by Melissa J. Elbaum
My beloved grandmother was a prolific quilter. In her one-hundred-eight-and-a-half years, she quilted thirty masterpieces. Her quilts mirror the full color spectrum, fashioning measurements of energy into intricate geometrical patterns. If the material is examined carefully, hints of her life appear. Some patterns depict G clefs and quarter notes, a homage to my grandfather, the Julliard violinist. Other patterns of orange marigolds and green paisley are cut neatly into equilateral triangles, squares and rectangles, stitched into a controlled but abstract garden. There are quilts sized for a crib, colored princess pink or sky blue: her hopes for great-grandchildren. The individual pieces of each blanket amalgamate into a whole, a visual story of experiences and desires reflected by choices in design.
In reading the memoir of a favorite author, Sherman Alexie’s You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (2017), I learned that his mother, Lillian, was also a quilter. Lillian’s quilts were intricate and beautiful, created not only as gifts, but sold as merchandise to provide her family with basic necessities for survival on the Spokane Indian reservation. Like her quilts, Lillian was complex, characterized by Alexie as dishonest and sometimes cruel. With Lillian recently deceased, Alexie openly struggles with grief, forgiveness, and his own mortality. He wrestles so viscerally with these concepts that the memoir is tangibly discombobulating, a dizzying merry-go-round of genre. Beginning with personal essay, the memoir rapidly switches to poetry, the meter sometimes organized, sometimes interrupted mid-line with stream-of-conscious prosody. Some of his poetry takes the form of what might be understood as traditional Native song, or a version thereof, and then it morphs, at other times, into something resembling a more cerebrally constructed sonnet. The holistic effect is a story-telling sequence entirely askew, a life not at all straightforward but instead curving on itself before returning to narrative. Chapter 71, “Construction,” begins: “‘Sherman,’ my wife said after reading this memoir for the first time in its entirety. ‘Your book is constructed in fabric squares like one of your mom’s quilts.’”
My own grandmother’s quilt collection now lives in my house. For years, my mother and grandmother had a highly contentious, near irreparable relationship. Perhaps the quilts are too hard for my mother to look at every day, eliciting memories that I was never part of, events that occurred long before I was born. Try as I may, I could never make sense of her resentment for my grandmother. My sympathies in their rifts, admittedly, often resided with my grandmother, who was the force of stability in our lives. It was she that bailed us out when my mother’s paychecks were short, when jobs were lost and changed with uncommon frequency. Yet because I was a somewhat objective observer of their quarreling, it was easy for me to identify a fundamental mismatch of character: my grandmother was stern, organized, prudent; my mother artistic, messy, a hopeless spendthrift. My grandmother was strong and dry-witted, my mother sensitive and giddy.
My mother is the one who introduced me to Sherman Alexie’s writing in the 1990s, and I’ve been a fan of his writing ever since. We share a taste for his style and voice, intelligent, funny enough to make us to laugh out loud (I’ve inherited my mother’s guffaw). Although Iknew he was a renowned poet, I was always more familiar with Alexie’s fiction, including The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) and Reservation Blues (1995), both paragons of his humor, illustrations of his intellectual agility. In 1999, I went to a screening party in Los Angeles for Smoke Signals, the film that Alexie wrote and adapted from his Lone Ranger novel. Although I didn’t get to see him there, a couple years later I attended his lecture as a graduate student at UC San Diego and I can still remember how he brought the house down. Alexie, looking out from the stage and into the standing room auditorium, says: “You all look so nice in your bone necklaces and turquoise. I know you wore them just for me, so thanks for that. But it feels like I’m on a date with a thousand white women.”
Alexie’s signature wit somehow manages to steer an otherwise structurally disorienting memoir into a mosaic of a challenging but successful life. In mourning his mother, he offers her credit for his wit, a post-mortem olive branch. While humor functions to connect the estranged mother and son—navigating the book’s overall narrative—humor can also be elusive, an avoidance tactic. Alexie rarely elucidates Lillian’s cruelty, and so while we are told that he was mistreated by her, we have no access to the paradigm. Instead, we are given tidbits and crumbs sewn next to abstractions. And the problem with safeguarding privacy is that it creates space. It was here, in this space, that I began to feel sympathy for Lillian. I could imagine the ways in which it was challenging to be Alexie’s mother.
The Melpomene to Alexie’s Muse are his neurological handicaps: childhood hydrocephalus, bi-polar disorder, benign brain tumors. Alexie confides to his reader that prior to writing his memoir, he’d just had brain surgery. I oscillated between feeling concerned about the chaotic narrative and wondering if Alexie was being teleological. Despite the confusion surrounding his state of his mind, the effect it produced was clear: life is not straightforward, and neither are people.
Upon finishing Alexie’s 454-page memoir, I learned about the much publicized #MeToo allegations against him. This was surprising, as they stood in stark contrast to the professions of love for his wife, scattered throughout the re-telling of Alexie’s life. The news was also a letdown to a decades-long fan. His story, and the projected image of literary genius, are now further (and fundamentally) entangled in a web of emotional contradiction.
In 2017, the same year Alexie published his memoir, my grandmother died after sunset, just two days prior to my fortieth birthday. According to Jewish tradition, she should have been buried on my birthday. But my mother was never a strict Jew, and, out of empathy for me not wanting to see my adored grandmother buried on my birthday, she fudged the funeral by a day. Although one of my most favorite people, my grandmother had a few dark and surprising secrets. I can see now that she was a better grandmother than she was mother. I spent my birthday writing her eulogy, carefully selecting memories, adjectives, and evocations, quilting a patchwork of words of my own.
Melissa J. Elbaum grew up in the rural suburbs of Denver circa 1970s-90s. She earned a BA in Philosophy from CU Boulder, graduating cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Melissa then earned a MA in Philosophy from UCSD. Her personal essay on her childhood in Colorado, “CRACK…FIZZ” was published in 2020. Melissa currently lives in New Jersey with her family.