How Restoring My Late Parents’ Cherished Possessions Helped Me Grieve

It was just stuff. Until it wasn’t.
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When we placed the patchwork blanket on my sheets, I read aloud to my daughters the embroidered names of those who’d worked on the quilt, including their grandmother.

Photo by Eugenio Marongiu/Getty Images

Living with my two daughters in 900 square feet in North Carolina, I became a master at decluttering. Still, I had things I couldn’t part with even though they were broken or falling apart. I worried that if I couldn’t restore my late parents’ possessions, I wouldn’t preserve their memory for my 19- and 12-year-old girls.

Yet, I was more apt to read about do-it-yourself projects in magazines than actually fix anything in our duplex on the campus where I taught environmental education. As a single mother, I also didn’t have a Restoration Hardware-sized budget for repairs.

Raising my children in a house behind a college dorm, I often invited students into our small living room for informal classes and social gatherings. But I couldn’t have predicted how a random community of helpers would transform cherished items once owned by my parents and bring me closer to their lives.

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My mother and father integrated their Episcopalian faith with low-impact living in a 1970s subdivision called Wild Oaks. They cycled with their four children throughout our hometown of Fairhope, Alabama, hiked the Appalachian Trail, and gave up trash for the 40 days of Lent to reduce consumption. With her salt-and-pepper bob and lilting Southern accent, my mom joked to her bridge group that my father always wanted to give away their stuff after their long-distance hikes.

At 58, she was hit and killed by a teenage driver while biking to the farm where Dad worked in exchange for produce. After her death, the ladies of the First Baptist Church of Point Clear, Alabama, completed a quilt she’d pieced together, and he slept under its comfort each night.

Then two years later, riding on the shoulder of the road with a reflective vest, my 64-year-old dad, a retired IBM salesman, was killed in a mirror-image accident. Three days before his death, I told him on the phone that I was pregnant with my younger daughter, although separated and soon-to-be divorced.

I carried my parents’ deaths inside me, like the weight of the soil. I wasn’t sure how to be a single mom after the sudden deaths of both of my parents, whose marriage had only gotten stronger with time. Approaching my 40th birthday, I nursed my newborn daughter in their four-poster double bed I inherited, facing the Blue Ridge Mountains, underneath their quilt in the colorful pattern of Grandmother’s Flower Garden.

A decade later, the quilt’s white cotton background was yellowed and nearly brown in places. The bunting escaped from the stitches like bunny tails poking out of a rabbit hole. When my children flung themselves on the bed, their growing limbs tore at the seams. I called fabric stores and wrote Facebook messages to quilting bees. One hot summer day, I heard from Sharron, The Quilt Lady, who had seen my online pleas and made repairs at reasonable prices.

A restored quilt. Photo from Mallory McDuff.

She arrived, her car filled with stacks of colorful spools because she taught sewing at the women’s prison, where she precut the squares because her students weren’t allowed to have scissors. She described the process of soaking cloth with Lipton tea bags to match the tint of my mother’s material.

After one year, she’d repaired 127 colored hexagons and 39 white diamonds, working 80 hours in small blocks because of arthritis. When we placed the patchwork blanket on my sheets, I read aloud to my daughters the embroidered names of those who’d worked on the quilt, including their grandmother, Ann Jones McDuff.

When my father died, I inherited a family toboggan, which stood like a sentinel outside my front door in North Carolina, although the old wood had splintered with age. “Let me take a stab at fixing the sled,” said Steve, my college roommate’s husband who lived down the road.

Before the first snow, he delivered a restored beauty with bright-red canvas straps on either side. The wood glistened with a waxy sheen, as he’d replaced rotted sections with solid pieces. He’d found the exact replica of the original screws. Strangers asked my daughters for a ride on the faster flyer on the big hill on campus, and we shared the sled and its story. Four adults piled onto the wooden frame, setting a distance record, met by applause that echoed in the valley.

That spring after the snows, a colleague visited with her boyfriend, Dave, who tuned my damaged guitar, a gift from my dad. He emailed me a week after leaving on a hiking trip: “This might seem like an odd request,” Dave wrote. “But walking on the Appalachian Trail, I couldn’t stop thinking about your parents.” He wanted to return to Asheville to visit an elderly local man who restored guitars.

A restored guitar. Photo from Mallory McDuff.

When I was in high school, my father gave me the Martin guitar he longed to play, worthy of his bluegrass band’s renditions of “I’ll Fly Away.” But the instrument sat in the corner of my living room, a patched hole in its side hidden like a secret. Although we had just met, Dave drove four hours, placed the guitar in the back seat of his green Subaru, and left on a mission to repair it. When he returned, I learned the costs to repair it would be more than the instrument was worth, but the old-timer provided tips for prolonging the life of the guitar, which my dad would have approved of.

In my 20s as a Peace Corps volunteer, I’d once chided my mother for buying china as a wedding gift, claiming that I would never want so much “stuff.” She’d responded, “Someday these things might mean something to you.” And she was right: this year of restoration brought me closer to their lives.

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