This essay first appeared in the December issue of Arkansas Life.
The carpet in my room growing up was brown. Dark brown and low pile. But what I remember most was the feel. Each strand, worn with age, held a halo of acrylic fuzz and wiry bits. Brush a hand across it, and you’d feel the subtle prick and static spark.
It’s called haptic memory, the way we can recall the way an object feels. Nerves transfer the memory to the spinal cord and on to the brain, where sensory memory is processed by the prefrontal cortex and shuffled off to short-term memory. Less often, these memories make their way into long-term storage. But for me, it happens all the time. Maybe it’s all the salmon I’ve been working into my diet.
Combine haptic memories with the other senses—iconic memories for vision, olfactory for scent and echoic for sound—and it’s as close to time traveling as you’ll get. It’s a kind of nostalgic meditation that I fall back on when the present is too stressful. I’ll close my eyes and remember the feel of that fuzz on my carpet, the stiff, white curtains on my bedroom window and the crunch of the thick plastic covering my library-borrowed American Girl books. No mortgage, no deadlines.
Some people remember Christmases as the smell of warm vanilla, but I prefer the gentle itch of pine needles and the thin, worn velvet that covers my favorite ornament. Thanksgiving is the sharp bumps of the textured paint on the walls of my mother’s childhood bedroom. It’s the way my grandparents’ cement porch floor, rough as sandpaper, feels under cold bare feet in November at their home in the Arkansas Ozarks.
But lately, it’s the rows of tight stitches binding worn cotton on a quilt at that farmhouse near Pea Ridge that I remember most when I need to shut my eyes and drift off to somewhere else.
When I was younger, I took the quilts for granted. They were ever-present at home, gifts from family members on both sides. There were Sunbonnet Sue quilts—one with hot pink sashing, another with light pink—for my sister and me. One particular queen-sized piece of blue patchwork was toted out every time someone was sick. Whole sections of the quilt’s fabric had worn away with repeated washing, revealing the nubby, felted cotton batting below. Over time, each block of the quilt had puckered, creating a system of blue fabric rivers and creeks to trace with a finger.
New quilts have a different feel. The fabric is smooth, the cotton almost coarse. Each run of stitches is easy to find, so taut you can hardly fit a fingernail underneath. The blankets are warm, but stiff before they’re folded, draped, washed, dried and handled over and over. Some quilts stay smooth, preserved for generations in trunks or on chairs where they’re to be seen, not touched.
For almost a year, I thought that’s what I wanted for the quilt my grandmother gave me at my wedding shower. Its top layer is made of hundreds of small squares and triangles in light and dark blue forming crosses and stars, a swirling floral etched over the surface with white quilting thread. Each crease is so perfectly pressed that you can barely feel where one piece of fabric ends and the other begins, like it was always one uniform piece. It belies the hours, often days of work devoted to each block.
When it first came home, the quilt was wrapped in a spare cotton sheet and tucked away in a dresser. I grew too panicky thinking of what might happen if our dogs found it. Or a muddy shoe. Or a mug of coffee.
Sometimes I’d crack open the dresser drawer and run my fingers over the bumps of the tiny machine stitches that bound the layers of fabric, the smooth white binding along the edge. I thought about the work that had gone into it, and how I’d probably be feeling the same stitches for decades to come. It made me wonder if I could do the same for someone else.
Somewhere between my wedding in 2014 and the birth of my niece in 2015, I started my first quilt. I felt the stiff pink cotton soften as I picked it up time and again to cut, stitch and press. I felt the prick of straight pins and the subtle heat of friction from when I’d yank the needle and thread through the fabric. I felt the not-so-perfect creases along my seams and the way my stitches were never quite the same length and only an approximation of a straight line.
It wasn’t perfect, but it felt whole. It felt like the work I’d put into it. When I pulled the freshly washed pink, frilly quilt out of the drier to hand it to my sister-in-law, I felt the way the material had gone slack and supple, ready to be crumpled and tugged and probably thrown up on.
After giving it away, I went back to that dresser and the wedding quilt I’d been keeping so precious. I shook out the folds and spread it over my bed. It’s been there ever since. (Well, minus a few washings.) The binding is noticeably less smooth than it was a few months ago, the fabric—bright and clean, but soft—giving way to daily use. I run my hand over it now, and it feels loved.
For more from the December issue of Arkansas Life, click here.