The quilt that was made by writer Hong Xinyi’s grandmother has travelled the world with her, but more than anything it is a reminder of different journeys: An object made possible with skills that she never mastered, retaining rhythms of a life that she cannot begin to understand.
I’ve had the quilt my grandmother made for me for as long as I can remember.
In a way, it is a constant reminder that time is passing, because while I am by no means a tall adult, the quilt no longer covers my frame the way it used to when I was a much shorter child. Some nights I still curl up to fit underneath it, but truthfully the measure of warmth it provides is sometimes insufficient even for tropical nights. More often, the quilt lies on top of a more appropriately-sized duvet, quite literally a security blanket.
I took the quilt with me when I went to the United States to attend university, and it kept me company as I experienced my first winters, in a series of apartments located in neighbourhoods ranging from Manhattan’s St Mark’s Place to Chicago’s South Side – wherever I made my home at the time. Yoked to my restlessness, you could say the quilt has seen more of the world than my grandmother ever has, but then again, do my modern cosmopolitan rambles really have the same life-changing heft of her journey from an island at the very margins of China to an island smack in the middle of the mercantile crossroads of the world?
“You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist,” a character says of someone’s immigrant grandmother in the play Angels In America. “But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross.” The quilt is a reminder of our different journeys, an object made possible with skills that I never mastered, retaining rhythms of a life that I cannot begin to understand.
“No one taught me,” my grandmother says when I ask her how she learnt how to piece a quilt together. “It was just something people used to do to pass the time in China. Or maybe someone taught me, I don’t remember.” She recently celebrated her 94th birthday; “I don’t remember” is something she has been saying more and more often, as a shadow of mild consternation passes across her face.
But I am not sure this is really a lapse of memory. I imagine that learning how to sew for her was probably like learning how to read for me – many people taught me, but eventually one day it just became something I seem to have known all along, like breathing. My grandmother never learned how to read; she yearned to go to school, she told me once, but her father didn’t think it was necessary. I remember her asking me to write her Chinese name for her when I was a little girl, then watching her copy the characters in a shaky, uncertain hand, an afternoon when the voyage between that place and this one we crossed.
The quilt speaks a language that is not quite my native tongue, its enduring stitches a testament to a proficiency with the sewing machine (the kind you pedal), formed with triangles of fabric cut from old clothes, showcasing a creative flair wrested from the resources of thrift. “You have to use contrasting colours so that it looks nice,” my grandmother says. “You can’t use the same colours here.” The quilt has a pink velvety base and border with a dainty floral print, and is mainly composed of pastel colours – expected enough for a grand-daughter, although these are colours and prints neither of us wear very much. I wonder if she ever thinks about that, that neither of us are particularly pastel people.
I have often thought – secretly, of course – that because my grandmother has lived with my family for most of my life, my siblings and I do not have a “Chinese New Year” grandmother, someone who appears only on special occasions to dole out doting compliments. We know her moods and her neuroses, can sense when a seemingly mundane conversation holds the potential to spark a spectacular tirade of Hainanese declaimed without pauses for punctuation, an amazing and oft-repeated feat of performative pique. Another afternoon, a few years ago, we happened to be pottering about in the kitchen at the same time when she suddenly said: “I know I have a bad temper.” And she knows that about me too of course.
In China, one of the more well-documented quilting traditions is known as Bai Jia Bei, which translates literally as “blanket of a hundred families”. The name derives from a custom of inviting relatives and friends to contribute pieces of fabric for a quilt made for a newborn child. My modest quilt isn’t as ambitious as that, but it does express the love, style and skill of one woman, and is one of the most precious things I own. The message it articulates is simple – “I made this for you” – and that language of purposeful making is one I hope to speak fluently one day, until it becomes second nature, like reading, like breathing.
All words and photos by Hong Xinyi
Published by the Singapore Memory Project