When the tragedies of 9/11 occurred I was sitting at my desk at work, listening to Good Morning America on my radio with TV sound. I couldn't see what was happening but I listened to the reporters and wondered how two planes could both have wildly flown into such large buildings as the Twin Towers. How could you not see something so big in front of you? I thought at first they must have been those little sight-seeing planes.
I spent much of the next few days glued to the TV, absorbing all of the details, and crying my eyes out, feeling so bad for all of the victims and their survivors. Like many Americans, I wanted to do something. I wanted to volunteer to help in some way.
I heard about a group that was looking for volunteers to make memory quilts for the surviving family members of firefighters who were lost in the rubble of the Twin Towers. I knew this was one way I could make a difference and heal myself at the same time. I emailed the contact for that group and was given a choice of families. I chose the King family. Theresa and her three young children, Thomas, Elizabeth, and Stephen, lost their husband and father, Robert King Jr., a FDNY firefighter from Engine 33, Ladder 9, on Great Jones Street, just blocks away from the World Trade Center. My mission was to collect meaningful articles of clothing, photographs, and whatever else the family wanted included in their quilts. Yes, four quilts needed to be made -- one for each of them.
It was a daunting task and my conversations with Theresa were a challenge. I tried to focus on the task at hand and tried not to be emotional with her. She sent me a box with Robert's things -- favorite shirts, his FDNY shorts, patches, photos and their wedding invitation. Wow. Such personal things.
I designed the four quilt fronts seen in the photo at the top of this post. Theresa's was a queen sized four block with flags. The stripes were 13 different fabrics for each block. At the top were large folk art hearts with a hole in them -- I appliqued a hole shaped piece from his firefighter shorts. The stars that were in the setting blocks contained embroidered names and birth dates for Robert, Theresa, and the children, something Theresa had asked for. My friend Mary did the embroidery for me and my friend Jackie did a masterful job quilting it.
The backs of each of the quilts were the memory side. I created a photo ladder and used photo transfer paper to put the appropriate photo on each person's quilt. Theresa's had their wedding photo and invitation too. Robert was a tool collector, going to flea markets and garage sales looking for tools, so I used a fabric that had tools in it for the backing. Everything went together so perfectly, I knew Robert was guiding me. Making these quilts was both a creative and cathartic process for me.
As my self imposed deadline neared I called on my Chicken friends to help me get the last of the work done on the quilts. I was so grateful for their help. I showed the quilts at the October 2004 GLHQ meeting and I think no one in the room had a dry eye.
The next day I traveled to New York with my friend Sue to deliver the quilts personally to the King family. Packed carefully in a suitcase, I was so nervous they would get lost. Sue and I took a train out to Long Island, placing the quilts in a garbage bag to protect them from the rain. When we got to the King home, I think I was stunned at how welcoming and healed they were. I expected lots of tears but instead was greeted by exuberant and 'normal' people. They all knew we were there to give them something special and we had them sit on a couch with their eyes closed as we presented each person with their quilt. They were thrilled and admired each other's quilts as well as their own. It's definitely the best project I've ever committed myself to and so rewarding.
In the entryway of their home hung a blackened firefighter's helmet, perhaps Robert's, I thought but knew better than to ask. Robert's remains weren't recovered from Ground Zero until February 2002, at which time they held a memorial. I believe he had been in the North Tower. I've studied every documentary I have seen, pausing the program when I've seen his Engine company. Something in me just wants to know for sure.
Each year this day gets a little easier to get through. I keep the photo of Theresa and the children on my refrigerator so I will never forget the events of that day.