When the Stars Align: Stanley’s Most Challenging Quilt

Cynthia RockwellSeptember 11, 20177min
Tracey Stanley completed her most challenging project so far, “Amazon Star,” a quilt pattern by Judy Neimeyer and made for her cousin in the colors of the Barbados flag. It also became a memorial to her son, who would have turned 30 this year.

What might be most obvious about Tracey Stanley, an administrative assistant in the registrar’s office for 10 years (out of a 20-year total at Wesleyan), is that she is the on-campus go-to “mom” for many students—those she supervises in her office, those who appear at the registrar’s window looking lost, and those she mentors through AFCA, the Administrators and Faculty of Color Association, for which she has served as co-chair.

Warm, outspoken, determined and with a strong protective instinct, Stanley also is a union steward.

What colleagues might not know is that Stanley is an avid quilter. She began teaching herself the craft the year that her eldest son, Andre, would have turned 16. He was just 8 when he was diagnosed with brain cancer and died only nine months after that. While Stanley is grateful that Andre’s friends have remained in touch, each milestone they share is also a reminder of her own family’s loss.

It was 2003, and as Andre’s friends were celebrating learner’s permits and driver’s licenses—Stanley recalls, “I felt an awful, awful void. I asked myself, what could I do to fill the void? And it was quilting.” With a pattern and yards of brightly colored fabric, Stanley immersed herself in stitching together small pieces to create a design called “Broken Bricks for Broken Hearts.”

That one still sits in her living room. “I wrote on the label on the back that many tears went into this—but this is what I get to look at, to celebrate making it through.”  And her takeaway: “I haven’t stopped since that first quilt,” she says. The other 20 or so have become well-used, well-loved cozy coverings on cold nights for family and friends, including the quilt she made for her daughter, Reba (now a teacher in New Jersey), and the one for her son, Trey (living in Hartford; working in Rocky Hill). Stanley’s sewing room remains her haven, a place to lose herself in her art.

Until last spring, though, she’d made only one quilt on commission,

“People think they want me to make them one, but they have no idea,” she says. “I post photos on Facebook and people say, ‘Oh, I’d like a twin-sized quilt like that one. My budget is $49.’ I say, ‘You want bed-in-a-bag from Walmart.’ They have no idea the cost of the fabric or the time and love that goes into these quilts.”

This year, Stanley’s cousin asked for a quilt, and this woman understood both cost and value of Stanley’s art.

“My cousin wanted a star in the colors of the Barbados flag, in honor of her grandfather, who was from there,” she recalls. Stanley had recently become familiar with Judy Neimeyer patterns—intricate, exquisite stars that demand precise attention to detail—but she hadn’t yet attempted one. The time seemed right; the project had captured her imagination. Stanley agreed, and, for the first time, she created a spreadsheet to record the hours she’d dedicate to aligning fabric into points of a star.

She started her record keeping on March 28, with a trip to the fabric store to select her palette. On April 1, she wielded her rotary cutter, slicing the yardage into pieces that would shape her star. By May, she was spending five to six hours each day—getting up early before work, dashing home during lunchtime, and again settling in front of her machine in the evening.

It was only when she began preparing the 104-by-104-inch piece of art to be boxed and shipped that she realized: in aligning each point of fabric star, she had also given herself a crucial point of focus.

“This year was a big one,” she says. “Andre’s thirtieth birthday. I hadn’t realized it, but when I went back to my time sheet I saw: The day I’d chosen the fabric was the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. The day I began cutting the fabric—that was the anniversary of his surgery. May 28 would have been his thirtieth birthday, and all that month, up to that very day, I worked on the quilt. This star quilt for my cousin was what allowed me to process my grief this year.”

To preserve the memory of this masterpiece, Stanley asked Wesleyan University Photographer Olivia Drake to take a photo of her with the quilt, which had become a symbol of love between a parent and child—and a healing journey.

And for those who struggle with their own challenges, Stanley offers what she has learned: “Take time every day to ‘do you.’ You have to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of others.”