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The Power of Quilts - Remembering the AIDS Quilt in the Age of Covid-19

I just learned in February that March is National Quilting Month and planned to write a blog post about my unlikely journey into quilting and to publish it on 3/21 (National Quilting Day). Then, Covid-19 happened and things went haywire.

Suddenly, my son and husband were constantly underfoot; unread Covid-related emails started piling up along with those about my son’s impending virtual education (first impressions: it’s not going to occupy him for anything like 8 hours a day and I will basically be in attendance alongside him). Perhaps most importantly, the quaint topic of quilting now seemed tone-deaf in a world of deadly viruses, lock-downs, and ventilator shortages.

Still, in thinking about the subject more, I realized that quilting has played a profound and positive role in some of history’s most dire circumstances – one of these is what first brought the possibilities of quilting to my attention and was always slated to be a part of this post. As it happens, it has suddenly become a tale as apropos as an N95 surgical mask. So, here goes…

In the mid-to-late ’80s, I lived in Boston’s now-gentrified South End in a week-to-week rooming house while attending Katharine Gibbs secretarial school – something my mother had always urged me to do. My rent was around $75 a week and the style of my apartment was what I called pre-Civil-War-putrid.

At the time, the South End was a predominantly gay neighborhood and I developed a close group of gay male friends that I hung around with almost constantly. Over 5 years or so, I watched approximately two-thirds of those friends and neighbors succumb to AIDS. It was a gut-wrenching and horrifying time. So many died with so little help or recognition, denied even proper funerals and burials by funeral homes and cemeteries unwilling to handle their remains.

To offset the injustice, a movement emerged of loved ones of the dead making quilt squares to chronicle and honor their lives. Each square represented an AIDS victim. Ultimately, the squares were sewn together for a quilt that measures 10 acres and weighs approximately 54 tons – the largest piece of community folk art in the world. Too enormous to transport as a whole, parts of the quilt toured the world on exhibition. I saw it once, including the square made for my friend Peter - an indescribably moving, painful and powerful tribute.

The quilts I make now are modest, happy confections for little ones. They have no truck with this level of poignancy and greatness. And while the current crisis is a wholly different circumstance there are some undeniable similarities – dangerous ignorance, slow-to-act government, hardship, suffering and, of course, loss of life. It makes me wonder if a movement of this sort will rise up to humanize the statistics and bear witness to the dystopian realities of the weeks and months ahead.

People are already doing some amazing things. One fellow is working on a way to provide soap and water to NYC’s homeless so they can wash their hands to try to protect against the virus. Non-violent offenders and the unjustly jailed are being set free to make them and everyone in the overcrowded prison system a little safer.

Going forward, I will be looking for ways to contribute (aside from merely steering clear of other humans – something I’m pretty good at) and seeking that inimitable spark of the human and, yes, the American spirit sure to be on display in unexpected and inspiring ways.

Wishing all health, sanity and safe haven.

Quietly quilting from my bubble.

xo Nikki


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