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Last year, I waited in the hospital while my friend Sarah had her baby daughter via planned cesarean section. On my lap, carefully cleaned and wrapped, was a quilt I'd made for this newest member of our clan: It was made from soft flannels in pinks and browns, in the classic pattern known in quilting books as "Broken Dishes." Many blocks of four triangles are united into squares, and it's almost like an illusion when it all comes together. Do the blocks form patterns of concentric diamonds or of cascading triangles? Squint, and the pattern changes.

Once Sarah and the baby were comfortably settled in the postpartum room, and everyone else left to get lunch, I cuddled Lilianna in the quilt I'd sewn for her, upon which I'd already embroidered her name. A nurse came in, and noticed the quilt immediately. "Did someone make that?" "I did," I said. "That's beautiful! You could sell those!" I smiled, knowing I'll never do any such thing.

My mother doesn't knit or sew, and her mother didn't either. My grandmother Charlotte was an editorial assistant in New York City in the 1960s and a self-described feminist; she owned a first-edition copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. Boiling frozen Green Giant vegetables and broiling steaks were about the extent of her domestic work, and she reveled in fashionable clothes and in knowing at least a little something about the books "everyone" was talking about. When I was in second grade, we guffawed together over an illustration of a grandmother in a picture book I'd taken home from school. The grandmother was white-haired (my grandmother dyed hers until she died) and sitting in a recliner with a cat in her lap ...

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