The midwife told me that gender conditioning begins the moment the baby is born. The parents, the doctor, the first visitors, grandparents, the nurses on the ward, they all conspire together. The first question is always: “Is it a boy or a girl?” And once they know the answer they react accordingly. “Oh, what a big boy, what a strapping little chap,” they say. Or if it’s not a strapping little chap at all, they handle it much more gently, and say: “Isn’t she beautiful; what gorgeous eyes; and pretty, so pretty.”And the strapping little chap or the pretty, so pretty, the newly arrived space traveller, whatever it might be, having survived the most courageous journey of all, says to itself: “Oh, Jesus, I’ve been preparing this trip for months. Thought I was ready for anything. But, you know what? I just lost all my picnic spirit.”
I don’t have many pictures in my head of my father. Not in the early days, anyway. The first memory, the most haunting memory is of the quilt. Even now, every so often the quilt comes back into consciousness, and I’m puzzled, because I don’t know what happened to it. I can hold it in my mind’s eye, see the different stages of its production, and at those times I’m filled with the sense of expectancy, of ultimate completion that the quilt gave me as a child.
The first time I saw it it had a strange effect on me; it carried a sense of generations, of fingers stretching back through time. There was something about it that struck a match in me. The quilt had an air of ancestry, of the past, of connections between the living and the dead.
This feeling of age, although it was present, although it would not be ignored, was not the most striking thing about the quilt. What I remember more than anything else is its beauty. The completed panels were as if lit from within, and the effect was of delicately stained windows illuminated by the rays of the sun.
My mother spread the quilt on the floor. It was begun by her mother, and when the old lady died it was only a little more than half complete. It was, my mother explained (this when I was nine, ten, eleven), a design known as Church Windows. Each panel was of a different colour, but all of them in the shape of a diamond, and part of the overall effect was achieved by contrasting the brilliance of the panel against a mat black background.
But the genius behind the quilt was not a matter of technique. Its success did not lie in the choice of background, nor in the exquisite craftsmanship, the hidden threads that held it together. This ingredient, this supreme quality in the quilt was contained in the unerring choice of the material for each panel, of a sure knowledge of the relationship of each diamond, not only to its neighbour, but to all its sisters it the total composition.
For the last five years of my mother’s life, I watched her work on the quilt. She wrung her hands over it; she placed a diamond on the black surface and sat back in her chair to gaze at it. After a while she discarded that diamond and replaced it with another, and then another. Finally, after an age of contemplation, she stitched one into place, and began the process all over again. At other times she would remove the last four or five diamonds, obliterating the work of months at a stroke, and begin again.
The quilt grew. During mother’s last illness, she kept it to hand, and the week before she died she began on the penultimate row of diamond panels.
And then it disappeared. With my mother’s death the quilt vanished. I thought at the time that my father had taken it, but he denied it. It was a mystery, and it is probably because it is a mystery still, that I find myself returning to it in my mind, even now.
It worried me dreadfully at the time, that it disappeared. I imagined some kind of occult phenomena. And some time later the quilt became confused with my mother’s soul, and I thought she would be unable to rest until it was found. But after I discovered I was Joan Baez, I simply said to myself: I ain’t going to grieve no more. And I didn’t. Not about the quilt, anyway.