Create an ‘Aprons4Alzheimers’ Movement in Your Community
1. Gather friends and sew aprons.
2. Sell the aprons at a farmer’s market, bazaar, or through a local merchant.
3. Donate proceeds to a local organization that provides Alzheimer’s respite care.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Kansas Quilters

     I am not sorry that sewing aprons has become a full time job. Acting as my own book agent, coupled with many hours of sewing, keeps my cup overflowing on a charitable endeavor. My husband, Lon, the official recreation officer in our marriage, pulls on my reins and forces me to walk away from my endless projects so we can play tourist and have fun. He reminds me it’s the reason we saved so we could retire early, the reason we sold our house and chose a life of travel.

     Therefore, it came to be on a sunny day in July; we descended 235 steps to the Gunnison River and boarded a boat managed by the National Park Service. Forty-two fellow passengers were with us for a two-hour ride through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison where walls of ancient rock, waterfalls, birds, vistas, and smashing stories told by the Park Ranger kept us entertained.

     I can’t tell you why we chose the date and time for the boat ride. We could have chosen the noon boat instead of the 10 a.m. ride. We could have chosen the day before or the day after. I didn’t sit next to Lon; instead, I sat across the aisle from him and next to a group of women from Kansas. They were a high spirited lot and since I can’t carry my friends with me, I’m always on the look out for friendly females to chat with. This clutch of Kansas ladies was a welcome site and when one of them mentioned they were quilters, well… Katy bar the door! Mention fabric, quilts, or thread and I’m off and running.
     “Do you quilt?” they asked.
     “Well I used too, and I love to quilt, but now I’m busy sewing aprons.” I didn’t even have to look at Lon to know his eyes were rolling and he was feeling sorry for the women who were now going to hear about my book and apron project. It’s a story he’s heard so many times he can tell it better than I can. However, he doesn’t. He lets me babble on and waits to see the reaction.

     Bless their hearts for listening to my tale. This I know. It’s hard to find someone not touched by Alzheimer’s. I’m grateful to those who listen but I’m filled with sorrow in the same breath because I know it’s because they understand and have seen the destruction it brings to a family.

     During the last hour of our boat trip, Janie, Vicki, and I shared stories and experiences about quilting, Alzheimer’s, and care giving. We slowly made our way up those unmerciful 235 steps and every step brought us closer together as we visited and exchanged life stories.

     When we made it to the parking lot, they generously purchased six of my books and promised they would keep in touch with me through email. I really, truly, wanted to hear back from them, but sometimes people say they will write and I never hear from them again. I liked these ladies but I didn’t want to act too needy.
     I need not have feared. Let me share with you a wonderful email I received from Janie just a few days later.
Good morning Gwen,
I am Janie one of the gals you met on the boat ride Monday am. (I am the Home Health/Hospice RN who had to stop every few feet going back up to the parking lot!)

We traveled home yesterday - left Montrose at 7:30 am and I got home to Iola, KS this am at about 1:30. My friend, Vicki, read from your book aloud and then I read and Vicki read again until her throat got sore…we thoroughly enjoyed your story. Bless your heart, it isn't easy being a caregiver. In our vehicle there were 4 gals and 1 guy, he drove and told us the story was depressing him. His wife, Jo, told him to be quiet and just drive. He complied.

3 of us gals in the vehicle are quilters, Vicki isn't but loves us anyway and she is going to have an apron making weekend at her home and we will get some other quilters and she will cook and press and we will sew and all visit and just enjoy each others company.

It was such a pleasure to meet you and get to visit with you and I will be watching for the Threads magazine and The Country Register articles and one of these days will contact you and ask where to send the aprons.

God Bless You,

     You have a cold, cold heart if you are not struck by the generosity and kindness of these Kansas ladies. I have made over 140 aprons so I wept at this news. Lon smiled and breathed a sign of relief. He knows how much the aprons are a part of my book but he also knows I can write even better than I can sew and he’s been urging me to write about the wonderful people we meet. If others volunteer to sew, I get more time to write.

     So here I am, telling the tale of the Kansas quilters. The story would be sweet enough if I ended it now with Janie’s email. But…there is more to tell.

     I promised Janie I would have my sister, Katie, send her a few apron patterns. Barbara Brunson of Vanilla House Design generously donated several patterns to our cause (Read: Apron Wings). When Janie received the patterns, she wrote to tell me they had arrived and invited me to come to Iola, Kansas to give a reading and conduct an apron class. I was visiting my husband’s family at the time I received the email. They have traveled extensively so I walked into the living room and asked, “Do you happen to know where Iola is located in Kansas.”

     Lon’s mom, Dorothy, immediately replied, “Well, we sure do. Lon’s uncle Bill Hinde lives there, he’s lived there for years. He used to be a baker but his daughter, Regina, runs the bakery now.”

     I quickly shot a email back to Janie asking if there was a chance she might know Lon’s family. The next morning while having coffee and breakfast, Lon arrived at the kitchen table with his iPad and said, “Listen to this!” and proceeded to read an email from Janie:

Dear Gwen,
It sure is a small world! Regina was in my sister's class in school and she is also a quilter. I took care of her father in law and would look at a pretty quilt hanging on the wall every time I listened to his heart and lungs…Regina made it. She and her husband do run the bakery and they have the best cookies and cakes in the world I think. I also took care of Mr. Hinde last year after he had some illness. Yes I think you need to make a visit to Iola KS sometime and meet and greet. Our library is usually open to Book signings and we do have a quilt shop 10 miles south of here and 30 miles north and many others within 50-100 miles-we could keep you very busy and of course we would love your visit to include a 4th Monday of the month and you could go to quilt guild! My but I ramble on.
Talk to you later and have a great weekend.

     I have been accused of embellishing stories. I’ve been known to say, “Oh my gosh, that is the greatest story and it is going to be so much better when I re-tell it!” I promise I did not make this up. Janie is a real person, Iola exists, and someday I’m going to make my way to her quilt guild, read from my book, and maybe even have a cookie or two from the bakery.

     Janie, keep your needles sharp and your thread waxed, you never know when I’ll come a knock ’n!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Primitive Quilts and Comforts Magazine, supported my cause by publishing the following article in the 2011 Fall Issue. The article appears in the Charitable Causes section of this delightful publication.

     While vacationing in Alaska I spent an afternoon wandering through fabric shops. On a whim, I purchased an apron pattern designed by Barbara Brunson of Vanilla House Design; after my vacation ended in Alaska I was heading to Florida to act as a full time caregiver for my parents. “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe I’ll have time to do a bit of sewing.” I had taken a sewing sabbatical and the thought of needles, thread, and fabric sounded like a creative adventure.

     After arriving in Florida I excitedly set up a sewing room. To my surprise, Mom, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s, wanted to be part of the activities. Once an accomplished seamstress, I did not think she had the ability to undertake any sewing tasks. Mom surprised of us both with what she could accomplish. She could press under ¼-inch edges on apron ties, turn pockets to right side out then poke out neat little corners, and with great precision, she cut out baby bibs.

     My little sewing room became our daily retreat. I felt fortunate to stumble upon an activity we both enjoyed. Mom was at home with fabric, so as a treat for both of us I would take her to shop for a fresh batch of prints, swirls, dots, and stripes. Alzheimer’s had not yet damaged her talent for finding the right hue or pattern; she gave great advice on selecting coordinating fabric. Here’s the crazy part, the next day she would dress herself in stripes, prints, and colors that made her look as if she was headed to a Halloween party as a homeless bag lady.

     Sewing was therapeutic for both of us. We would sit side by side, not saying much, enjoying the feel of fabric and seeing the fruits of our labor in simple little items we stitched together. We both found a calm, peaceful place as we self medicated with fabric.

     Mom helped me with sewing tasks up until the last month of her life. I wrote a story about our sewing experience and shared it with my sister, Katie. She read my story during a mother-daughter banquet at her church and called to tell me how well it was received. “The audience loved it, Gwen; you’ve got to write more stories.” A few stories grew into a lovely little book that Katie and my brother Gordon helped me publish. Five months after standing at the grave of our parents, who had died with-in two weeks of each other, we stood together as we sold our book to help raise funds for Alzheimer’s respite care.

     Calico Gals fabric shop, in Syracuse, New York, was the first shop to let me set the books on their counter. When I offered an apron to display with the book, I was advised that I should make sure I was not violating a copyright law. I was nervous when I contacted Barbara Brunson but she immediately put me at ease, embraced the project, and gave me permission to continue to pair the book and apron. I donate all net proceeds from book and apron sales to organizations that provide Alzheimer’s respite care.

     Quilters Quarters, in Zephyrhills, Florida, allowed me to conduct an apron making class along with a book reading and book signing. Women who understand the magic of fabric weave a generous cloth of kindness. My sister and I have had such great support but we would love to include you in this worthwhile project.

     How can you help? As an individual, you can buy the book or if you are a shop owner, you could sell the book in your shop. I need volunteers to sew aprons and readers who will choose my book for their book club. My husband and I live full time on the road in a small travel trailer, we just may be coming you way. Please feel free to contact me by email. I would love to swing through your neighborhood, give an apron making class, do a reading and donate funds to benefit your community.

Please let me hear from you.
Gwen O’Leary

Jody's Story

      My sister, Katie, deserves so much credit for helping me get my book published. While we were in the throngs of getting the book ready for printing, she asked why I had never published any of my writing. My answer was, “Katie I’m too lazy, too afraid of rejection notices, and wary of reader criticism.” When it came to writing about my mother’s journey through the destructive path of Alzheimer’s I forgot my fears and have never regretted sharing the intimate details of our family’s story.

     Several months after publishing my book, Katie convinced me to apply for a guest columnist position in the My Opinion section of the Sanilac County Newspaper. After learning I was accepted into the position, I shared the news of the assignment to a fellow writer who remarked, “You have a journalist’s dream job!”
     A bit surprised, I responded, “I do?”
     She chuckled at me, “Are you kidding? Someone has agreed to print your work, you can write about anything you want, and express your opinion! It’s a great opportunity.”

     Writer’s block is any author’s nightmare and as the dead line for my first article approached, I feared my brain would say, “Gwen, you had one good book in you, but now the party’s over.” However, I remembered a story about mom and a quilt lady she adored. I was sorry I didn’t remember to include it my book but now I had the perfect opportunity to share it in my column. Here is the story from the July 27, 2011, edition of the Sanilac Country Newspaper. (For those of you, who have already read the article, please notice I have added to the story at the end of the article.)

A Sanilac Quilted Life

     When my mother, Donna O’Leary was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my sister and I became team caregivers; Katie took the summer duty in Applegate, Michigan, I had the winter months in Zephyrhills, Florida. During the second winter as caregiver, I began the task of purging Mom’s closets and drawers. I found an unfinished baby quilt and a snarl of yarn waiting for her crochet hook to weave it into life. They were mixed with other relic supplies that had fueled her hobbies; all of it was a cruel reminder that her once creative brain could no longer churn out quilts, crochet, or paint ceramics.
      I wept when I found a stash of fabric tucked in a drawer; yards of pastel gingham, colorful calicos, and a rainbow of remnant fabric lay waiting in vain for her artistic mind and productive hands to work their magic. I yearned to cut and stitch my way into the stash and create one last memento with Mom’s choices of prints and solids; but when my six months of winter care giving ended, I would return to my home on the road in a 16 foot travel trailer. Space was a precious commodity. I had no sewing machine and no spare storage for all of Mom’s fabric.
     Mom’s last stockpile of fabric haunted me. Should I try to sell it or donate it to a thrift store? With all that I had to care and worry about, Mom’s fabric pricked at my brain until I happened to remember a woman, Jody McGuffie, whom my mother adored for the folk-art, scrappy quilts she made. Jody called herself “The Zephyrhills Quilt Lady” and churned out hand-pieced quilts at the speed that some people churn out homemade cookies.
     Jody agreed to create a quilt with my mother’s fabrics. Using descriptions I gave her of Mom’s life as a farmer’s wife in Sanilac County, Jody appliqu├ęd nine folk-art blocks that wove the tale of a wife and mother who: grew and preserved fruits and vegetables, plowed the fields, rolled pie crusts at the local IGA, hoed beans with her four children by her side, welded with her husband and sons, painted ceramics, camped along the shores of Lake Huron and during her retirement years traveled the United States in a fifth-wheel camper. When she quit traveling, she worked as head housekeeper at a ski condominium in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. The scenes Jody constructed from Mom’s fabric were lively and colorful, just a vivid as mom’s life. When we presented Mom with her Sanilac Quilted Life, she smiled and stroked the scenes and told us details that stitches and fabric couldn’t depict.
     I moved away from Sanilac County soon after graduating high school and lived a life far different from my mother’s. While writing descriptions to Jody, I thought back to my life on the farm and realized what a great role model my mother was and how fortunate I was to come from such great roots.
     Sanilac County continued to play a part in my mother’s legacy when my book about caring for my mother was first distributed at the “Walk to Remember” in Sandusky, September 2010. The community embraced my book “When Life Hands You Alzheimer’s, Make Aprons!” and has continued to support me and my sister as we work to distribute the book and donate all net profits to Alzheimer’s respite care.
      Eight years before we buried my mother, I returned home to help bury my brother. I callously remarked to my sister that I saw my childhood community as a place I had escaped from. Shame on me. You can never escape your roots. And if you are lucky enough to have an epiphany like I have had, you are thankful that what you left behind is waiting and willing to let you escape back.
     My mother’s Sanilac Quilted Life quilt will be on display at the Sandusky District Library from July 24 - August 12 and at the Sanilac District Library and in Port Sanilac from August 17 - 27. My sister and I will be conducting a book reading and signing at the Sanilac District Library on Aug 17 at 7:00 P.M.

     Hopefully I will get to meet the wonderful woman who read my column and posted it to My husband and I just happened to stumble onto the website. We both sat shocked and in tears as we read the poignant comments readers posted about their experience with Alzheimer’s. It is such a paradox that a disease that unraveled my mother’s brain is also a disease that stitches strangers together in a shared experience.
     While writing the article for the paper, I often thought about Jody and had such good intentions about contacting her. Living on the road and always exploring new places keeps me busy but I’ve added the responsibility of acting as my own book agent and sew aprons almost everyday. All of these are paltry excuses for not getting in touch with Jody. Jody was always so patient and kind with my mother and the incredible work of ‘quilt art’ she created from my mother’s fabric was truly a gift of love.

     Seeing the Sanilac County News article, on the quiltingboard, spurred me into action. I still carried Jody’s business card with me and finally, long last, made a phone call to the woman who deserved to know her work of art, and name, were now on the internet for the world to see.

     I was still shaking and emotional from reading all the lovely comments and my voice cracked as I explained to Jody about the article. A few minutes into my conversation, Jody’s voice trembled as she shared my emotion. I thanked her again for the lovely quilt, and apologized for my delay in contacting her.

     Jody shared with me her sad account of caring for both of her dying parents. Her voice wavered when she said, “I haven’t been able to quilt since my mother’s death.” Quilting was a hobby she and her mother joyfully shared together; now quilting brought Jody sadness as memories of stitching with her mother came back to her. When caring for her mother, Jody discovered her mother had started to horde a myriad of objects. As she began purging her mother’s home, she discovered a closet that was stuffed with fabric.

     As Jody and I shared our common grief, I explained how writing the book and sewing aprons brought me peace and comfort. Jody suddenly remarked, “That’s what I can do with my mother’s fabric, I can help by sewing aprons. It will be a wonderful tribute to my mother.” Jody hopes sewing aprons will steer her through the path of immense grief and guide her back to the world of quilting. Whatever it brings her, I wish her happiness as she holds her mother’s fabrics and once again begins to create works of fabric art. Just maybe sewing will bring her to the same peaceful place my mom and I found as we sewed together.

     There is so much human kindness in this world; it surly overshadows the evil we all hear about. Wouldn’t we all be happier if we focused on what is good and kind in the world? My charitable project has proven to me that human kind is ripe with passionate, generous individuals. Jody McGuffie is a shinning spark in a star-studded sky.

     Thanks Jody…and happy stitching!

Thursday, April 7, 2011


Back To The Beginning

          In April of 2007, my husband and I decided to sell our century old home in Salt Lake City. It required constant maintenance; we felt as if the house and yard owned us. We dreamed of a different life: one with less real estate responsibility. Our goal to live on the road in a 16-foot travel trailer became a reality when the house sold in August. Without a mortgage and a lifetime of accumulations, we simplified our life. A few tools, four handmade quilts and a sailboat stayed behind in storage. We pointed our compass west and said, “Let’s go live a life.” For three months, we climbed peaks in the Rockies, shivered under towering Redwoods, tickled our toes in the Pacific, and fell asleep listening to coyotes howl in the desert.

          Then the call came with news concerning my dad’s declining health. He was not treating his high blood pressure; he suffered from extensive edema, required a cane to walk, and had shortness of breath. We left the truck and trailer in Las Vegas and flew to Florida, thinking we could assist with Dad’s health care: give him a pill or two, help with some daily chores, and maybe have time to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic. Oh, how simple it sounded.

          We didn’t do so well. Within a month, Dad was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. After a flurry of tests and doctor’s consultations, we learned he had renal disease brought on by hypertension. The doctors mentioned kidney dialysis, which sounded like a freight train bounding down the tracks in our direction. Dad’s hospitalization put Mom’s long-standing dementia into a tailspin. Before we fully understood Dad’s diagnosis and treatment options our suspicion that Mom suffered from Alzheimer’s was finally confirmed. It was as if a giant foot came down and stepped on the break pedal, and our short, sweet life on the road came to a screeching halt. We were living life differently, that’s for sure. Just not the way we intended.

          I left home at 17 to attend college. At age 20, I left Michigan and headed west to settle in Colorado. I was geographically and, quite honestly, emotionally severed from my family for 35 years. Suddenly I had parents again, very needy parents. My sister and I rarely connected over the years, but now we found ourselves in the same ball court as tag-team caregivers.

          My husband Lon and I took the winter duty in Zephyrhills, Florida. During the summer months, Katie and her husband Del continued to look after them on their farm near Applegate, Michigan. Our parents, Donna and Gerald, could only give minimal aid to each other; in their stead, Sis and I became a replacement wife and husband for each of them. The shoes we decided to step into were large and clumsy. Kicking them off was not an option for us; we learned how to find comfort in the uncomfortable.

          The following chapters are from a journal I kept during the winter of 2009-2010. Each chapter is part journal and part reflection on who my mom was, how Alzheimer’s changed her, and how I learned to be a caregiver.

Chapter Titles

Chapter Order

Back to the Beginning
1. Getting the Death Bed Ready
2. “All the way Back to my Fanny?"
3. Napkins and Paper Clips
4. Mom’s Green Thumb
5. The First Days of the Last Five Months
6. Tortured Omelet
7. In the Land of Hit and Miss Memory
8. “Cookies? We have Cookies!”
9. I Would Rather Burst Into Flames
10. Help Is Spelled H-E-R-B
11. When Life Hands You Alzheimer’s, Make Aprons!
12. Are You Looking For Sympathy?
13. Big Girl Panties
14. How Did You Find Me Back At That Place?
15. Hey! I’m Still Me In Here
16. Grandma Fed Us Roadkill
17. Music in my Toes
18. You Were the Bravest
19. Mom’s Seventy-Fifth Birthday
20. Where’s Gerald?
21. Alzheimer’s Last Gift
Looking Back
Farm Stories
22. Bean Summer Mornings
23. Riding Ollie
24. Killdeer

Chapter 8

“Cookies? We Have Cookies!”

          Trying to keep Mom busy and occupied is a great challenge. She’s never been interested in watching television but she will sit and watch a movie with me if I can find something without profanity. This strikes me as highly ironic, since she can be the queen of profanity even on her best days. We watch Cinderella or Ann of Green Gables, Cinderella or Ann of Green Gables, Cinderella or… I have both movies memorized. Even with her hearing aids, she can’t hear very well, so we use subtitles: “Put those words at the bottom of the T.V. for me,” she instructs, “they make me believe what I heard is what I heard.”

          She loves a bird book I have; each page has a picture and several paragraphs of information about the bird, along with a button you push to hear the bird sing. She is pleased as punch when we sit together for a session of reading and listening. She responds like a child at the various birds. “Mad,” she says when we hear a Canada goose. “Sweet soft,” she responds at the call of a Black-Capped Chickadee. “Noisy!” she remarks at the sound of the raven. This past summer, Katie noticed Mom using these one-word responses, like a child first learning to talk. It was a clue she had experienced what our family calls another “nose dive.” My mother has become my little girl.

          Last winter she was my sassy, angry teenager. Her outbursts frustrated me to tears almost every day just as I’m sure my teen years did the same for her. Alzheimer’s makes us play a hellish game of “Tit for Tat.”

          Katie and Del had to rescue us last winter when Mom sapped our energy and emotional strength. We haven’t needed a rescue party this winter. Mom’s teen years are over, now she's a toddler. Through careful consultation with Mom’s doctor, we have finally found a combination of prescriptions that ease her anxiety without turning her into a zombie. We take her to her favorite restaurants and for slow walks around the mobile home court. We do anything to keep her content. I admit I’m getting tired of the bird book activity. “Read birds,” she asks one day. I can’t help but groan and then remember my favorite childhood book. She must have read The Little Engine That Could hundreds of times to me. I owe her for all she did for me but I need a new activity. “Mom, let’s make cookies.” “Cookies!” she responds, just like a three year old.

          She toddles behind me like a lost puppy, but as soon as we get in the kitchen, a part of her brain kicks in and she questions me in a monotone yet “Mother knows best” voice, “Is the butter at room temperature?”
          I take a deep breath, “Yup, the butter is at room temperature.”
          I really do try to answer patiently; I should have angel wings the size of elephant ears for my efforts. After asking how to unwrap the butter, she looks at me with the cloud of Alzheimer's suddenly gone from her eyes, “Did you remember to preheat the oven?” For a second I think she's back and the last few years have been a big nightmare. But no, her next question is, “What are we making?”

          What is it like to have a brain that remembers the old but not the new? How do you keep the pieces of your life connected?

          Here's the rub, Mom was a baker. Not only in our farm kitchen did she whip up her magic, but also in the bakery at the local IGA in Sandusky, Michigan. I often stopped by for short chats with her on the way home from my shift as a nurse’s aide at McKenzie Memorial Hospital. It was entertaining to watch her make piecrusts. She worked like a machine and loved every minute of the tedious, repetitive details:

Tear off a handful of dough from the huge mound.
Toss it on the scale.
Pinch off a piece...or
add a smidgen.
Expertly roll the dough in a perfect circle.

          Holding the dough as if bathing a newborn baby, she would fold the circle of dough in half, gently place it in the pie tin and unfold it as if it were a rose petal. She quickly patted the dough into the pie tin, deftly crimped the edges with her fingers and thumbs, placed the finished crust off to the side and grabbed a fistful of dough to repeat the whole process.

          It was mesmerizing to watch, hypnotic even. I’m sure she herself would get lost in the act. It's hard to believe, but it's true: She could make 60 piecrusts in an hour. Yes, sixty. One a minute. Now she can't remember for 30 seconds that we are making cookies.

          Today she expertly whacked two eggs together, neatly opened them, and knew how to turn on her old Hobart industrial mixer. She can't tell you her zip code, she doesn't know her phone number, and she struggles to give the hospice nurse her full name. However, she can remember how to get the large beater off the mixer. When I struggle with it, she impatiently shoves me to the side, “Here, let me do it,” and without hesitation removes the beater.

          It's just a laugh a minute, this Alzheimer's.

         Mom has always been at home with a 50-pound sack of flour. We would walk home from school and the smell of yeast met us at the driveway. Bread was her specialty. Potato bread, she called it. She boiled potatoes, saved the water, mashed the potatoes and added both water and potatoes to the yeast and flour. She would put the dough in the car and drive around to visit Lee or Juanita, her favorite “coffee klatch” friends. The dough would rise in the car as the coffee perked and the conversations got lively. In between stories and coffee, she would punch down the dough, let it rise again, visit some more, then drive home to roll it out and braid the bread in beautiful long loafs.

         Today she can’t comb her own hair.

          I always loved how the car smelled like yeast. Once I had my license, I always knew to look in the back seat before taking off with the car. There could be a large bowl of plump dough working itself into a puff, even if Mom didn't go visit'n, the car was always her favorite place to raise dough. To this day, warm bread slathered with butter is my ultimate comfort food. 

          So, here we are in the kitchen together, years later, and she needs help dropping the cookies by the spoonful onto cookie sheets. The same cookie sheets we used back in the 60’s when we churned out cookies as if we were Keebler Elves. Under Mom’s direction, Sis and I made pounds of cookies and sent them to soldiers in Vietnam along with letters of cheer.

          Mom asks for the scoop she once had, a scoop that made perfectly round cookies. She looks for it in the drawer but it’s been long gone from her kitchen supplies. When the cookies come out of the oven, she asks like a child if she can have one. She sits at the table crunching away. Five minutes later, she can't remember that she ate a cookie, but she's still looking for the cookie scoop she had 30 years ago. “I’ll look for it, Mom, you go have another cookie.”

          “Cookie?” she asks, “We have cookies?”

          If I get this disease I hope someone will read, The Little Engine That Could, make cookies with me, and hold my hand as they lead me on slow walks. Whoever that person is, I promise to help them grow a pair of angel wings.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Apron Wings

November 1, 2010

Seven months have passed since both of my parents died; five months since I started writing my book, and only two months since its debut in Sandusky, Michigan on September 11. When my sister, Katie, and I decided to self-publish, we printed 500 books with only vague plans on how to market and distribute. We took this advice, “Jump off a cliff and build your wings on the way down.” Before we landed at the bottom of the cliff, my brother, Gordon, and his family followed like a band of Lemmings. My poor husband Lon, who always has his ducks marching in a row towards an explicit, well planned goal, stood at the top of the cliff wringing his hands and shaking his head.

I joined him in all the hand wringing and brow sweating the night I stood before an audience in Minoa, New York on September 27, to present my story and read a chapter from my book. Prior to Minoa, I had spent two weeks in Michigan spreading the word of my book. My success at small libraries in my old, hometown, community was due in part to name recognition. My parents were well remembered and my sister and her husband are recognized and respected in the community.

I graduated from high school in this farming community where sugar beets, corn, and soybeans pays the mortgage on the farm and puts food on the table. Years ago, my Junior High prom date, Trig Trigger, drove me to the dance in his pick up truck. We were all farm kids; I thought nothing of the unusual mode of transportation. Not much has changed over the years, it’s still a community where everyone knows everyone else’s business but is polite enough not to mention it as they drop off a casserole because your momma just died.

Two weeks of book promotion in quaint farming villages was somewhat of a flag waving “old town girl does well, and comes home” event. My high school history teacher, Ms. Pries, and my journalism teacher, Ms. Magee, sat in the audience offering support. High school class mates listened to my readings and my mother’s friends hugged me tight. It was any author’s dream community. My sister stood by my side as we shared our experience as caregivers and took turns reading a chapter from my book at several presentations.

In Minoa I took the stage alone. Del, my brother in law, wasn’t in the back row offering his support like he did in Michigan. Katie was not by my side ready to step in should I falter and need help. I did have Gordon and his family, and faithful Lon, who always plays well the part of supporting, adoring husband. In Michigan I had a feel for my audience; I still recognize the smell of farm country and the people it supports. I pondered and fretted over what type of audience I would have in Minoa. Just who would come out on a rainy night to listen to my story? The torrential, hurricane driven, storm was so intense, news-casters were warning people to take precautions and stay home.

Ever the farmer’s daughter, I ‘planted’ Mom and Dad in my audience. I put Mom in the front row where she was ready to waggle a finger at me should I sound boastful and proud of my writing accomplishment and not give my immediate family credit for the support they provided. If I ignored her advice, she would be armed and ready with a quote from the big book of rules with something like, “Pride go ‘eth before the fall.” Dad stood humbly in the back by the door in his worn foundry uniform pocked with holes from welding sparks. His sausage sized fingers fidgeted with his cap. He arrived late and was ready to leave early to get to his welding job at the G.M. foundry in Saginaw, Michigan. It was the same position he took when he came to hear my sister and I play concertos at piano recitals. In my heart, my parents are always with me when I talk about my book, but tonight I wanted them as members of my audience. They were as real to me as all the strangers that faced me and wondered what I had to offer.

I began my talk on wobbly knees and a bit of a crackle in my voice as I read from my book and shared my experience as caregiver. With each word I relaxed; faces became people, smiles and giggles offered kindness, and tears flowed like soft whispers telling me I was among friends. The storm didn’t deter a sweet group of twenty people from hearing my tale. Each person came to me afterward to offer kind words of support and purchase my book. But two women stand out: Angela, a lovely woman with a soft English accent, made my head swell from so much praise that the ghost of my mother’s waggling finger appeared to keep me humble. Then came passionate, beautiful, Nancy; Nancy greeted me as if I were her long, lost, puppy from childhood. She was excited about my story and wanted to share it with her boss who owned a fabric shop.

Remember at the beginning of this story when I said Sis and I didn’t have a plan for marketing and distribution? Well, a blind man would have recognized the potential in Nancy’s offer. Without deliberation, I handed Nancy a book and an apron, thinking, “Go forth and multiply”. In twenty four hours I received an email from Nancy inviting me to Calico Gals fabric store to meet her boss Janet Lutz.

Hold on now, this is where the story really gets good.

Lon and I arrived at Calico Gals on a Sunday afternoon just as their “Quilting, Football League, Super Bolt Party” was getting underway. Nancy was busy at the cutting counter with a customer, but she ran to meet me with a big hug and all the warmth of a homemade blueberry muffin.

Janet was intrigued with my book but was also interested in what part the aprons played. She listened intently as I explained how I donated aprons to libraries that were willing to put my book on their shelf for circulation and agreed to keep books on hand for patrons to purchase. I encouraged the libraries to accept silent auction bids on the apron and use the proceeds to benefit their library--a fabric ‘thank you’ from me for what they were doing to help. My sister and I had sold several aprons after our presentations at libraries with all net proceeds from the book and aprons going to support organizations that provide respite care for families tending to their loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Throughout my explanation, Janet nodded and listened with concern before she finally asked, “Is the apron pattern a Vanilla House Design?”
“Wow”, I thought, she really knows her stuff. My answer was a timid, “Well, yes. In fact it is.”
“Have you talked to Barbara Brunson, the woman who owns the copyright on the pattern?”
My heart was beating hard as I answered, “Um, no. I haven’t.”
“Well, you should,” she advised, “I know her, and I’m sure she will have no problem with you using the pattern, but you owe her a phone call.”
I wanted to explain to Janet about the cliff I had jumped off. I hadn’t intended for the aprons to wrap their ties around my book and help it fly. It was actually the brain child of Katie’s sister-in-law, Edith, who suggested we display the books and aprons together at her bank. Next came libraries, an Oktoberfest, a memory walk, a church, and a four minute T.V. segment. Kate and I even wore aprons when we gave our presentations. Janet was right; we owed someone a phone call just to make sure we were not violating copyright laws.

Apron issues aside, Janet was enthused about my book and agreed to place it in her store; it has done well there. Hindsight has such great vision; now it seems like a no brain-er to use fabric and woman as a way to market and distribute. Women, who tend to be caregivers, also understand the magic of fabric and how working with it offers thoughtful moments of meditation.

I left Calico Gals on cloud nine; two strangers, two women who love fabric and sewing as much as I, had just embraced my book and cause. Lon, who had stood back and watched the entire exchange, was just as astounded, “Gwen,” he said, “that was incredible. Did you see how excited those women were, how well they connected with you? This is where your book should be, in fabric stores.”

Yeah, I thought, but the gray cloud of the impending phone call I needed to make hung heavy in the air. My book had just started to get off the ground via the wings of apron ties. What if the copyright owner said, “Cease and desist!”

How silly of me to under-estimate the generosity of women who sew.

I dug through my sewing supplies to get my pattern, found Barbara Brunson’s name and phone number, punched her number into my cell, took a deep breath, and then relaxed as Barbara, in a cheerful voice, agreed to listen to my plight. I rambled on about how my mother helped me sew aprons, I had written a book, the aprons were on the cover, I was donating aprons, selling aprons … and on and on. The cloud of doubt disappeared as Barbara responded with enthusiasm. She was thrilled to know her apron pattern was being used for a worthy cause and gave her blessings, “You and your sister can go ahead and keep doing what you’re doing.”

Before our conversation ended, she invited me to be with her at the International Quilt Festival in Salt Lake City in May of 2011. I readily agreed to meet her at the event and promised to mail her a copy of my book. A week later she sent my sister 12 apron patterns, a donation to our cause -- Kate had several women begging to volunteer their sewing talents to our project.

If the threads of my story ended at this point of the weaving, I would be happy enough. But two women, Karen and Sharon, from Thimble Pleasures in Chapel Hill, North Carolina offered some threads of their own to this tale of women, fabric, and generosity.

I walked into Thimble Pleasures and wanted to roll in a puddle of the beautiful fabric on display. However, I had business to attend to. As my friend Heather, slyly skirted around bolts of fabulous fabric to hear how I presented my book, I stumbled through my greeting. I’m not sure if it was Karen or Sharon who interrupted my rambling presentation with, “I’ll do anything for Alzheimer’s, my mother has Alzheimer’s.”

I relaxed a bit, remembering that when you are among fabric you are among friends. And, when you meet someone who has experienced Alzheimer’s you are facing a soul who understands the ragged, ugly, seam it brings to a family.

Thimble Pleasures has a talented group of women minding the shop, they decided to order a supply of Barbara’s apron pattern to sell with the book as a couplet. Each day a different sales person is designated as the live model and wears the apron while they work. Walking, talking, human bill boards--what a great idea!

Now why didn’t I think of that?

December 18, 2010
The creativity at Thimble Pleasures sparked a few ideas of my own. I can’t be everywhere, but I do have friends and family scattered around the country; why not ask for help and enlist them as book ambassadors? With their help, my book is on display at fabric shops in Ohio, Arizona, and Alaska.

A library in Stirling, Scotland offers my book to their patrons and around the globe, at similar latitude, the Chugiak-Eagle library board in Alaska agreed that it deserved a place in their stacks. Every week, with the help and generosity of family and friends, a new door opens.

Lon and I are in Florida now; settled in and waiting for my parent’s property to sell. Florida’s real estate market and economy is one of the worst in the country so we may be hunkered down for awhile. It’s an opportunity for me to set up some speaking engagements, sew aprons, and distribute books.

Quilter’s Quarters, a fabric shop in Zephyrhills I loved to wander through with mom, readily agreed to display and sell my book. In historic Dade City, a sweet fabric shop called Quilts on Plum Lane has offered to sell my book. With each fabric store connection, my book wings get stronger and the contributions to respite care continue to grow.

If only my parents could see how Mom’s story is helping others--they would be absolutely delighted.

Fabric stores who are helping me with my project:

Calico Gals
3906 New Court Ave
Syracuse, NY 13206

Corn Wagon Quilt Co
303 East 400 South
Springville, Utah 84663

Dina’s Cozy Cabin Quilts
10901 Mausel Street
Eagle River, Alaska 99577

Lady Bugz Quilt Co
302 S Main St
Montrose, Colorado 81401

Stitcher's Garden
308 South Union Avenue
Pueblo, CO 81003

Thimble Pleasures
225 South Elliott Road
Chapel Hill, NC 27514

Quilters Quarters
51 Verde Heights Dr
Cottonwood, Arizona 86326

Quilters Quarters
4833 Allen Road
Zephyrhills, Florida 33542

Quilts On Plum Lane
37851 Meridian Ave
Dade City, Florida 33525

Sew Inspired Quilt Shop
8 Wilcox St
Simsbury, CT 06070

Patchwork Pig
228 E Pine St
Lakeland, FL