Teresa Palomo Acosta’s poem “My Mother Pieced Quilts” stitches together pieces of memory, history, and tradition to create a poem, much as her mother once stitched together pieces of old dresses, work clothes, and nightgowns to create a quilt.
In the poem “My Mother Pieced Quilts,” the speaker reflects on images of her mother, as she runs her hand and her eyes over the individual pieces of material that her mother used to create the quilt. The speaker’s first thought is to wonder how her mother made all those random pieces fit together so neatly, how she created such an attractive pattern out of such tiny pieces of worn out cloth. Memories of those individual pieces of cloth—one piece from a white Communion dress, another piece from a black dress worn at a funeral—race through the speaker’s mind along with images of her mother sitting on the floor sewing. In the creation of the quilt, the speaker’s mother has become an intricate part of the quilt.
The images of the speaker’s mother are not limited to her using a needle and thread. Here, sewing is used as a metaphor: the speaker remembers how her mother used to tuck her into bed, just as her mother tucked the edges of the material under when sewing the pieces of the quilt together. The speaker also uses her mother’s sewing skills to reflect on how adept her mother was at keeping the family together, as if her mother had sewn the family, with all its random needs and wants, into a recognizable as well as utilitarian pattern.
The speaker also reflects on her mother as an artist with her quilt as a canvas, comparing her skill with materials, colors, and patterns to an artist’s with paint. The speaker also sees the mother as a “river current” and a “caravan master.” Both these images suggest a strong woman who led the family through very tough times, who was not afraid of challenges. The patterns in the quilt conjure up images for the speaker—the mother’s hand is seen in the strong stitches and her needle is the “artillery,” or sword.
By the end of the poem, the speaker is laughing at the pleasant memories that the quilt has inspired but also “sobbing” when the quilt reminds her of the sadness in both their lives. It is not clear in the poem whether or not the mother is still alive, but it is evident that the quilt will forever remind the speaker of the relationship she shared with her mother. The quilt, like the poem itself, is “knotted with love”—a love that inspired the mother to make the quilt for her daughter and with the deep love the daughter feels for her mother.
Simplicity and Complexity
Just as a quilt is made out of simple materials—thread and remnants of old clothing, curtains, and other household materials—so is Acosta’s poem made out of simple things. From the simplicity of her words, to the simplicity of the form and the images, the poem reads, at first glance, like a simple remembrance of a simple act: a mother sewing a quilt. It is only upon closer inspection and reflection that the complexity of Acosta’s poem comes to light.
The poem begins with the speaker looking at a quilt that her mother gave to her. “They were just meant as covers” begins the poem. Quilts are something utilitarian, something that keeps a family warm in cold weather. The speaker may have used the quilt for a long period of time, thinking of it only as blanket, but eventually the speaker looks at the quilt in a different way. Finally the speaker begins to appreciate something in the quilt; a quality that has been hidden from her for a long time. The poem seems to be a tribute to that something that the speaker finally sees. It is this new awareness of the simple quilt that makes this simple poem take on complexity.
The quilt for the speaker becomes not only a work of art but also a kind of family album. Pictures of each house that the family lived in, each city where the family worked, each illness and death that the family suffered, all of these complex family photographs are stored in the simple pieces of cloth. Just as the mother took the simple materials of thread and old, faded cloth and worked them into complex patterns, into fantastic images of “a swallow flying,” a “little boy reclining,” “corpus christi noon,” so does Acosta take simple words and create a complex range of emotions as the poem collects power, going from a simple realization of a quilt to the full understanding of her love for her mother.
The most obvious transformation in this poem is that which takes place at the mother’s hands as she transforms the pieces of collected material into a quilt. But there are other transformations going on in the poem. First there is the transformation that is occurring in the speaker as she realizes the “canvas” of her mother’s work. This is the transformation of a daughter who suddenly sees her mother as more than a mother. She sees her mother as a woman, a woman who had to struggle. She also sees her mother as an artist.
There is also the transformation of nature in Acosta’s poem, as she mentions “october ripened canvas,” “january winds,” “summer denims,” and the “tweeds of fall.” The seasonal transformations reflect back to the transformations that occurred in the family as the family moved from one city to another, from one job to another, as the family grew and aged.
Transforming sorrow into something pretty is also another transformation as the speaker comments on how the mother took the “somber black silk you wore to grandmother’s funeral” and turned it into a beautiful “five-point star.” There is also the curious line, “delivering yourself in separate testimonies,” insinuating that the speaker’s mother transformed herself, possibly by demonstrating different strengths, different talents that may have been hidden or overlooked until the occasion called for them. And then there is the final transformation as the speaker’s emotion changes from tears to laughter as she recalls the transitions that the family experienced as they passed from one stage to another in their lives.
Jennifer Smith and Elizabeth Thomason, Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 12, Teresa Palomo Acosta,, Published by Gale Group, 2001.