counting down to connect at christmas time

by rebecca on December 1, 2011

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I smelled my mother 3 years after she died while I was standing in the grocery store. Heaven’s Scent walked right past me while I was deciding between Cheerios and Kix. I abandoned the cereal and stalked followed that aroma for 3 aisles, inhaling all the while. I pretended to look at ketchup and coffee. When I left the grocery store I went straight to the boxes of fabric Mom had left me and began to sew.

My mother was a quilter. I spent many hours with her sorting fabric. The living room became our canvas and we laid out calicos according to the seasons. Summer fabrics were stacked up next to the couch. Autumn sprawled under the coffee table where Ladies Home Journal held a water mark from a sloppy spill from someone’s tea.

My mother had terrible taste and the Christmas season was her prized showcase. Giant styrofoam balls emerged year after year. Their centers were hallow and featured reindeer prancing in the snow or Santa with his sleigh. These she hung in the doorway between the living room and family room each year on the day after Thanksgiving. Red plastic stockings were hung from the fireplace and multiple Christmas tree candy dishes peppered the house.

But something cozy descended with all this bad taste.

My mother was comfortable inside her own skin. She sat in her chair watching reruns of M.A.S.H. each evening while in her hands she sewed. And sewed and sewed. The first projects were napkins and placemats. They were as ugly as the giant styrofoam balls. The color combinations hurt the eye and her stitching was fumbling and amateurish.

I moved out and she converted my old bedroom into a sewing room. Now that her youngest was grown and gone quilting classes filled her nights and weekends. The time she’d poured into raising children could now be funneled toward cultivation of her craft. The ugly placemats were replaced by quilting samplers and pillows. Brown, orange and straw made way for a full palate of greens, purple and a sky full of blue. She managed to score a winning ribbon at the county fair.

In my twenties I spent a Christmas with my oldest sister and, on the door to her basement, hung an advent calendar my mother had made. Mom quilted a Christmas tree and made 25 ornaments that either sat in a puffy basket at the base of the tree or hung in their rightful place depending on the December date. Each ornament was fat with attention to detail.

My mother had outgrown her bad taste.

She’d bloomed into beautiful right before my eyes.

I adored that advent calendar and couldn’t wait for her to make one for my family to pull out on the day after Thanksgiving and begin the countdown, anticipating Christmas joy. But my mother began to fall ill. One mini stroke after another took her quilting prowess away and she just couldn’t make the stitches line up.

When I sewed next to my mother she had a name for me, “You’re a hushel,” she said because I hurried instead of taking time to follow patterns and press seams. My mother’s work bloomed beautiful because she took the time to line up every stitch.

The day I returned from the fragrant grocery store I didn’t wait for a pattern. I dumped out all the fabric. Then I sorted, lining up the reds by the couch and the greens under my rocking chair.

I gazed at the fabric and began to cut. I had no massive plan. I’m a hushel, but I’d been sewing through boxes of my mother’s fabric since I spread her ashes and I was improving stitch by stitch.

I let the fabric tell me where I could surge ahead and where I needed to slow down and add red piping. In the middle, when things buckled, I ran diagonal quilted lines.I’d watched more than I knew all those years at my mother’s elbow.
There are 25 stockings. They each hold a chocolate kiss or a spicy peppermint to count our way to Christmas day. I feel the lasting connection of her life sewn into mine as I touch the fabrics that she chose. I learned I can begin from where I am today and slowly improve until I’m winning at the fair. Most important I’ll be making my something beautiful to add to the world if I just allow myself the time to practice lining up my stitches and seeing how the colors match.

My mother has not walked through my front door for more than a dozen years, but still, she is with me, hanging on my wall.

Is the joy of Christmas heightened by the anticipation of an advent calendar countdown in your home? What did you sort out while sitting next to your mother growing up? What do holiday traditions teach you about your family?

If you enjoy making things at this time of year check out this website full of Christmas crafts. My friend Stacia made this gorgeous garland and she lives in Romania where there is no back up help from Michaels.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Kristen @ Motherese December 2, 2011 at 6:53 pm

I love your Advent quilt. I think it’s absolutely lovely.

I always wanted an Advent calendar as a kid (hmm…or maybe I just wanted the Hershey’s Kisses within), but never had one. Now that I am half of an interfaith couple raising three kids outside any faith tradition, I’m not sure I’ll ever have one. Maybe I’ll just click on this post every morning and imagine myself counting down the days – and eating a peppermint.


rebecca December 2, 2011 at 9:31 pm

I know the grass-is-greener tendency at tradition rich times of the year. I grew up having deep envy for Jews. They had such a STORY. Now I find myself infatuated with Muslims and all those scarves. It implies mystery for me. This is probably why I love everyone’s altars. I’m always asking people how do you celebrate? The things people touch take on such meaning. Who knew a chocolate kiss could inspire my college daughter to tear up when I told her I’d hung up the Advent Calendar?


Margaret Reyes Dempsey December 3, 2011 at 8:26 pm

I love quilts and once had a thought of learning how to make one. But I know myself, and hobbies that require extended periods of attention and focus just aren’t a match for me. Just ask my mom about those prairie skirts we were going to sew in the 70s. 🙂

I love your Advent Calendar. I’d need one with locks on each little stocking and someone else holding the key so I didn’t gobble up all the Hershey’s kisses on the first day.

Heartwarming post, Rebecca. Thanks for sharing this story.


david December 5, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Lovely story!


rebecca December 5, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Thanks for visiting David!


SuziCate December 5, 2011 at 5:25 pm

This is a most beautiful post. Thank you so much for sharing this. Even though I don’t have daughters, my sons love my quilts and request certain types from time to time. My oldest, a surfer, asked me to piece one for him to fasion an ocean wave. I made a bargello in several shades of blue and he has kept it on his bed for about ten years! I love how you are connecting with your mother even now through quilting. She’d be proud of you and your Advent quilt. Isn’t the power of smell amazing? I love the new look of your blog!


rebecca December 5, 2011 at 9:12 pm

Please send a photo!!!


6512 and growing December 5, 2011 at 6:15 pm

Rebecca, I love your new look here. And what a sweet tale of your mother. I like how you can weave a story about someone by showing what she loved and how she loved it. (this is a skill I’ve been trying to encourage my writing students in).


rebecca December 5, 2011 at 9:08 pm

Your students are lucky to have you! I feel you do this with each and every attempt.


rachel December 5, 2011 at 8:27 pm

we made maxine an advent calendar the other night, a big felt tree with little felt ornaments to add each day.

my mom is big on traditions, particularly around christmas. i’d been cynical about this for years, griping against consumerism and over-the-top decorations and whatnot.

as i carefully snipped away at felt the other night, though, back aching and eyes squinting, i thought of her tiptoeing to our bedroom doors each night in december to hang a treat or a note, and of the thought she put into those 25 days throughout the year, keeping her eyes peeled and making little lists. i realized, suddenly, that the point was to make space to show us we were special to her, that we were loved deeply and always. from 3000 miles away she was whispering to me, telling me to be patient.

each morning of advent with maxine is like being a kid again, time rounding back in on itself, bringing my mom closer.

thank you for sharing this, rebecca.


rebecca December 5, 2011 at 9:07 pm


I teared up reading this. Because yes, I think that’s what mothers are doing as we tiptoe and notice. It’s not about the presents. We’re just wildly looking about for another vehicle to deliver this overwhelming amount of Love we have bounding about inside our heart.


Shannon December 6, 2011 at 12:59 am

That is a beautiful story! The only Advent tradition we’ve been having is lighting the Advent wreath each Sunday night for Sunday family dinner. I feel inspired though to do something more!


rebecca December 6, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Totally remember making Advent wreaths in Sunday school!


Stacia December 6, 2011 at 8:59 am

I resolved not long ago to learn to sew in 2012, and your quilt underscores my goal. It is beautiful and, even better, clearly made with love.

The only tradition I remember growing up was decorating the tree, but oh, how I loved it! (And I still do.) I have to keep reminding myself not to “redecorate” as the children put ornaments on, and I keep meaning to ask my mom if she had the same urge when I was younger. It’s funny how everything circles back around, from your mother’s scraps of material to my family’s tree.

And thanks for linking to my lovely pompom garland! My husband isn’t very thrilled with the “cutesy” factor, but now I cam tell him it’s all over the Internet, so it must be good. =>


rebecca December 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm


It’s funny: I don’t love to sew. But I do love the connection it offers me with my mother. And I love the textures and colors. It’s a great metaphor for life in that way I suppose, love parts of the whole and tolerate some… The end result is lovely.

Do you know Joni Mitchell’s song The Circle Game? I think it perfectly describes the phenomenon you’re describing where everything circles back, round and round.


Crowing Crone Joss December 6, 2011 at 1:24 pm

this brought tears to my eyes. One day my daughter will have a similar experience and remember me with a smile and joy! blessed be.


rebecca December 6, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I love this idea of looking forward…to anticipating what we will give our children.


Peg December 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm

What a Beautiful post and loving tribute to your mother! It brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart as I could feel your love for your mother with every word. Simply inspiring. Thank you.


rebecca October 19, 2012 at 9:30 pm

I am glad for your visit, tears and joy included.


Terre Pruitt December 13, 2011 at 10:53 pm

My mother-in-law was an expert seamstress. I never wanted to bother her for anything for me, but she made me table cloths and Christmas Tree skirts. Her eyes were beginning to fail and it is my opinion that she sewed less and it made her sad. My plan was to have her teach me to sew. I thought that having her teach me would help me learn and not be a hushel (because that is why I don’t like to sew – all that lining up and pressing the seams). I thought that having her teach me would help expend some of her sewing creativity and be an outlet even though she couldn’t see well. I was so looking forward to it. It was going to be so grand; bonding, learning to sew, helping my mother-in-law while she helped me. The weekend before they were going to come home for the winter she was in an automobile collision. She did not survive her injuries. She will not be showing me how to sew. Maybe I will learn on my own, as you did, in her memory. As Peg said, this post is inspiring!


rebecca December 14, 2011 at 1:30 am

I am so sorry to hear about your mother-in-law’s accident. This is especially sad given the timing and your plans “to help her while she helped you.” I love those kinds of relationships. My hunch is that you already had that kind of bond. She made decorations for your home which helped you foster your family and gave her a place to belong to your life. Sounds like a lovely exchange.

My mother has been gone really for the entirety of my children’s lives. Sometimes I get real sad about this, but other times I realize what a gift she gave me to continue my relationship with her by using my hands. I feel a connection with her as I work with any kind of color. And, because she did not take excellent care of herself and I miss having her, I am all the more encouraged to live in a way that will ensure I am here to sort the colors with my daughter and son.

Lessons and connection are everywhere. Just because someone stops taking breaths on planet earth doesn’t mean I cease to continue my relationship with them…and allow that relationship to grow.

You have my heart while you find your way…be it with sewing or another path. We’re in this together, huh?


Terre Pruitt December 14, 2011 at 2:16 am

I was one/am one of the lucky/blessed people to have had/have such GREAT in-laws. I sometimes get huffy at the stereo-type of the “dreaded in-laws” because for me I was blessed with two sets of awesome parents.

It is sad that your mom has been gone for most of your children’s life, but it is wonderful that you feel a connection to her and have learned from her death.

Lessons and connections . . . . yup!

I was very blessed to have had such a great mother-in-law for the time that I did. Thank you for your kind words and thoughts!


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