One by one, the women lean over Reggie’s hoop, where a grid of stitches is pulled taut and a stippled surface emerges one centimeter at a time.
In 19th-century photographs of quilting bees, the quilts are pulled taut like animal skins, and women sit very still at the perimeter, hands cupped around needles. Men don’t appear in these gray photographs unless they’re the subject of the quilt itself, represented by bowlegged cowboys, white-capped sailors, Biblical prophets, or the 21 calico planes in the Charles Lindbergh commemorative quilt. In the 19th Century, there was also a class of quilts made especially for men: the freedom quilt given to bachelors at 21, the age when a man was no longer the legal property of his family or his master. Freedom quilts were stored until the wedding day, as though men might be honored by quilts but certainly couldn’t appreciate them like a wife.
Reginald Sauls: “It started with a high-frequency loss, and then suddenly while I was serving in Vietnam, it turned off one day even though I had a hearing aid on."
In the Fallbrook Quilt Guild, membership 90, one member is a man: Reginald Gideon Sauls IV, who goes by Reggie. Reggie has been quilting since 1984, which means he took it up at age 58. A retired Marine trained in amphibious warfare and a former center for the University of Michigan football team, he has an amiable, mustached face and the big, gesturing hands of a dramatist. Reggie is also the only deaf member of the Fallbrook Quilt Guild.
“During my experiences in the Marine Corps,” he says, “I think I got too close to too many shells, and it was kind of a progressive thing like that. It wasn’t a onetime occurrence and it wasn’t a disease. It was just a matter of too many noises.” He looks out the sliding glass door of his workroom, which holds a sewing machine, a little table for cutting, a pile of denim scraps, and a dozen or so plaques awarded for Boy Scout service. “It started with a high-frequency loss,” he says, “and then suddenly while I was serving in Vietnam, it turned off one day even though I had a hearing aid on. It was just like someone turned my hearing aid off. So then I had to come home. That was in ’68 or ’69.I retired in ’70, so I’ve been out 25 years now. My family was in Fallbrook while I was in Vietnam.”
Sauls cuts quilting material. The cutting and hemming of tiny leaves and circles is painstaking work and is only the first stage of a quilt.
Fallbrook is close enough to Camp Pendleton to lie in the path of its helicopters, and one moves overhead with a faint chugging sound that only I notice. Reggie looks out at the rain-soaked lawn, the light blue swimming pool, the fleet of yellow moving trucks in the parking lot beyond the hill, and turns to Willie, his old black dachshund, who waits by the sliding glass door. “Willie, come on,” he says. “You want to go out.”
There are six or eight finished appliqué blocks pinned up by the door, and in the dim, rainy light it’s hard to guess at the hours of labor. Appliqué is the gourmet field of quilting and is done locally according to the English paper method, which means the fabric is sewn around a paper pattern that is extracted afterwards. The cutting and hemming of tiny leaves and circles is painstaking work and is only the first stage of a quilt; the quilting itself — the stitches that bind two layers of fabric to a layer of batting — has not begun. Appliqué quilts of the 19th Century were so lavishly decorated that they were used only for guests or special occasions, when the curtains of the room would be drawn against the sun.
Reggie’s phone is connected to a Teletype machine that receives and transmits typed messages to operators in Sacramento, who relay the message to the caller on the line. The system, called California Relay, was mandated by the Civil Disabilities Act three years ago and is financed by a 0.3 percent charge on phone bills, which on my last bill amounted to 11 cents. The surcharge funds the 600 operators who work in shifts 24 hours a day to provide the same hours of phone service to the deaf as to the hearing.
“I use the relay because we have it now,” Reggie says, “but until three years ago, I could only talk to people who had TTYs. So my daughters and son have these at home, and my wife’s father has one, so I can call them without the relay.”
The tape that flows out of the Teletype machine is thin like a register receipt. The letters formed by blue computerized dots leave a transcript of every conversation Reggie has, a record that bears the marks of haste and seems, in its random punctuation and shorthand, like a message sent by code over long distances. The operator becomes an invisible translator who must insert, where she can, the sound of the other person’s voice by means of words like “um” or “haha,” or by putting in parentheses “smiling.”
Things are necessarily simplified. “You” becomes “U” or “Yu.” Pauses for a response are replaced by the explicit command, “go ahead,” which in the transcript is shortened to “ga”:
hi reg sauls here ga
C QA 675 WITH A CALL
(F) HELLO ITS LAURA MC
NEIL AND MY HOUSE...
PART OF MY HOUSE IS OOD
-ED I AM WONDERING IF I
CAN COME OVER AT 1 OCLO
-CK INSTEAD GA. yes it is
alright but i hope yu
are not too bad we got
wet too ga HAHA UMM...
ITS NOT TOO BAD JUST
A CARPET AND I AM LOOKI-
ING FORWARD TO SEEING HIM
AT 1 OCLOCK GA ok fine
see yu then bye ga to
sksk OK THANKS BYE GA
My house wasn’t “ooded,” of course, but flooded; operators don’t have time to correct mistakes. No one in the conversation has time to correct mistakes. The message flies from a white phone in east Fallbrook to Sacramento to the register tape in west Fallbrook before I realize I’ve said “him” instead of “you.” But Reggie says he doesn’t mind the Teletype.
“I’m comfortable with it,” he says, “but other people aren’t. If you know what I mean. It takes people a while to feel comfortable with it. They don’t realize when they use the relay that they should just talk as if they’re talking to me instead of saying, like you did the other day, ‘Tell him this.’ ”
I hold the written evidence of my mistake, which turned him into a person outside ordinary speech.
“I’m reaching the point where I’m thinking, hey, I don’t have that much longer, and I want to have this particular rose before I go or before I have to quit gardening.
“You just talk like you’re talking to Reggie,” he says, “because that’s what you’re doing. The lady or man on the line, they repeat everything you say. If you swear, they swear. If you laugh, they’ll put in parentheses ‘laugh.’ ” Reggie goes through the loop of paper in search of an example, and I show him the “haha” on my transcript. “Right,” he says. “They try to convey the entire feeling, and they do a really good job.”
In mid-19th-century Wales, the tailor James Williams spent ten years making a quilt using a technique called inlay, which involves cutting shapes and patterns out of the main cloth and then replacing the exact shapes with different colors — the sewing equivalent of marquetry. Besides the mosaic of tiny diamonds and trapezoids and triangles around the border, Williams created 11 intricate tableaux. In one woolen corner, a sailboat with a striped hull and a red flag sails toward a bridge curators have identified as the Menai suspension bridge at Telford. The four-inch boat is white against a regimental gray sky and floats on currents represented by wavering strips of brown and white cloth. In the center, a bearded Adam with the white limbs of a paper Matisse embraces a tiger while a little dog jumps at his knee. Just above the deep blue sky of Eden, the white legs of Jonah poke out of a whale’s mouth. The whale, the tiger, the ark, and the bridge were sewn entirely without the most useful tool of modern quilting: the electric light.
It’s a tailor’s shop that Reggie’s workroom most resembles. It’s dark, the threads of unraveled cloth stick to things, and in the clutter of fabric there is the sense that only the work matters. Neatness doesn’t matter because neatness doesn’t last. It’s a room for cutting, piecing, and devising patterns. The hand quilting is done upstairs in the living room, where he has his wife, Anne, and both dachshunds for company.
“You want to know how I work...” he says, “I work in this corner.” Nearly everything Reggie says is followed by some kind of boisterous laugh, apologetic or amused. He indicates the green armchair that sits facing the living room, the picture window at his back for light. “I sit down here and I work,” he says, and he shrugs. An enormous gold and black quilt with a star pattern Reggie devised is bundled by the chair with a wooden hoop. The white background of each star is to be stippled, a form of quilting so intricate and slow that even passionate quilters shake their heads at the work. Ordinary quilting secures fabric to batting by rows and patterns stitched an inch or a half-inch apart, but stippling is a tactile form of pointillism. The demarcation of rows is invisible, so close and so tiny are the stitches. They render areas of the quilt almost flat, a surface as delicate as a page of braille. To stipple an area about the size of my palm takes me two hours, but the expert in the field of stippling and trapunto, the one who taught Reggie and me the stitches, is probably faster. He’s a man from Montana named John Flynn, and he used to design bridges when he was an industrial engineer.
The names of quilts are like children’s games that are played with a loop of string: Feathered World without End, Hands All Around, Courthouse Steps, Tumbling Blocks, Joseph’s Coat. Some quilters, including Reggie, know the names at a glance, but after quilting for seven years, I know maybe eight by name. The variations are subtle and various, the Bear Paw turning into Cross and Crown by the shading of a triangle. In the manipulation of the nine patch, which starts as a tic-tac-toe grid, comes Shoo-Fly, Irish Chain, Puss in a Corner, and The
Tail of Benjamin’s Kite. Like folktales, the names vary from region to region and were once passed along orally, not set down in books. Time and history have had their effect, turning Jacob’s Ladder into the Underground Railroad and Rocky Mountain Road into New York Beauty. Log Cabin variations are among the most numerous, using the thinnest pieces of material and thus the smallest scraps: Courthouse Steps, Barn Raising, Streak of Lightning, Straight Sauls cuts quilting material Furrows, Roman Stripe, and Pineapple.
Voteless women quilted Garfield’s Monument, Clay’s Choice, Lincoln’s Platform, and Burgoyne Surrounded, an arrangement of tiny, crisscrossing squares said by American quilters to represent the battle plan and formation of American soldiers in the Revolutionary War, when General Burgoyne’s British soldiers were forced to surrender at Saratoga on the 17th of October, 1777. A British pattern book, however, refers simply to “an incident” from the war, in which the English are surrounded by American “irregulars.” American women also sewed a pattern derived from the Whig Rose and the Democrat Rose. When Whig candidate Henry Clay lost the presidential election in 1844, the pattern was called, either with resignation or smugness, Whig’s Defeat. Made of chrome yellow, turkey red, cotton white and moss green, an homage to Whig’s Defeat outlasted the Whigs and survived the Civil War, crossing the ocean to hang on a museum wall in London.
In London there also hangs an English quilt called Military Patchwork, c. 1870. It is attributed to a man because many like it were exhibited by soldiers at the 1890 Royal Military Exhibition at the Chelsea Hospital in London. The 25 squares in the body of the quilt, cut from regimental uniforms, are composed of 38,620 half-inch diamonds. The border, made of 14,448 half-inch diamonds, is fringed by thousands of triangles. The date of the quilt was determined by the prevalence of scarlet. The infantry used not scarlet but white, yellow, green, and navy blue after 1881, and there is no green in this quilt, in which each square mosaic flickers scarlet, orange, chrome yellow, black, turquoise, tan, and lavender, the colors of soldiers 120 years ago. It seems a quilt made in long confinement, like the quilts of the Pennsylvania Dutch women who were not permitted to read or write.
Outside Reggie’s living room window, birds fly to a cylinder of food. They hover and land, then hover again, pecking at the food in the feeder and on the railing of the deck. Now and then they burst up and away, startled by some movement in the house.
“My daughter made a summer trip one year to the Appalachians. After that trip, she decided she wanted to build a quilt. She designed the quilt, and she cut out all the pieces, the little squares and everything. I saw her working on those squares and at Christmas time I said, ‘Why don’t I help you — I’d like to make a square if you’re going to do all that.’ My daughter finished school, and she went to work in Santa Barbara, and she never got around to finishing it. In the meantime, I pieced together these squares, sitting in this chair working.
“It was just about that time that the Fallbrook Quilt Guild started. I read in the Enterprise that they were forming a quilt guild, so I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to the meeting.’ But the first meeting the guild had was in September. At that time, in September, I went to our camp up in Maine with our family, and I wasn’t able to make the meeting. But I made the very next meeting, and then I joined the guild. I’m not a charter member, but I’ve always considered myself a charter member because I had intentions to go to the first meeting, and I was out of town. Once I made that quilt and joined the guild, I got the bug, you might say.
“My wife and I have been married a long time and the kids are gone now. She suffers from Parkinson’s so she needs some tender loving care, so I had to back off from my Boy Scout work, and quilting gives me an opportunity to get close to her and stay at home.”
On the wall above a massive claw-footed buffet, there are two oil portraits, one of Anne Stewart Sauls and one of Reggie. Anne is a young woman there. Her hair is dark above her bare shoulders, and she is looking away from the artist at something she seems not to see. Reggie’s portrait was done later and looks like he does now: white mustache, a comfortable sweater. It was done when he went to his 40th high school reunion in Florida.
“I’m not sure I have many pictures of myself,” he says when I ask, using pen and paper, if he has photographs from college or childhood. “I might have. I don’t have much of my family history because my father died in Florida and my mother died just before I went to Vietnam. I was supposed to go to Vietnam, and my mother died, so I got emergency leave and I went back to take care of my mother’s affairs the best I could and I was in a hurry. So I let her second husband have almost everything and kind of left things to him, to the spouse, you see. I grabbed a few things, but I didn’t end up with much from my family.”
On the couch, Reggie holds out a book of photographs and notes. The photographs are of quilts, and the first page of the binder gives his name, his birth date, the names of his quilts, and their recipients, who are his children, his grandchildren, and the Fallbrook hospital, which gives out quilts as part of a prenatal care program. “So, this is a documentation,” Reggie says. “I kept a record or tried to keep a record of all my different quilts and things. This is my youngest daughter.” He points to a color photograph that has the blurry, liquid quality of high-gloss prints. “She makes music and makes glass. I’ll show you a window that she did — it’s in the house here.”
Reggie knows one other man in Fallbrook who quilts. “He was in the scout troop with me and I never knew he was a quilter until I went over to talk to one of his sons one day, and I looked in the back room, and he was working on a grandmother’s garden — you know — grandmother’s flower garden. All those little tiny pieces — he was doing it all by hand. His wife’s a nurse and they both work at the Fallbrook hospital now. He’s a retired Marine too.”
The birds swarm over seeds that fall from the feeder, and the ones in flight knock more to the ground with their beaks. Behind them, the clouds are still dark gray at the edges like fur.
Reggie was born in Detroit, and he finished high school in Florida while his father fought in World War II. Upon graduation, he joined the Marines. “The Marine Corps sent me to officer’s training during the war and that’s how I ended up in Michigan. I flunked out of Michigan because I was trying to play football and the war was over and they wanted me to study engineering, and I wanted to study education and be a teacher. We had a conflict, you know. I finally graduated and I got my master’s degree in Michigan, too, eventually. I got that while I was on my tour, but I did most of the work before I left — the Marine Corps called me back on active duty for Korea.”
There are quilts that seek to tell stories, and they use a form of sign language that is pictorial. Pictorial quilts, like those primitive American paintings in which human figures seem flat against a flatter landscape, tell mostly epic stories about war and God because those are the stories that need the least elaboration. One quilt from 1867, the year freed slaves were given the right to vote, cheats a little in its use of pictures to tell the tale. In the space between a white man on horseback and a black man who towers over him on foot, the quilter embroidered, “Master I Am Free.”
In 1926, a bridal quilt was made for the wedding of two prominent Philadelphia families, and no explanation is embroidered there, as though the meaning were obvious. The usual symbols for a bridal quilt are the symbols of union and happiness, but this quilt depicts a naked and tortured Eve, a pink, supportive Adam, and a pleased Cheshire snake. Enormous calico birds and butterflies swoop over the lambs and lions of Paradise, and higher still, in a deep blue sky, ringed planets orbit a red sun. What meaning were the newlyweds to derive from this offering, where Eden is about to end?
Coffins, eagles, and American flags are the crude alphabet of less allegorical quilts, along with the black darts of death, the oak leaf of fertility, the pineapple of hospitality, and the heart and clover, which together signify luck in love. To those who know the names, the symbols are clearest: Star of Bethlehem, Devil’s Claw, Mariner’s Compass, Dove at the Window, Crown of Thorns.
The American Manual Alphabet, another alphabet of signs, consists of 26 hand positions, the fingerspelling signs I knew by rote in eighth grade, when it became a fad among my friends. The Z slashing down like Zorro, the subtle difference of the thumb in making A or S, were familiar to me then, like the first five ballet positions. Fingerspelling is sometimes pictorial, as in the /, where the pinkie makes a swoop in the air, or the V, which looks like the peace symbol. There is something instinctive about sign language, perhaps because gestures already help us speak: the sign of the cross, the sign for quiet, the sign for good-bye or come back. It is language as action, a conversation for the eyes and the body, not the invisible ear.
But this is the view of a tourist among the deaf; it’s easy to be charmed by a country you’re visiting temporarily. Sign language teacher Louie J. Fant describes the acquisition of English by the deaf with the following metaphor: “Suppose, for example, you were in a soundproof glass booth, equipped only with a pad and pencil. Outside the booth is your instructor, who speaks, reads and writes only Japanese. How long would it take you to learn Japanese?” Reggie entered the glass booth at age 42, and since then the people outside it have been moving their lips. Sometimes they clap their hands to get his attention, as though clapping were louder than a voice. They do not, by and large, speak sign language, and thus it is a language Reggie rarely gets to practice.
Via the relay operator in Sacramento, Reggie types, “If I had to go to Sign Land, I’d probably starve. Both my wife and I attended a couple of classes at Palomar, and we picked up enough to get over small hurdles in our own way, but I’m really lost when I have to try to use sign language with an occasional deaf friend who’s proficient.”
He does read lips, and he says that’s what makes sign language difficult for him. “I rely on my lip-reading ability to try to get by, and when people sign, I watch the lips and not their fingers. I’m able to read lips with some of my friends on an eye-to-eye basis, and some have to rely on pen and paper — that approach.” Learning to read lips, he types, was a matter of survival. “Some of the credit goes to the Navy — they gave me a quickie course in communication, an approach to lip-reading, while on visit to a naval hospital at Oakland prior to my separation from the service.”
Lip reading has a romantic reputation because it seems like the perfect way to spy or for the deaf to become “normal” again. To understand a few words in this way is as misleading as speaking a little bit of Spanish; the native speaker may assume comprehension, and talk rapidly. In Carson McCullers’ novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, a deaf man named John Singer reads lips and so becomes the confidant of three outsiders who come to his rented room and talk about their problems. He seems to sympathize, like a priest who gives no penance, but in truth, he understands only part of what they say, and the rest is just lips in frantic motion.
Facial expression and context become extremely important, and for Reggie, women’s lips are the easiest to read. “I find it easier to talk to women, but I suppose that’s probably because they don’t have facial hair like many of my friends and myself, and they also outline their lips. And women have a better understanding of looking at the person they’re talking to, I think.”
Talking to his wife grows more difficult because Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that causes muscle tremors, has affected her mouth. The change is not visible to me when I watch her speak, but I rely on my ears, not my eyes. “Lately I’ve been having trouble with her more than ever,” Reggie types into the teletype. “So, it’s almost like a new game to me to follow her and we end up using the pad more than we used to.”
Quilting among guild members is often done before the television set, and Reggie also works with the TV on. His TV has a box below it that sends captions up the screen, white letters on black bands — no lip reading required. “I do most of my quilting in front of the tube but I manage to make most of my headway during commercials — when I’m not running to the bathroom.” The operator laughs at this, and the transcript, which Reggie saves for me, reads “haha” for his laugh and “HAHA” for mine.
Since losing his hearing, Reggie has learned to quilt, to read lips, and he has stopped drinking. “We’re both recovered alcoholics,” he says, referring to Anne and himself. “I quit in Vietnam and when I came back Annie had just been in the hospital from a serious bout, and her dad was out here, and in essence, the last 25 years we’ve been....” He pauses.
“Annie started going to AA and AA helped her here,” he says. “I never went to AA because I can’t hear, you know what I mean, it’s like going to school.”
I picture, for a moment, sitting for hours in a classroom where the teacher moves her lips and her arms, or watching an instructive video with the sound off.
“I was working on my doctorate while I was out here,” Reggie continues, “and after I got out of the Marine Corps. Finally I convinced myself, it’s silly. I’m just going to end up overqualified and I can’t end up teaching anyway ’cause I’m having trouble in the classroom, you know, I’m lucky to be able to get anything out of the classroom.
“But the quilt guild, the ladies are all so nice to me and I try to sit next to someone who takes notes, so that helps, and a lot of the stuff is so visual that even if I — they talk, that’s what I’m saying.”
On the pad I write, “So you never got to teach school.”
“Well, I taught school while I was in grad school but you know that was only practice teaching and working. But, my work with the Boy Scouts, I think my professional training worked into that. I think I was planning on teaching high school — I wanted to teach and coach. But I never regretted the Marine Corps career that I had. There were some things that didn’t work out for me but that’s true with everybody. A lot of people are mad about Vietnam.” He laughs.
“My deafness gave me a chance to bow out as a major and provide for the family. So, I don’t know. I never made lieutenant colonel or anything beyond that. What else can I say. I still thought that when I got out I could get back in the classroom. I finally decided I was wasting my time. Particularly when my daughter Mary started making noises about going to Stanford. I said I can’t afford to spend money on me when I’m going nowhere if she’s going to go to Stanford.”
All guild meetings start with the pledge of allegiance. Every first Thursday at the Senior Citizens Center, there is the pledge and the gavel and a guest speaker and an adult version of show and tell. Because people usually quilt alone now, on their laps instead of at a quilting bee, holding up a quilt on Thursday night is a way of joining a community again. If the quilt is especially good, people stand up to see better, and there are waves of applause.
Twice a month or so, there are smaller gatherings in living rooms. Instead of sitting around a quilting frame, people sit in chairs and work on their own projects, taking a stroll around the room now and then to see what everybody else is doing. At one such meeting, on a Wednesday morning, the black umbrellas lean on Anna Peterson’s front porch. There is a small collection of shoes on the mat, and inside, where the smell of rain and oranges comes in with the opening door, Reggie sits with his hoop angled toward the window. The black, gold, and white quilt flows over his lap onto the floor. Some of the women are busy with their own work, chatting as they go, a murmur of conversations that Reggie can’t hear. One by one, the women lean over Reggie’s hoop, where a grid of stitches is pulled taut and a stippled surface emerges one centimeter at a time.
I know why he likes it, why he can stand such tedious work. Beyond the shapes and the colors, the patterns and the pictures, there is something about fusing three layers into one. It’s almost impossible to remove quilting stitches, which sink into the fabric and must be pulled like teeth. Stippling is even more permanent since you can’t tell which direction the thread leads. Tight stitches will hold until the whole quilt is in shreds, until it has worn away to rags, which happens only if you sleep with the quilt, if you hold it next to you for years and years. Otherwise, protected from light and skin, quilts last for centuries, a history of patience.
In the pale light of a cloudy morning, Reggie makes his 27th quilt in colors his wife chose. His needle moves in and out of the white fabric while the women lean over and say, “Such small stitches, such tiny stitches,” and run their fingers over the rows.