johnny’s quilt: XXL Heart
By Patricia Belyea
SEATTLE WA Seven years ago today, university senior John Curry III (Johnny) was shot to death in his apartment, He was packing to go home for Christmas. As each holiday season arrives, the pain of losing Johnny to a violent crime has not lessened for his family.
Last May I was at Johnny’s family home in Upper Montclair NJ with his mother Grace. Sitting in Johnny’s childhood bedroom, frozen in time, we went through his clothing for a quilt commission. Grace and I discussed Johnny’s life, as shirts, pants and shorts were piled on the floor.
As a toddler, Johnny wanted to play the viola, He started with a Suzuki 1/8 violin at the age of four, graduating to a viola once he grew older. Although Johnny was studying engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy NY, he dreamed of becoming a music teacher.
Johnny’s favorite colors were green, red, black and silver. A super neat kid, he choose mission-style furniture for his room. His classic bookcase was filled with dragons, gargoyles and bats—his favorite beasts.
Grace and I cleaned out Johnny’s closet of clothes he wore often—the ones filled with the most shared memories. All in all, we stuffed a mid-sized suitcase with a 50-pound wardrobe.
Two articles were tagged as most important for the quilt project — a red corduroy shirt and a white t-shirt that Johnny’s sister, Josie, had decorated for him.
Once home, I trimmed off the seams, cuffs, pockets, waistbands and flies. I noticed all the labels in Johnny’s casual shirts were XXL. That’s when I determined the name of the quilt: XXL Heart for everyone’s go-to guy who was always helping others.
In September, I visited my mother in Ottawa for 11 days. (Mom has a sewing room with a Bernina and a design wall which I use while I’m there.) The only fabric I took with me was the clothing for Johnny’s quilt.
I wanted to include the letters XXL in the quilt top but the rest of the design was the result of getting involved with the upcycled fabric. I sewed together mini-compositions with lots of contrast between the pieces and trimmed them to 9″ blocks.
I finished 32 blocks before I headed home. In my Seattle studio, I added solid-colored triangles to the edges—filling out the on-point quilt top. The backing was made from denim and green khaki jeans, and Johnny’s regular attire—shorts.
The quilt sandwich was pin basted and then machine stitched in the ditch. (The batting—Hobbs Cotton with Scrim Binding—can be stitched 10″ apart. I used heavy-duty thread to ensure the quilt would survive LOTS of usage.)
A special piece of the Josie t-shirt was appliqued to the top. A facing finished the quilt. The quilt was shipped in time for Grace and Josie to receive today—an anniversary they now spend together.
Last week I called Grace to tell her the quilt was on its way. Then I asked what she wanted me to do with the leftover fabric. “Burn it,” Grace answered, “I don’t want it put out with the garbage.”
On Saturday morning, in a drizzle at dawn, I drove down to Shilshole Beach. I got a fire started in a picnic BBQ and fed the pieces of clothing into the blaze. Two hours later the kindling and clothing remnants were only embers.
I stopped at Caffe Fiori in Ballard on my way home. The beautiful art on my welcome latte reminded me of the flames. Contemplating the saying, ashes to ashes, I thought of dear Johnny.
Johnny was a gentle giant. HIs love of music, his cleverness at making things, his generous spirit are all missed—EVERY DAY. I hope Johnny’s quilt makes a difference and helps to heal the loss.
Here’s an excerpt from a thank you from Grace, after she and Josie received the quilt:
Josephine and I were glad, and a little scared, to open the box but we knew it would provide us with a special moment.
We waited. This year marked seven years of missing Johnny. Joe and I typically have spent the day quietly together, we like to be outdoors where we can quietly and respectfully remember beloved son and brother.
We opened the box, marveled at the detail, walked through every memory and cried when we wrapped ourselves in your quilt.
We appreciated, each layer, each turn, your creativity and expert skill, but mostly the love that you put into this quilt. We are happy that those sturdy denim cargo pants and shorts, that he loved wearing loose, back the quilt.
The tragedy of his loss is so enormous that any small thing that keeps him close is a comfort. The quilt is a BIG THING.
Friendship, family, memories, the stuff of life, connect us—for Josephine and me they are invisible threads that bind us to each other, anchors that keep us afloat in a terrible storm.