Emotions run through stitches of Sept. 11 quilts
© St. Petersburg Times
The quilts are patchworks of marvel.
You start with the individual artistry and origin of each 12-by-12 square. Whether it is the intricate detail of an angel woven by a sewing master, or emergency medical technician and fire department shoulder patches stitched to a color background, or the simple fabric-marker drawings of a child, each is thoughtful enough to be a memorial to the events of Sept. 11.
Then you study the spread of inspired emotions covered by the 750 squares, which have come from 500 people in 30 states. The heartfelt gratitude to the surviving police and firefighters of New York City, the hopeful words to the nation, the Bible verses, the youthful pleas of "Don't be sad."
Finally, your eyes pull back to cover all the hues of the quilt. You focus on the "God Bless America" emblem at the center and find yourself wrapped in patriotism.
Tampa's Ellen Arena has gone through those motions and emotions at least 100 times. It is why she has taken a box of tissue along with 13 of her God Bless America quilts to New York City this weekend. Arena and her family plan to present quilts to New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik, Fire Chief Thomas Von Essen, Port Authority representatives, and firehouses that lost victims.
They hope you will see them this morning in the live audience outside NBC's Today Show.
Shortly after Sept. 11, Arena decided she wanted to do something for the victims and survivors, something more tangible than a cash donation. Over dinner, it dawned on her to gather cloth squares from friends and form a quilt. She sent an e-mail to 25 friends. The initial thought was to make one or two quilts and auction them for a Sept. 11 charity.
Yet word about the squares spread far beyond her own circle. Word reached as far as Oregon and Washington state. An elementary school in Missouri sent squares with the name of every student; a Girl Scout troop in Bradenton sent enough squares for two entire quilts. Kids in Clareann Smith's kindergarten class at Christ Redeemer Lutheran in Temple Terrace penned their thoughts for the project.
Folks in Michigan, Texas, New York and Louisiana sent squares.
"It's an outlet for people to give a piece of themselves, to express pain or appreciation," said Arena, who has kept every letter and e-mail and sent postcards to contributors. "You should read some of these letters. They just bring you to tears."
There was just one problem as Arena continued to be inundated: She didn't know how to make a quilt.
"Talk about brilliance," said Arena with a laugh when she explained she had a few glasses of wine the night the idea was conceived. "I may never drink wine again."
Arena turned to her mom, who does know how to sew. She helped, and Arena put out a plea for help. Cathy Kessler answered. "She's an angel who just happened to fall in my lap," Arena said.
Kessler, who teaches beginning quilt and owns a 4- by 12-foot quilt-sewing machine, helped organize a workshop with her and 10 others at Bernina Sewing Center in North Tampa. Bernina's Debra Sidler helped with the organization, and her store provided the batting and backing fabric for the quilts.
"The United States is such a wonderful place to live, and people need to realize how wonderful it is, to appreciate the U.S. and the privileges we have," Kessler said.
Arena's project gained more steam when she appeared on Fox 13. Diane Patterson, who works in the Polk County Sheriff's Office, saw the story and said the women in the Teletype department were willing to put together an entire quilt if she would send the squares.
They finished in two weeks, doing the bulk of the work by hand.
"The first day we were on our hands and knees saying, "Look at where this one is from. I used to live there,' " Patterson explained. "It was very touching and thrilling to see all of them."
It seems everyone who hears about the project wants to be a part of it, and Arena said the people in New York have been extremely receptive.
Today, they will present a quilt at a Christmas party at a Manhattan firehouse.
Plans call for quilts to be presented to President Bush, the Pentagon and Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer, a passenger on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania.
Through it all, Arena marvels at how far the project has come, but believes there is a reason.
"This is something they can touch," Arena said. "I think it's amazing when you consider 1,000 different hands have touched the different squares."
-- Ernest Hooper can be reached at (813) 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com. His column appears regularly in the Times' Tampa edition.
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