|A PARTING GIFT
- Clothes of 9/11 victim become quilts sewn with love
Thursday, December 25, 2003
Section: LIFESTYLES Page: D1
When Sharon Walker finally mailed off the boxes of quilts she'd made from pieces of a Mallomar sweat shirt, plaid flannel shirts, waffled long underwear and the blue jeans of a firefighter who died in the Sept. 11 attacks, she was out of sorts. It was a week before Christmas, and she knew she'd feel better once they arrived and were unfolded and looked at by the wife and children Matthew Rogan left behind in West Islip, L.I.
For a year, she'd worked in her sewing room in West Falls and tried to imagine Rogan, whom she knew had a vegetable garden, just as she did. As she ran fabric through her sewing machine, working sometimes seven hours a week, she'd also think of his family. She'd say to herself, "I hope they like the quilts. I hope they like the quilts. I hope they like the quilts."
"I hope I preserve part of him that they see," Walker said.
Rogan's wife had wanted five -- one for her, each of her three children and one for her in-laws -- and Walker agreed, knowing friends would help with the piecework and quilt backings. Doing so much quilting could be considered altruistic, but, she said, the project has done her good, too.
More good than donating money, which is what Walker, a banker at Fleet Bank, did at first. "When you get right down to it," she said, "it's paper."
About a week after the World Trade Center attacks, she had been alone in her living room watching a benefit concert and crying when she dialed the number on the TV screen and pledged $50.
That didn't ease the sadness she felt about all the altered lives and the people killed by terrorists who seemed driven by foolishness about religion. "Who cares who worships whom?," she said.
She tried expressing herself by making a quilt as art to hang on the wall. She studied photographs of a crossed pair of I-beams left standing in the World Trade Center rubble. A symbol of a return to life? A resurrection?
"I'm not a religious person, and this piece kept calling me," she said.
She stitched an I-beam cross out of black and white fabric but left the piece unfinished when she didn't know how else to embellish it. Flowers? Some silk ribbon?
A year went by. Her life with her husband and two sons seemed normal again. She quilted other things until she surfed the Internet one day, looking for fabric, and happened upon a link that led to a Vermont-based site -- United We Quilt -- with an idea that hooked her: Making quilts for people who wanted to commemorate someone who died Sept. 11, 2001.
Within days, she got an e-mail with Melissa Rogan's phone number. "The first time we talked on the phone, we both cried," Walker said. Melissa Rogan seemed sweet, just a normal everyday person that something bad had happened to.
When two big cardboard boxes arrived at Walker's house, she saw blues, earth tones and an occasional bit of bright flannel among the clothes of an outdoorsy man who didn't care about fashion. "There was not a lot to work with," said Walker.
She wanted to know him better. So his wife sent newspaper clippings and photos and told her how he was a homebody who loved nothing more than to spend time with his family.
She studied the photographs of the blond mustachioed man, who had just turned 37 before he died, and she grew to like him. She admired how he seemed so centered. He focused on taking care of other people, even in his job. In his garden he grew enough garlic to give to his friends.
He liked to make jokes, and his favorite sweat shirt was a silly one about a chocolate-covered marshmallow graham cracker cookie he got at a grocery store giveaway. It said, "Mallomars are back," and had pictures of the cookie drawn to look like friendly cartoon creatures with wide-open eyes.
So Walker made color photocopies on fabric so every quilt would have at least one of the little cookies. She enlisted a friend, Linda Reinagel, who pieced together one of the quilts, making star stitches around plaid flannel pieces and using lots of the Mallomars.
Another friend, Donna Morrow, helped do piece work, using the red print material Walker bought to brighten the inside stars she cut out of denim for the blue-jean quilt Walker intended for Rogan's 12-year-old son.
Walker did the pattern of squares of plaid flannel and long underwear for a queen-sized bed, cutting out a black bear from a souvenir sweat shirt from an Adirondack trip and stitching it on the back.
Two other women she knew, Ann Shaw and Norma Chapin, volunteered to do the quilt backings and as each new quilt was finished, Walker's cat Montgomery nestle down as if to claim it. Walker felt soothed by working on these quilts she imagined would comfort the Rogan family and keep them warm.
"Every time I work on this," Walker said, "it makes for a more peaceful existence for me." As Christmas approached, all but two were finished. So Walker mailed three. Early this week, the boxes arrived at the beige house with cranberry shutters. As Melissa Rogan prepared to open them in the living room with her children, her pounding heart felt like it was in her stomach.
Finding someone to make quilts had been a mission of hers for months after her husband died evacuating guests from the Marriott hotel near the World Trade Center. She got the idea from a friend who had such a quilt, but that quilter had said she could not do another.
A volunteer quilting group came to the firehouse, but they said they worked from regular fabric, not old clothes. And old clothes were just about all she had to remember her husband, besides his tools and the watch and wallet he left in his locker. "We were left with nothing," she said.
Then in one of the Sept. 11-related newsletters, she saw an announcement from the United We Quilt organization. Rogan was amazed by Walker's compassion and willingness to do all five.
She was also worried. She didn't know how she'd react to the quilts that were so precious to her before she'd even seen them.
"Other than someone bringing him back," she said, "I don't think anyone could give us anything more meaningful."
In the last two years, she's cried so much each time the awful wave of loneliness overcomes her that her tear ducts now ache and swell after a few tears. Maybe when she saw the quilts, she'd fall apart.
She can't always tell. The Sept. 11 anniversary doesn't make her cry, but the week before does. Holidays don't bother her, but birthdays without the man she married for his quiet kindness do.
She pulled the quilts out of the boxes Monday afternoon and marveled how everyone recognized the blues of his work pants and the plaid flannel of his bathrobe. Each quilt had its own breathtaking pattern. Melissa Rogan would give the big patchwork of long underwear and flannel as a Christmas present to her husband's parents, who had no idea about the quilts.
Of the denim stars, her son said: "Oh, my gosh, that's for me?" It was really something that her son, Matthew, could get so excited about a blanket. It was his twin sister, Monica, who begged for the one with the little Mallomars. She remembered how her father wore that silly, goofy sweat shirt all the time. They all did, and they all laughed to think of it and Melissa Rogan didn't feel like crying.
She remembered the two remaining quilts for her and her 15-year-old daughter, Sarah. Eventually she knew they would arrive, each with a surprise pattern made of the familiar clothes. It was a comforting thought.