in a drawer, which is where most treasures are kept, in the dark.
I somehow mangaged to miss this on my feeds. I’m really sorry to hear that and I’m sure writing that post was a difficult thing to do, though a lovely tribute. I also think the quilt idea is brilliant – as you say, ‘an act of meaning and memory’. I gave some of my Dad’s old shirts to people I know, and it’s lovely to see them being worn.
Kate, what a lovely and sensitive tribute. I know making the quilts will not be easy, but they will be a wonderful reminder of Belle.
Bless you. You wrote beautifully about Belle – I feel as if I knew her – and your quilt idea will bring comfort to you in the making of them and Belle’s family in receiving them. Take care and look after yourself.
I’m so sorry for your loss. You wrote a beautiful tribute. Even without knowing Belle, it made me cry, because the vitality of her person came across so well. I hope the quilts help with the healing.
I’m so sorry for your loss. How beautifully you wrote about Belle — it is obvious she was and is much loved.
You’ve written a beautiful, warm testament to her in your usual thoughtful, insightful way. So sorry for your loss, the quilts will be such a treasure for her boys.
I’m very sorry about your mother in law. A loss like this is immeasurable, but your approach with the quilts is so loving, I think this is the most beautiful way of remembering your mother in law. I wish I had thought of this when I lost my grandmother. Good luck and take care.
I’m sorry to learn of your loss. In your words and pictures you make her a very real person, and also a reminder of those dear that I myself have lost. Your quilts are going to be the best kinds of memory, and I’m very glad you’re approaching this difficult situation in a constructive way. Best of luck in the time ahead!
I am so sorry for you and your family’s loss. Making the quilts, is such a beautiful idea for so many reasons.
I’m so sorry to read about your loss. I hope the quilts will bring warm memories and comfort.
Oh, Kate, I’m so sorry. I think the mourning/memory quilts are a wonderful idea, although hard to make, hard to take apart things that should be whole and used by the person who loved them. But it’s such a beautiful way to keep materiality and warmth and love all tied up together.
i’m doing the same thing in my mother’s apartment — though she survives, in an old people’s gulag — including saving all her sheets for rag rugs.
remaking a domestic space, or a safe space in which the spirit may effloresce (terrence des pres’ definition of civilization as opposed to the extremity of concentration camps), when breaking up one’s mother’s home seems to me the business of every adult. for me crafting is a huge part of it.
with thanks for a well-thought through post on the immanence of things:
Home is so Sad
by Philip Larkin
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft
And turn again to what it started as,
A joyous shot at how things ought to be,
Long fallen wide. You can see how it was:
Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.
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I’m so sorry to hear of your loss. I think your words – and your quilts – are a very sensitive tribute.
When my Mother in law died it was the very ordinariness of a recipe that she bequeathed to me that really drove home her absence. It was very sad and poignant to unfold a lined sheet of notepaper and to find her words neatly set upon the page, all the while knowing that her hand would never write such a thing again.
As you say it is in the littlest things that we live and are known to our loved ones, and through which we are remembered. You have written so beautifully about these things, it has reminded me of Ruth and of how I felt around the time of her death.
I will be thinking of you at this difficult time and I hope that making the quilts proves to mend some of the wounds of grief for you as well as for Belle’s sons; the quilts are a wonderful way for her presence to continue to surround the people she loved in the world.
Thoughts and support,
After realizing that my Grandma’s wedding dress was beyond repair, we decided to use it to make wedding pillows for the brides in my family. I know it will be a comfort for you and your family to have something as a fond reminder of Belle, even with all the grief you feel now.
i know exactly what you mean about the material leftovers. i have chosen also to make something from my dad’s clothes. a spirit cloth big enough for the while family to huddle under. i wish you all comfort and peace through the process.
Oh, I’m so sorry.
Belle quilts are such a sweet idea. Hope it brings some comfort. All the best.
I’m very sorry to hear about such a difficult loss. I hope that time, as well as the quilts (both making and receiving them) will bring comfort to you and your family. It is a wonderful gesture, and I hope that the process as well as the finished products bring you all warm thoughts and feelings of connection to her.
I’m so sorry. Loss and grief are so strange, and it’s shocking when and how they grab you. Take very good care.