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Keeping his memory alive: Sweeney creates quilts with her late husband's clothes

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Posted on December 27, 2018 |
By Christopher Ross



Lady with toys on quilt DSC_6318.jpg
LINDA SWEENEY OF New Haven was devastated last February by the unexpected death of her husband of more than three decades. Rather than give away his clothing she decided to turn it into a collection of quilts and stuffed animals, which she gave to their children and grandchildren for Christmas. Below, Sweeney points to her late husband’s pants, stained with house paint, that she incorporated into a quilt to remember him. Independent photos/John S. McCright

NEW HAVEN — Sometimes the miracle of love’s persistence shines most brightly when it emerges from the anguish of a broken heart.

Linda Sweeney’s heart broke last February when her beloved husband, Michael, died unexpectedly. From grief’s dark and timeless depths she struggled to envision a world without him. Day by day, piece by piece — though she at times felt like an “unwilling architect” — she began to rebuild her life.

Along the way she has wrought a miracle.

The part of the miracle that can be seen and touched Linda created with needle and thread. Laid across a table it looks like a collection of quilts and stuffed animals. What part of the miracle that binds together the love, memories and dreams is — and will always remain — one of life’s greatest mysteries.

It began with a moment both universal and deeply personal.

“I was cleaning out our closets,” Linda Sweeney recalled this week.

She found that she just couldn’t do it.

“Dispersing Michael’s things just felt wrong.”

Though she doesn’t remember when she decided to make quilts from Michael’s clothing — the polo work shirts, the Carhartt pants stained with house paint, the pajamas printed with penguins wearing Santa hats, his ties — Linda does remember the moment she made the first cut.

“I felt like I was chopping Michael at the neck. I could only cut one piece at a time before I had to walk away. Then two pieces, walk away. Lots of tears were poured into these quilts and stuffed animals.”

It never got easy, she said. Just easier.

In the beginning Linda could spend only five minutes at a time on the project. On a quilting machine Michael bought for her the spring before he died, she slowly began stitching into the pieces of his clothing the essence of the man who wore them, which only a partner of 35 years could compass. As the quilts and animals neared completion, just before Christmas, she was able to work on them for hours at a time.

For their granddaughter, Josie (honoring her appreciation of the finer things in life), Linda created a nine-square quilt out of Michael’s dress shirts and ties. For their grandson, Hunter (who loves sleepovers), she quilted together Pop Pop’s T-shirts and pajamas.

Six other quilts — some with herringbone patterns, some stitched in a way that makes them look like completed puzzles — would become Christmas gifts for the Sweeneys’ three children and their respective partners.

“I couldn’t bring Michael to them whole, but I could wrap our children and grandchildren in his love,” Linda said. “That’s what I realized when I finished.”

For herself, Linda made nothing, though she acknowledged there were moments when she thought she might like one.

An accomplished knitter, she has been sewing for more than 20 years, but no amount of experience or expertise could ever untangle the complex emotions she’s had to navigate these past few months. Paint stains on Michael’s clothing triggered bittersweet home-improvement memories. The smell of the garage brought back the times Michael would work on cars there with his sons-in-law. Sometimes the wrong song would come on while she was quilting.

“This summer, one of my daughters found me upstairs in the sewing room with my head on a quilt top,” she recalled. As her daughter hugged her and told her everything was going to be OK, Linda asked, “How has my life gone from what it was ... to this, to cutting up his things?”

Even as she put the finishing touches on her gifts, Linda found herself dreading the approach of the holidays — her family’s first without Michael. She even avoided pronouncing the word “Christmas.”

“I’ve been referring to it only as ‘Tuesday,’” she said.

Then she couldn’t finish the binding on the last quilt.

IN MAKING HER quilts, Linda Sweeney used Michael’s jeans, camouflage-print clothing and even his pajamas printed with penguins wearing Santa hats.

Independent photo/John S. McCright

“I would sit down with the needle in my hand, then get up and walk away,” she said. “It took me three and a half weeks to do that one binding. I didn’t realize it would be so hard to let go of (the quilts) until the very last hour.”

She finally finished it on Dec. 23.

By Christmas Eve Linda had decided she would continue some of Michael’s holiday traditions, including “Wait-for-Santa” gift-giving and a special Christmas Eve meal. But more than anything she was preparing for the emotional space her family would enter once she had shared her gifts.

“As I ripped up all of Michael’s clothes I realized that our life was ripped apart,” she said. “As I reconstructed these clothes into something else, I realized this was parallel to our life. We are rebuilding, with what we have, what was ripped away from us. In this new form, as a quilt or a stuffed animal, we take Michael forward as we can: in our memory and our hearts.”

On Christmas Day Linda got a surprise of her own.

“My friend Eva made me a quilt and pillows out of Michael’s ties and shirts,” she told the Independent on Wednesday. “I’m very touched. I wrapped myself in him last night.”

Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected]

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