|Patricia L. Cummings
My favorite photo of "Mother" (at 21 yrs. old)
After a long struggle with Vascular Dementia/ Alzheimer’s/ Parkinsons Disease, my mother finally succumbed to death during
a (second) heart attack in 2005. The exact names of the disease(s) do not really matter. A diagnostic label cannot capture the
scope of her loss of ability to function in the world and to her, the loss of herself. To call a disease by name results in no less
devastation for the family whose loved one is still living but is not quite “all there,” after becoming a faintly recognizable
version, indeed, a shadow of a former self.
Debt a Clue to a Greater Problem
Even though we visited mother frequently, there were no indications that she was using up all of her financial resources and
had begun sinking into debt. Very unlike her at all, she owed back property taxes and had resorted to “charging” her groceries
on a credit card. She spent time watching television and ordering useless items that she felt would become “valuable
collectibles” at some later date.
Little did I know, since I did not oversee the payment of her bills, that only $16 dollars remained in her checking account on
the day of her first heart attack, an event from which she never fully recovered, and that caused her to never again return to
her home. Her dismal financial profile was a reflection of a mind spiraling out of control. Oddly enough, her sense of
desperation over money was not apparent to those closest to her.
Early Morning Call
The first I knew of mother’s troubles was the phone ringing early in the morning before sunrise. By the time anyone thought
to call, the paramedics already had brought her from the small town where she resided to the nearest city’s emergency room.
There it was determined that she had developed bleeding stomach ulcers that exaggerated a heart problem.
First, she was admitted to a medical hospital and following that she went to a nursing home. In the ensuing years, she moved
many times, going back and forth between nursing homes and hospitals. The worst condition I saw her in was in a
psychiatric ward. She was held to a wheel chair by leather wrist restraints and reported that she had been kidnapped by drug
dealers. She refused to eat.
Surprisingly and in a turn of mood, she told us to bring her wedding gown as she was going to get married the next day “to
the love of her life” (she named a former boyfriend who was long since pushing up daisies. The doctor was convinced that
her condition would not improve unless electro-convulsive shock therapy was administered. Reluctantly, but with seemingly
no other recourse, I agreed to authorize treatment. That decision was a last resort and one that was not reached lightly.
Watching her repeatedly tear intravenous tubes out of her arms was a clear indication that intervention was necessary. I just
wanted my mother “back.”
Inability to Adjust to Life in a Nursing Home
Always one to get her own way and a woman who could only take the world to a limited degree, she did not adjust well to
institutional living. Her quarters were too small or she did not like her roommate or the food was lousy. No matter how many
sets of clothes we brought, she would be wearing clothing that belonged to someone else or had shrunk in the laundry or was
just not her size anyhow but a hand-me-down from some deceased resident.
Always, she greeted me with more complaints than Carter has liver pills! She fixated on the idea that she should be brought
home to live with us. She could not fathom the reasons why that plan was not within the realm of possibility. Being unable to
fulfill her wish instilled guilt and sadness in us and made visits with her almost intolerable. For a number of reasons, living
with us (again) would not work out. She could no longer climb stairs to an upstairs bedroom or get in and out of the bathtub
by herself or even with help (we had no shower then). In addition, she had done some strange things during her prior visit
such as lighting matches and throwing them on the bathroom floor after locking herself in that room all day, refusing to come
When I look back now, her behavior seems to have been generated by frustration and that, in turn, caused her to be angry.
Ultimately, her feelings transformed into a full blown state of depression and despondency. She gave up on life long before life
gave up on her. She broke her glasses. She threw away her hearing aids. She did not take an interest in anything except, for a
short time, using colored pencils to color the nice coloring books I ordered for her from Dover Publications, pretty pictures of
flowers and animals intended for adult use. Everyone at the facility praised her for her “art work” and thus reinforced her
desire to be known as an “artist.”
Physically, she began to slip away. After her funds ran out (from the sale of her farm), she was moved to an out-of-the-way
room. This was a decided change from when she was paying top dollar for her former room with a view of a few flowers in
the courtyard. The new room had no windows, was very tiny, and was a distance away from a bathroom, making it hard for
her to get there “in time” using her walker. The staff did not check on her often and there was no way for her to call for help,
in case of an “emergency” or if she needed anything.
The gist of our visits consisted of “What did you bring me?” and “When are you going to take me home?” She would plead,
argue and cry. It was pitiful. I had no answers for her. I just knew that I could not, in any way, consider caring for her
myself. All things considered, and believe me, we did ponder this topic deeply, she was better off with 24 hour nursing care
available. Fear of her erratic behavior was just too overwhelming to even think of home care.
Almost eight years ago have passed since mother’s death. The funeral arrangements had been determined ahead of time,
according to her wishes. She would be laid to rest with her beloved husband who passed to another realm many years before.
She wanted a closed casket, no calling hours, and only a few graveside prayers said by a Catholic priest. A handful of people
arrived to witness the final words said publicly on her behalf.
Pleasant Memories Revisited
I cannot dwell on the last segment of her life, finding it preferable to recall happier times during her 92 years on this earth. She
loved to go camping in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. She liked crossword puzzles, political “news,” and reading the
Union Leader newspaper. She enjoyed embroidery, loved to bake cakes and pies, and she relished trying out new recipes. She
was a woman of faith. As time passes, I am able to concentrate on her good qualities, not her personality traits, or habits I
disliked…like her smoking cigarettes, until she was forced by a health condition to give them up.
A Crazy Quilt block to remember "Mother". Photo by James Cummings
Crazy Quilt Memorial Quilt Block
With thoughts of my mother in mind, I made a Crazy Quilt block. The word “Crazy” could aptly describe my mother’s ordeal
of mental chaos in a world that had suddenly turned upside down.
Let me explain my design choices. First of all, I made a copy of a note that she handed to me on one visit. Always, she had
prided herself on fine penmanship all of her life. This message was scrawled and featured repeated lines written on both sides
of the small piece of paper. Many of the words were crossed out.
She wanted me to call a certain doctor in Concord for her. On the fabric print-out of part of the note, I have superimposed the
words, “We Will Not Forget You, Mom!” I have added her name and a red Pansy blossom. She so loved Pansies! This one
came from the corner of a vintage white handkerchief to which it had been added as a 3-dimensional element. I removed the
free-standing embroidered pansy and applied it to the background cloth using Buttonhole stitch. To the edge of that
asymmetrical piece of cotton fabric, I added a commercially-made unicorn appliqué to honor the fact that my mother indeed,
A Butterfly of Hope
Butterfly motifs have long served as symbols of hope. The blue butterfly is reminiscent of a day we shared one summer. After
lunch, we took a walk in the flower garden and saw the most beautiful blue butterfly imaginable! I looked for the beautiful
butterfly later but never saw it again.
I added the ceramic button that depicts two doves because it reminds me of my Dad always calling her his “turtle dove.” The
bluebird sitting on a nest, offered by way of another button, reminds me of how years ago, we had nesting bluebirds on the
My mother, a convert to Catholicism, often prayed the Rosary and was devoted to the Virgin Mary. I happened to have
purchased an iconic image of the Virgin, in cloth, and decided to add it to the Crazy Quilt block, embellishing it the halo
around her head with beads. Mother loved Christmas and made a lot of fuss, especially over gifts and food. The one
Christmas fabric on the block features gold-trimmed doves, ribbons, and holly and serves as a tribute to all the special
Christmases we spent together.
Good v. Evil
I understand that the devil has been represented by striped fabric since medieval times. I included a striped fabric in the colors
pink, white and black to symbolize how my mother’s behavior seemed to be influenced by the “dark” side at times.
The colors black and white are repeated over the surface of the block. The black and white paisley embroidered design is
added to counterbalance the black and white printed fabric used elsewhere, as well as the written words in black, and the
black and white unicorn appliqué.
Remembering how she loved hummingbirds, I sewed on a piece of Aida cloth on which I had embroidered a hummingbird at
rest in cross-stitch using a free Internet design I had found long ago. For good luck and in the tradition of Victorian
needlework, a silver color spider is added atop a lacy circular piece of tatting. A fancy and elaborate shamrock is also added
for “good luck,” a wish that mother is now at peace. Just for fun, a replicated cigarette silk premium from NEBO Cigarettes is
sewn onto the quilt block; it says “Tis looking down-ward makes us dizzy.”
Crazy Quilts as Emotive Devices of Expression
Perhaps other people who make Crazy Quilts do not put as much emotion into them. I am not sure about that, since I am only
a party of one! I carefully choose all of the fabrics and embellishments. They have to have some meaning to me, personally.
Cloth of varied textures is chosen and I like to repeat colors in some manner to add more cohesiveness and less discordance
to a piece of crazy quilting. In this case, my basis “palette” consists of pink, green, blue, brown and the neutrals of black and
white, a broad range of colors, to be sure.
Just an Exercise
This block is still “only” a singular block. Will it become something larger? I doubt it. This was a cathartic exercise, nothing
more, but one that I had to get out of my system. Is this the best Crazy Quilt I have ever made? Decidedly NOT! Will I make
other Crazy Quilts? Of course, I will! I have already made many small ones as well as clothing, pieced in this fashion.
As always, there are some things I would change. Every textile that one works on becomes part of a learning curve. We
discover what “works” and what could be done better. That is all part of the process of becoming better at what we do.
Learning from our own mistakes really can serve a purpose!
I hope you have enjoyed this brief glimpse into my creative decisions and perhaps you have gained a little bit of an insight into
the final years of my mother’s life and can find some empathy for what she (and her family) endured. I am sure that other
“baby-boomers” (or the so-called “sandwich generation”) have other stories to tell! We never know what challenges will face
us later, do we? Therefore, we cannot adequately prepare for whatever variables may lie ahead. We have only today to
consider and thankfully we can only make any decisions today!
Copyright 2013. Patricia L. Cummings, Quilter's Muse Publications, Concord, NH. All rights reserved.