I was amazed at the skill and creativity of the men around me while I was in that place. The things men could create with sheets of typing paper could easily be sold in any craft show in America. My favorite were the sailing ships. They would start by taking sheets of standard typing paper, getting it slightly moist and then rolling it up into a tight stick. They ended up looking like the stick on a "tootsie pop", only 11 inches long. The men who mastered this craft would make up literally hundreds of these 'sticks'.
Then, they would paint them a solid color, let them dry and then 'marbleize' them with a second color. The final 'stick' product was a work of art all by itself. But then the real creativity would begin. In less than a day, the men would turn the stack of sticks into a model sailing ship, usually about 15 inches long. The ship would be complete with rigging, sails, wooden decks (made of Popsicle sticks), life boats, anchors...and in some cases, even a crew. They were truly amazing! Each weekend, you could expect to see two or three Hispanic men carrying these ships into the visitation area to give as a gift to one of their children.
Other men knitted. They were allowed to purchase and order their yarn and knitting needles through a craft catalog and when they received the order, the inmates would begin to create their art with their needles. They would make stocking caps, mittens...even afghans. Once created, they were supposed to mail them to the outside, although there were more than one or two inmates in the institution who sported 'contraband' stocking caps during the cold, winter months.
The indoor recreation area also offered opportunities for pottery and leather work. Each day, those craft rooms were filled...every seat taken, by men working their craft. It was one of the few positive opportunities for the men. And for some, it provided for additional income to their families on the outside.
While all of those crafts looked fun, I got hooked on quilting. I wasn't the only one in the compound. The quilting classes always filled up, with men turned away for lack of space. But the quilting program was different from all of the others. We weren't allowed to have fabric sent in to make quilts to send them back out.
Letters were sent to the assistant warden for programs, but to no avail. Even a plea to the warden himself fell on deaf ears. Even Miss Davis lobbied on our behalf, but in the end, we were only able to use the fabric provided by Miss Davis and donate the quilts to the institution or the charities that Miss Davis had established a relationship with.
I'm glad that every quilt I made went to a good cause...that's not the point of my frustration. My frustration is that I wanted more than anything to make a quilt for Paula. She loves quilts! We had several in our home, and when we would travel and visit her parents, she would always cuddle up in one of their quilts and sit in her chair or the couch as she visited with her mom. I had a picture in my mind of exactly what I wanted to make for her...the colors and the pattern. Sadly, I left prison without the opportunity to fulfill that dream.
But dreams don't have to die. While in prison, I would send pictures of my quilts to Paula and also to my sister. I think she was amazed that her brother liked to quilt...and was actually pretty good at it. When I got out, I was able to visit my sister at Christmas time and she gave me her extra sewing machine. Although I had hand sewn all of my quilts while in prison, she gave me a gift that would allow me to make larger quilts, with fewer mistakes...and to make them faster. I didn't have quite as much free time on the outside as I did while in prison.
She also allowed me to go through all of her quilting fabrics and take whatever I wanted. As I went through box after box of fabric, I felt like a kid in a candy store. She had well over a dozen boxes of fabrics, and as I sorted through the different patterns and colors, I saw them! She had a number of fabrics in the color palette I was looking for. Rich burgundies. Earthy browns and taupe's. It was like she had gone shopping for the quilt of my dreams and had stored them away for just this time.
As soon as I was back in my little motor home, I pulled out a piece of paper and sketched the pattern that was painted in my minds eye. The picture emerged and then I started pulling the swatches of fabric out...laying them out on my bed, placing each piece in just the right place. Deep burgundies next to a lighter shade. Fabrics blended with the royal color with the earthy taupe. It came together like a painting on a canvas. Over the next several weeks, most of my free moments were spent cutting the squares and sewing the strips. And the strips were sewn together to create the quilted top. Safety pins and binder clips holding the creation together as I tried to sew it together. Three times the same seam undone, only to be sewn again imperfectly.
At last, it was done! I tenderly laid it out on my bed. In my heart, I was amazed at this creation. It was incredibly beautiful. Not perfect, but beautiful. It was exactly what I had dreamed of those months ago while in a dirty prison in California. It was exactly what I had wanted to make for Paula. I had hesitations about when to send it to her. I didn't want it to be a holiday gift of any kind. Valentine's Day was close at hand, and I knew that would not be the right time. Too many painful memories. So I waited and then just picked a day and mailed it out.
I told Paula that I was sending her a gift but gave her no idea what it might be. I kept it a secret here...not wanting any of our common friends to tell her what I was up to. Several days after I sent it, I made my near-weekly phone call to her. She said that she had received it and that it was beautiful and she thanked me for it. But there was something in her voice that was left unsaid. A hesitation. I didn't know what it was she wasn't saying, but I figured it had to do with what her folks might say if they knew I had sent her a gift.
And then...I received the most wonderful letter in the mail. It was from Paula, but it was more than just from Paula. It was also from God. It is a letter that I will cherish forever!