Tuesday, February 19, 2013

My very first quilt... Robert's panel in the Names Project Quilt

February is filled with family birthdays and two very important anniversaries of losses. Earlier this month I wrote about Mom and the vest I made. Today, February 19, is the 17th anniversary of the death of my brother Robert. He was only 5 years older than me, and we were the Baby Boomer children of our family. Our older two brothers were both pre-WWII babies who left home after junior college and high school in 1959, when Robert and I were just 10 and 5 years old. Robert was brilliant! He was one of those kids who could do everything well. He was so creative, and even designed and made his own guitar case out of canvas on my mom's old Singer when he was in high school. He was a gourmet cook, incredible gardener, loved the opera, spoke nine languages, and so much more. Everyone loved him and growing up, my girlfriends were all in love with him, his strawberry blonde hair and charismatic smile.
Robert at 20 years

Robert fell in love with the Spanish language in junior high and even spent Sunday afternoons with a family from our church who were from Mexico. He would spend hours immersed in the culture and language with Mr. and Mrs. Baca. After high school, Robert went off to the University of California at Davis and completed his BA in Spanish. His junior year at UCD he went to Spain for a semester abroad. He went on to get a Master's in Spanish at San Francisco State and a Ph.D. in Spanish and Linguistics from UCLA. After he completed his dissertation, he interviewed for several teaching positions. One was in the upper midwest, one out in California nearer our folks, and one was at the University of Kansas in Lawrence where I had moved with my family several years prior. He fell in love with the people and the position at KU and bought a house only a few blocks away from me. My kids grew up walking by Uncle Robert's house on the way to and from school every day.
Professor Granberg, 1992

Only a couple of years into his teaching career at KU he found out he was HIV+. Before long, Robert started having more symptoms and soon progressed to full blown AIDS. In less than four years after his initial diagnosis, he was gone. Robert was only 47 years old. 

Following his death, I wanted to do something to memorialize his life. He was cremated and scattered, so there was no grave site to visit. I'd been working with the local AIDS Project and learned about the Names Project quilt that was rapidly growing. I got the information and started asking family members if they wanted to contribute something to Robert's panel. In the end I had six blocks to assemble into some sort of quilt.

I learned from the Names Project website that the panels were to be 3 feet by 6 feet, leaving a few inches extra all around for binding. These panels, roughly the dimensions of a standard grave, include the name of the person being remembered, as well as other details such as where they were from, special talents they had, as well as pictures and other mementos. In my brother's belongings we found a whole bag of his neckties. He always wore a buttondown shirt with a tie, often with a vest or wool shirt over them. His ties were traditional to antique to wild and crazy.

My daughter Ali, then 11 years old, suggested we use the ties to make the petals of a sunflower on the panel and that's just what we did. I made a cross-stitch panel of a red rose beside his name and dates. My nieces and sister-in-law commissioned two painted and pieced blocks commemorating his Phi Beta Kappa award in 1971 when he graduated from UCD and his Ph.D. in 1988 from UCLA. One of his hospice nurses wrote a poem which my mother cross-stitched with roses onto a block, as well as the block with the Kansas Jayhawk showing the dates Robert taught at KU. Our oldest brother Ken knitted a square with llamas on it as a reminder of the sweater he had made for Robert out of alpaca wool he had brought back from a trip to Peru. Finally, my aunt embroidered a map of Spain and Portugal with outlines of the tour Robert took her and my uncle on when they visited him while he was living in Spain. Together, I sewed these random blocks together with grosgrain ribbon and attached them onto the backing fabric along with the sunflower of ties.
Robert's panel in Block 5301
When sent in to the NAMES Project, the individual panels are grouped together into larger 12' x 12' blocks of eight panels which are bound together for display. Robert's panel is included in block 5301. My children and I submitted Robert's panel to the NAMES Project during the World AIDS Day ceremony, December 1, 1999, at the University of Kansas where he had taught, and his panel has returned to KU for display on World AIDS Day several times since then. According to the AIDSquilt.org, there are more than 48,000 individual panels memorializing more than 94,000 people who have died of AIDS

It was a simple project and certainly not "quilting" as I think of it today, but a project that will always be dear to my heart. I had no idea then that I would ever be a quilter, but somehow I think Robert knew. When I moved last year I found a book, The Mountain Artisans Quilting Book, with an inscription to me from Robert dated 1976. I even found notes to myself in there with a diagram of another NAMES Project panel I had planned to make in memory of Robert and two other friends who had died of AIDS. With my notes is a template I had cut out for a Dresden block. That panel never came to be, but it still might someday. Although that book had long been buried on the bookshelf, it now has a new place of honor as a voice from beyond says to me, "I always knew you would be a quilter. I love you, Robert." I love you too, Robert, and think of you every day as I work on my many quilting projects.
Liz & Robert, SFO upon his return from his first trip to Spain


  1. What a wonderful tribute to your brother! And yes, you were definitely meant to be a quilter! I'm sure he is very proud of you and all the joy you've spread over the years. (And wow! NINE languages?!)

  2. What a beautiful, touching story Liz. how awesome to rediscover such a special treasure from your brother. I feel like when ya stumble on something like that it's a little message from those we love😇