Friday, January 23, 2009


Do you know David Sedaris' essay In the Waiting Room? If you don't, you can (and should, it's funny) read it here. In the essay, Sedaris writes about what it's like to live in France and not speak the language fluently, about how you can find yourself in situations that you did not entirely foresee.

One day last winter I sat down to work on the baby quilt that I was making for the birth of my second filleul. It was already late: the baby was a week or two old. I had managed to finish quilts for my niece and my elder filleul well before they were born, and I had been working and commuting and volunteering raising girls who were younger and needier than they are now and generally running around quite a bit more. Nevertheless. Having less to do meant taking more time to do it in, and I had not yet finished Baby B's quilt. So I sat down with my four inch squares of fabric, many of them already sewn together in strips, and began laying them out on the table in front of me in a pattern.

The squares had come from half a dozen or more different fabrics, each of them with a history. One or two came from a batik dress that Baby B's mother wore in college. Another came from the remnants of a fabric that went into E's bed quilt, that I made for her when she was a toddler. Another came from G's bed quilt, same vintage. One came from my grandmother's stash of quilting fabric--it was one of my favorites, blue printed with cowboys and cacti, clearly printed at the peak of Bonanza's popularity. And there were new fabrics, too, some provençal prints that I had bought here. The fabric in the quilt would tell Baby B stories about his family, about how he was connected to the world.

As I sorted the squares and the strips I saw quickly that I had not cut or sewn them all evenly. The squares were all roughly four inches by four inches, but the emphasis there should be on roughly. (I am not a straight line person; I cut the fabric to get the fabric cut so I can move on, perfection and right angles be damned. This is sometimes frustrating for the engineer who lives with me and believes that 90 degrees should be 90 degrees and not 103 or 86.) As I sorted, I trimmed here and there, where a square was truly lopsided or veering towards the not at all square even if you squinted.

Violette, our sometime housekeeper, arrived about then. We chatted--she spoke locally-accented French without moving her lips and I tried to follow--for a few minutes, and then I showed her what I was doing. Instead of nodding and moving on to the vacuuming, which I what I had expected, she sat down opposite me at the table.

The squares aren't square, she said.

Yes, I know, but when I sew them together, it will be good enough.

She humphed and said something quickly while looking down at the not-square squares. Not being able to see her expression robbed me of any clues to what she was saying, so I went with Hmmm.

Then she picked up the scissors and ruler and began to trim. It won't do. You have to start over.

I was startled. But I reviewed my options. I could contradict her and point out that I had made quilts before, I knew what I was doing, and she should carry on with the housecleaning. Or I could agree that the quilt needed some work (which, really, it did) and start doing it. My French was not then, isn't now, and probably never will be fluent enough to win an argument with a native speaker. Violette was certain that this needed to be done, and I knew her well enough to be sure that I would not dissuade her from it.

And that is how I came to pass the afternoon sitting with my housekeeper and working on Baby B's quilt. Violette instructed me to pick out the stitches while she began recutting the squares. (The vacuuming--what vacuuming?) After a couple of hours, she needed to leave to pick up her husband. I began putting things away, and so did she. When we were finished, she picked up the sewing bag and announced: I'll take this home and finish it, and bring it back next week.

Oh no, I said, c'est pas nécessaire de faire ça. You don't have to do that.

Non. I'll do it. (Having seen my work, Violette clearly didn't think much of my abilities.) I'll bring it back Monday.

And then, like David Sedaris, I heard myself say, D'accord. Okay. It's the most useful word in the French language, because nine-tenths of the time, the conversations that people have with you don't really require you to offer your opinion or even give any information. People are generally more than content to have you simply agree with them. If they need more information, they tend to find a different way to phrase the question; if they've asked you whether you want the meat or the fish and you've just said okay, then they'll ask you if you want the fish. If you keep saying okay, you're all set.

So I said to Violette, D'accord, and off she went with the quilt, and off I went to clean the bathrooms. The next week she came back--to get more fabric. She'd laid out the squares and found that there weren't quite enough. Off she went with my box of fabric bits.

Two weeks later I saw her again. She came in carrying my sewing bag and the box of bits. She set everything on the table and then, slowly and ceremoniously, pulled the completed quilt top out of the bag. She had recut the squares to be truly square, sewn them into straight strips, and assembled the strips into a rectangle. Everything was plumb. It was lovely.

I admired it, taken aback, of course, puzzled, bien sûr, and touched. She had made this for the pleasure of making it, but she had also, it seemed to me, made it out of kindness, gentilesse. I didn't have a mother or an aunt handy to show me how to do a proper job, so she had stepped in.

Violette was pleased that I liked her work, and it was only with difficulty that I prevented her taking it away again to finish. She wanted me to give her the trim, the batting, and the backing fabric, and was looking forward to putting the quilt together herself. What finally persuaded her to leave the quilt with me was my telling her that it was for my second godson, and I wanted to have done the work on it myself. Once I managed to convey that in my faltering French, she gave a short nod and acquiesced.

Then she spent the next two months asking me, every visit, how the quilt was coming along, if I'd finished it yet, if she could see it. She advised me--a lot--about the borders, and about the backing, and clucked a little over my decision to quilt it simply and without an intricate pattern. When I finished it, she inspected it carefully and pronounced it satisfactory. Next time, you'll quilt a design, she said, shaking her finger at me. But this, c'est pas mal. Pas mal.

Which is about as good as it gets, coming from a French person.

The quilt now hangs on the end of Baby B's bed in America. He's a year old this week. When I began his couette, I thought that the story would be about the fabrics, and my having made it in France, the country where he was born. But the story unspooled differently than I had foreseen, and what we tell him now will not only be about the fabrics coming from California and Washington and North Carolina and France, not only about our families being together in all those places. It will also be about Violette, and speaking French, and how you can communicate without many words. And how it helps if one of those words is d'accord.


  1. What a beautiful quilt! And even nicer knowing how it was made and what care went into it. I noticed that Italians say everything is va bene (it's all good, or OK, or fine, great) but French people say "not bad". It's a whole different outlook on life.

  2. This is a beautiful blog! I love all the pictures!