My earliest memories of “Aunt Julie” and her husband “Uncle Joe” come from their days of living in Eau Claire, WI back in the early 2000’s (although I’m sure I knew them before that). They were living in a split-level home in a newly-developed subdivision on the East side of town, and we saw them at least once a month, if memory serves. All of their kids were adults by this point and had moved out, so when we would visit I would spend my time playing with their two dogs Reggie and Baxter while the grown-ups sat and talked together. They were an obligatory stop while out with my Mom trick-or-treating on Halloween, and we usually exchanged gifts at some point during the holiday season. (Uncle Joe always had really good lawn decorations.) It was at their house that I got to watch the results trickle in of at least one presidential election, watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” for the first time (the animated version, not the irreverent redux with Jim Carey), and got a firsthand glimpse into Aunt Julie’s favorite hobby – quilting.
The women in my family have always had a penchant for doing craftwork. My grandma has been doing needlepoint since before I was born, and two of her daughters (my Mom her sister) have always made Christmas stockings for the kids in our extended family. But Aunt Julie was next level. She had stacks of quilting magazines at her house, would be constantly looking at new fabrics and designs, and of course, measuring, cutting, sewing, and stuffing1 the quilts she made. (I’m sure I’m not doing her labors justice.) She would make them (obviously) for her own home, but also as gifts to her children and grandchildren.
My first Aunt Julie
Uncle Joe worked for Cub Foods for some time, and as a result, was always traveling for work. And true to style, he and Aunt Julie moved often but managed to stay in the Midwest. By 2004, they had moved away from Eau Claire and were living in Minnesota. My family went up for a visit, and I returned – to my delight – with a brand new quilt that Aunt Julie had made for me. I don’t know what I had done to deserve a quilt so nice. On one side, it had a solid blue border with blue and green designs on the interior. The reverse was a warm and soft solid tan flannel. And on this reverse side in the corner, there was a patch that read “Alex Bates, 2004”. In addition to the patches on the front of the quilt, a series of winding (and nonintersecting) curves were sewn in that snaked along both sides.2
The only thing I remember from that ride back from Minnesota was falling asleep in the backseat wrapped in this quilt – kept warm (but not too warm) by its exquisite craftsmanship. And it would stay by my side (or perhaps more literally, on top of me) for the next eight or so years. Perhaps it is a testament to Aunt Julie’s skill as a quilter (as well as my laziness as a teenager) that I would not sleep under the covers of my bed as most normal people do, but was perfectly content to sleep on top of all my bedding (comforter and all) with nothing except my “Aunt Julie blanket” to keep me warm. (She later corrected me for using the term “blanket” to describe her creation.)
As time went on, as is imaginable, I slowly started to outgrow the quilt I had received from Aunt Julie. And so, in May of 2012 I was presented with a new quilt from Aunt Julie as a high school graduation present. Her skill had evidently improved over time. This quilt was bigger, featured better and more durable stitching, and was stylistically more complex. I made a Facebook post some years ago thanking her for her efforts:
This quilt in particular has been with me through a lot. For starters, it kept me warm for three years of dorm life at St. Thomas (where I did my undergrad), and one year in a house off-campus (where we, as single guys, liked to keep the heat down during the wintertime to save money). The summer between my sophomore and junior year of college, I decided to go on a 10-week summer missions trip to South Carolina and was told by leadership to pack light. Neither this suggestion nor the knowledge that South Carolina would be hot during the summer stopped me from bringing it with.3 My quilt continued to be a small semblance of familiarity when I moved to Iowa City and felt the weight of living alone in a new city. And of course, it kept me warm at night during my first winter here. I even trusted it to keep me warm this past January when I (perhaps against my better judgment) decided to have a sleepover at a friend’s shed4 in Iowa City in weather below 10° F. (Granted, I was also wearing a hat, coat, and was wrapped in a sleeping bag as well and laying next to four other guys who were doing the same.)
My first quilt from Aunt Julie is at my parents’ house in Eau Claire, WI. Since I have a newer (and arguably better) quilt at my disposal, my Mom has taken to using my old one as a throw when she’s watching TV at home. My current quilt is currently sitting on my bed in Iowa City. Since it’s summertime here now, I doubt it’ll get used much (though it will most assuredly not leave my bed until I move). This winter it will again see much use. (Though perhaps since my roommate-to-be is engaged as opposed to being single, we may decide to keep the heat on at least every other night.)
The last time I spent any significant length of time with Aunt Julie was during a three-day weekend at her RV vacation home in Lake Zumbro, MN in the summer of 2015. I was humbled by her hospitality, and I had many opportunities to observe the relationship between her and my dad, especially as they reminisced about their childhoods. Some of my cousins who had always been foggy in my memory became crystal clear as we forged new relationships over that weekend. As we left, I felt sorry that we didn’t get to see that side of the family more often.
Then, just four months ago, I learned that Aunt Julie had been diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. I had never followed along while a family member battled like that. She happened to be in Eau Claire for treatment while I was on break in May, and though she was weak from the battle, she was as kind and considerate as I ever remember her being. There were no hints of self-pity or defeatism over her fight, only genuine interest in how we (my dad, mom, sister, and myself) were doing as a family. In fact, it was so ordinary to her character to act in this way that only now do I realize how extraordinary she actually was. I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis:
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
If Lewis is onto something and what he is describing is what it truly means to be humble, then perhaps Aunt Julie was one of the most humble people I’ve ever known – not only during the time we visited her in May, but for as long as I’ve known her. She seldom talked about herself but always wanted to know how other people were doing. And she always seemed to gush with pride over her children and grandchildren.
My Uncle Joe informed us yesterday through Julie’s CaringBridge site that she had taken her final step on her journey. She passed away in the morning on July 2nd, 2017. I called my dad right away to make sure he was doing OK, and then made sure to talk to my heavenly Father about it as well. My prayers continue that our family would be comforted during this time, and that God would use these circumstances to bring about his glory, and greater good. That last petition I’m drawing from Romans 8:28 which says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That verse became a bedrock of comfort and assurance for me in summer of 2013 when I lost my grandfather to Alzheimer’s/Dementia. I began to hope, perhaps more vividly than ever, that God could work all things for my good – even the death of someone so dear to me. It’s my hope now that anyone reading this who is struggling in the wake of Julie’s death would find the same comfort and assurance in that verse that met me four years ago (and continues to meet me).
But, in accordance with Julie’s final wishes, she would not want us to focus on her death but rather direct our energies toward celebrating her life. And there seems to be a lot to celebrate: her marriage of 42 years to my Uncle Joe, her children, her grandchildren, her devotion to family and friends, her remarkable character, her generosity- the list goes on. And while the world may seem a bit emptier without her around, Aunt Julie- partly in thanks to all the quilts she made for the ones she loved – has definitely made the world a warmer place for us all.
- Every quilt contains a little bit of cotton batting (or “stuffing”) in it to give it a little “poof”. ↩
- Apparently, this is known as a “meander” design. ↩
- Though the summer was indeed hot, the guys I was living with liked to keep the A/C in our room turned on “High” at all hours of the day, so it turns out that my decision to bring the quilt along was well worth it. ↩
- You read that right – I slept in the Abdo family’s shed overnight. ↩