"This is part of our family history" - meaning in the AIDS Memorial Quilt

I want to share with you the meaning behind Parnell Peterson's quilt panel, which is in Block 2744 of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I have learned so much about Par through his sisters and my mom since I first visited his panel in January, and much of it shall remain in my unpublished writing and memories. However, I think his quilt panel is an extraordinary example of something that occurs on a larger scale within the enormous memorial--the largest piece of folklore in the world--and that is still expanding with new panels submitted every year. (It currently contains over 48,000 panels.) You can look at a hundred quilt panels and see things that look similar to Par's, which is pictured here.

Now I want you to read his sister Margi's description of their process, each piece, and the meaning of it all:

Making Par’s Quilt panel was a wonderful and healing endeavor for all of us – indeed, many of us.  We had sent out a letter, inviting friends and family to make a small square that we could then incorporate into the larger panel.  We got so many, with so many wonderful stories attached that we soon realized that we would have to make a double panel.  The top of the panel symbolizes the Northern Lights, which became our symbol for Parnell, after an amazing and miraculous experience we had with them, the night Par died.  (That is a story in itself, which I will share at another point.)  We had decided to use a tree as a symbol of life continuing, nature, the land that Par loved in his professional life, as well as personally, having grown up in the UP!  The photo we placed in the middle of the upper panel was the inspiration for the whole thing – and then at the last minute, we decided to attach it because it is so beautiful and fit so well.  The inscription, “Your Light Shines On” refers again to the Northern Lights and our belief in his continued presence which lights each of our lives and always will.  We then decided to put all the small squares on the lower panel and to run the roots of the tree down through and amongst them….symbolizing that this is the ground and foundation from which Parnell came, grew, was nurtured, and lived – all these people who were somehow a part of him.  The hands at the bottom of the tree are those of immediate family members, including niece and nephew, protecting the memory and holding it close.  We loved how it turned out!  We each actually have a small photo album of each square and the story that came with it…such love and grace in each one!

There is a stunning amount of meaning put into every, single, thing in this panel. Knowing how much thought went into his, I imagine similar kinds of deep meaning in each quilt panel. It makes me stop, linger, ponder and examine each square that I do see even more closely. What was compelling and inspiring these people, or this person, who loved this other person, who we are now remembering? If even the dyeing of the denim fabric behind Parnell's panel had boundless personal meaning for his family, imagine this same thought multiplied by the number of people memorialized on this Quilt.

The past two Mondays, I have confirmed a few more of these meanings, backstories, which remain so mysterious and anonymous to most people who visit the Quilt on display, or view its panels online. I have been volunteering to offer my small amount of help to the larger effort of bringing the Quilt back to Washington, D.C., where it will be for almost four weeks this summer. The first team departs this week to bring the acres and acres of fabric to the Mall, the Smithsonian, and various other locations in the capital.

My job has been quite extraordinary: check, assign a working panel number, and document each new square that has arrived this year, so that these unfinished panels may also make the journey to Washington and be sewn into the larger Quilt during the ceremonies and viewings. It will be a very active way of sharing the Quilt, having these newest panels sewn in as part of the displays themselves. So I also go through and record any additional things that arrive with the new panel, like a letter, photo, or other momento.

Last week I read a letter from a woman explaining that this panel was made in memory of her mother, who died in 1994 or so. But it was made not by her--it was a surprise from her fiance. It was he that was also going through the sadness; I don't even think he knew her.

Today I read a letter from a mother asking forgiveness for "mistakes" or "imperfections" in her panel, which she submitted in memorium of her son, Scott, who passed away in 1997. "I've never done anything like this," she wrote. It is so interesting to me to read people's unsure, honest thoughts when mailing in something so personal, so much a part of them. Margi, Parnell's sister, said actually handing over Par's quilt panel, after all that work, was much more difficult that she anticipated. Almost like giving up a piece of Par himself, some of that closeness and memory.

It makes me smile, as I cannot imagine anything that would be similar to submitting a panel to the AIDS Quilt; of course this is new territory. But she described the lovely details she incorporated into her son's panel: dark denim and light denim from the pants of his older and younger brother; velour from his niece's jacket, and a patterned piece of his maternal grandmother's blouse. Once I opened up the panel to see, I was struck by her use of the bits -- not as a random assortment, but as mountains in the landscape she created for him out of fabric--he was also a lover of nature. Again, I am struck by the meaning behind some simple stitched mountains.

Another of my favorites, steeped in meaning and yet so simple, is the family who submitted several squares for individuals in their family who have been taken by HIV/AIDS, and this other panel to accompany them all in the Quilt. "This is part of our family history," it says simply.

This is absolutely so. I hear a lot of family histories in my work at the National Archives. Every other person has a family tree to rattle off to me, a Native American chief ancestor, and several on the Mayflower. HIV/AIDS is such a significant part of human history, and it is now part of the family histories of so many.

"Life in the Age of AIDS is the Story of Us All."

This is the adage that hangs printed in the front offices of the NAMES Project Foundation, the headquarters and keepers of the AIDS Quilt. This sentiment speaks so much truth, and relates exactly to that family's panel, an actualization of their grief, and their insistence on making sure this remains a part of their story. Because we all own it.

I cried only once during 5 hours of processing new panels. I opened one up, unfolded it gently on the table, and pictures of a young man stared back at me. I read his lifespan: January 5, 1987 to September 11, 2010. He is, he was, my age. He was lost to AIDS at the age of twenty-three. How does this still happen? I felt outrage, sadness, shock, anger, thinking we were at least more equipped to handle HIV in the 21st century. But Ricardo did not survive it. This is why the Quilt is still important; and it is not a problem existing only far away from us, in Africa or in the 1980s. We are not immune in the United States and it is crucial that young people have the information they need. Seeing Ricardo's square was a reminder, a wake-up call that this is not an abstract health crisis. He died, and he was my age.

What are the words to properly explain this, to come to terms with it, to understand? I can only keep offering my time, skills, and love to a cause.

 

A collection [On National Geographic love, and deciding what to keep]

Since I began subscribing to National Geographic in 2004, as a  sophomore in high school, I have only paid for the issues that I get via my membership to the Society. But I acquired an enormous collection, every additional one having been gifted to me. That meant that a good friend would find a singular old copy in a thrift store and pick it up for seventy-five cents, or my Mom would buy me a few if were somewhere together where they were a decent price.

Twice it meant that a retired person was looking for a place to pass off their collection--decades of being a Society member and magazine recipient--once it had grown so massive.

I know exactly what they felt like.

Through these two sizable donations of magazines, I had a spotty collection of 1958 through about 1982 (with some years almost complete, others almost incomplete) as well as an impeccable, full-run of 1990 through 1999, packaged neatly in brown leather containers, two per year. My Mom and I trekked to Macon for that collection, answering an ad in the newspaper that anyone was welcome to the collection, no charge, if they came to get them. We drove. Add to that the years I have, uninterrupted, from 2004 to 2012.

Basically, this was a huge number, a massive group of famously dense and beautiful magazines. I had them stored for years in my parents' barn in Rubbermaid containers filled so high I could not even lift them. If I moved them, I had to solicite help from my brothers. No one tells you how unwieldy a collection can be, how cumbersome it can be to store, keep, and move giant colletions. I can see how old packrats would just never, ever move.

Well, my parents are mobile people, and we move a lot--my independent self included. In 2011, they sold their 4-bedroom home--finally empty-nesters--and downsized to a one-bedroom converted loft in an old brick building on Main Street in Dublin, Georgia, as part of their larger plan to move into the mission field in Europe.

This meant I was faced with the task that most adult children handle in the wake of their parents' deaths, weeding through everything they own to determine what you want to keep, what goes where, who gets what, and all those other, kind of difficult questions. Because we do have issues, as humans, with the stuff we have, the things we keep, the things we carry.

Do you keep the dolls you played with, so that in a decade or more your own daughter can play with them? That's a long time to keep dolls for an eventual purpose. Will your daughter even care to play with them? They take up a lot of space. (They are American Girl dolls, and yes, I kept them. They occupy a stuffed Rubbermaid in my coat closet now.)

What about sweaters hand-knitted by your grandmother? Dishes, quilts, paintings, the Christmas ornaments we made as kids, which are basically old faded construction paper and popsicle sticks, glue peeling off ... you can only say its sentimental so many times, before you are inundated with too much stuff. We had some difficult sessions. And my Mom kept those old Christmas ornaments, just some of the best ones that were still in mostly one piece, in a separate container with the Christmas stuff.

Anyway, I got rid of a huge amount of my National Geographic collection. There were just too many. I kept a few dozen of my favorites from the 1958 to 1982 collection, and then all of the 1990 - 1999 and 2004 to present collections. This is still, probably, far too many for me to have. But I'll see to that when I need to.

They went to a good home, a center that helps children in Dublin. They were certainly not fit for the trash, with so much knowledge, culture, history, science, perspective on the world, and beautiful, classic photography. I get nostalgic, but then I remember how many I can still see in my house right now. I guess that's why my tattoo is an homage to that yellow-bordered magazine, that opened up my high-school, teenage perspective to the world, deciding what my goals would be in life.

 

On people, or: "I didn't want to start with an issue"

Peter Hessler, former English teacher in China and author of several books on Chinese life and people, both historical and modern, is a 2011 MacArthur Fellow and long-form journalist. In his interview in reception of his prize, he spoke on what it is to write about China and Chinese life, to him:

“There's always been a tendency to see a place like China in very political terms. I think this is partly because it’s a communist country, it’s run by the Communist Party. And from my perspective, living in China, starting especially the way that I started, as a Peace Corps volunteer, in a small community, teaching in a small college, it gave me a very different starting point. And I really wanted to write about ordinary people in China. I didn't want to start with an issue, or start with a political idea, I wanted to start with an individual, start with a community.”

To me this exemplifies the kind of approach that public historians take to topics of history that have traditionally been very idea-based, politically oriented, and top-down in nature. We can look at a country or an issue or a group of people through these high-minded mechanisms, or we can study people themselves, and how they fit into the larger historical fabric. That is a much more important goal, and ultimately more meaningful.

Hessler is a journalist, that is an important distinction; but he writes based in a historical context, referencing the past at each step, and this is also valuable. (I will fight with people who dismiss great books written by journalists.)

Looking at one individual person's perspective can lead towards a dangerous of generalizing based on not enough larger perspective, yes, but it is in knowing the balance, and in incorporating these people into history that we are best served by learning of the past. Genealogy is not real historical study, but it gets people engaged, and that is important. Someone is interested in feeling a personal connection to the past, and that cannot be ignored in our own, professional approaches to studying history.

I am always reminded of British writer and historian William Dalrymple's  fantastic skill for emphasizing the individual's experience of history, as he does in The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty: Delhi, 1857which keeps the reader vividly engaged by showing us the Indian Rebellion of 1857 through the eyes of several key player on the ground. I have never read a book of history in which I felt so deeply connected to the characters of the era, and when they all begin falling at the hands of their enemies, I had a true emotional reaction to the destruction of this city and these lives. I've heard he does the same thing in one of his other works, White Mughals: Love and Betrayal in Eighteenth Century India.  An inspiring example--though not without his critiques--of this kind of engaging historical writing.