The Memory Quilt

By Catherine Simpson

The box from the attic was full of baby clothes; pinafores, pyjamas, nighties, sun suits and any number of party dresses - some as wide as they were long so they’d fit over nappies, others with out-of-proportion big knickers to match. Many were presents when my daughter was born ten years before – impractical dresses with lacy collars that flipped up and got coated in food, or with puffed sleeves so tight you couldn’t thread her arms through.

How can you cut them up? asked the mothers at the school gates. How can you do it?

Easy, I said.

I took each item and chopped off the collars and the cuffs, the pockets, the buttons, the gathers and the hems and I threw away these messy, complicated bits. I made a template from a cornflake box and cut perfect five-inch squares out of the material that was left. Some dresses were so tiny they produced only two squares; one from the front, one from the back.  Then, randomly, I sewed them together.

The quilt grew - haphazard, clashing - pink gingham against cerise busy lizzies, yellow butterflies fluttering towards mustard paisley, pale blue ticking sliding into blood-red strawberries, rambling roses reaching for embroidered sunflowers, delicate honey-suckle touching water-colour grape vines. Blue beside green beside yellow beside pink beside red. When the squares had grown to the size of a bed I backed it with wadding and a cloth of purple irises - my daughter’s favourites – and it became a unique quilt, a one-off collection of crazy mismatched five-inch squares.


The Pink Roses Square.

My daughter wore this dress for her first birthday. It was thick and smocked and expensive and a present from a great aunt. It was given to her when we were still trying to pretend everything was alright; before we knew the right questions to ask. She sat in her high chair at her party, chewing on one of Snow White’s plastic dwarves. She was a ticking time bomb. We held our breath and wondered whether she would explode. Something, anything, could detonate her: the sight of an unwrapped present (was it the sound of ripping paper, the unknown contents of the package? We didn’t know); a balloon that might pop; a strange face looming too close; anything, absolutely anything could cause chaos. We went through the motions; cutting the cake, chatting, socialising, all with one eye on the UXB in the highchair.  When the last guest left I leant against the front door, closed my eyes and let out a long sigh. We’d managed, we’d survived; she was a year old and despite everything we were all still alive.


The Green Gingham Square

She wore this for her second birthday. By then I was too tired to organise a party or bake a cake so we had a Cadbury’s chocolate roll with a 2-shaped candle stuck on top. No photographs were taken. A party would have been a mistake, anyway - she wasn’t interested in other children. She was in her own world and interruptions to that could be a stressful business. She had a pet aubergine - Audrey-Jean – she took it everywhere. Put it to bed wrapped in a blanket in the cat’s basket. It was exhausting trying to fit our daughter into the world and to fit the world around our daughter and by then we were tired. Bone tired.


The Yellow Sunflower Square

She was three when she wore this dress to a friend’s party. She played on her own. She was swinging. She was happy to swing for hours but definitely not happy to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ or blow out the candles or let go of the swing. While the other mums drank warm white wine on the patio or gossiped in the kitchen, and the other children played chase and rode the bikes, my daughter swung. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Together, me and her; we watched the party from a distance.

She was wearing this dress when we went to the doctor. ‘I don’t know what’s the matter,’ I said. ‘But I think something is.’


The Yellow Polka Dot Square

These were the curtains for her bedroom. The room she didn’t want to leave to go to school where she felt different and lonely. ‘Do not mak me go to shcool,’ she wrote on notes pushed under her bedroom door. When I insisted, she left another note saying: ‘Be-wear: my mum may be a wich.’


There are no squares from when she was diagnosed. It was a long wait. She was ten years old and wearing jeans and T-shirts not little cotton dresses when the doctor said: ‘She’s got Asperger’s syndrome. That isn’t a surprise, is it?’

A surprise, no. A shock, yes.


The quilt stayed on her bed keeping her warm and safe as we grew to understand her and she grew to understand herself. It was there when she started a new school, the Edinburgh Steiner School, where she felt valued, where her quirky individuality was celebrated and where she flourished.  It was there when her genius brain started absorbing foreign languages, and when she discovered she was an artist, an actor and a scientist; when she continued to astound us with what she could do and everything she could achieve.  

The quilt is still there on her bed - but it won’t be her bed for much longer. She’s eighteen and about to leave home. She’s on track to achieve her dream –a place at Edinburgh University and a flat of her own. Will she take the quilt with her or will she leave it for me -to keep me warm with its unique patchwork of vivid, colourful memories; some happy, many painful, all unforgettable.