To hear Annette Nelesen tell it, converting a bunch of old t-shirts into His and Hers memory quilts was chiefly a matter of economy and efficiency. “We’ve been married a long time, and you cannot keep everything forever,” she says as she spreads them on the floor of the La Mesa home she shares with her husband Rick and their dogs, Trixie the Chiweenie and Izzy the Berger Picard. “The T-shirt wears out, but the logo doesn’t.”
“Or it gets too small,” offers a laconic Rick, who has seen dragons from an old pair of his undershorts enshrined in this textile history, this series of images that serves as a sort of anti-Instagram — curation of the world for the sake of self, as opposed to self-curation for the sake of the world. Annette, whose enthusiasm for the seemingly haphazard patchwork belies her considerable expertise with loom and needle, resumes: “It gives you nice memories and something to snuggle under — or in Izzy’s case, sleep on.”
“Stress blows,” thinks a globular Far Side-style blowfish to himself as he floats above the words “Ft. Myers Beach.” “We’re from Ft. Myers,” says Annette. “And we had a time share down there. Every year, we’d go and see the family.” Time shares and family gatherings; small wonder stress gets mentioned despite the laid-back locale.
“But also,” adds Rick, “my research involves studying stress.” More efficiency and economy. And many of the far-flung names on the squares appear because of that research. Rick is a member of the American Psychosomatic Society, which grew out of a 1930s effort on the part of the New York Academy of Medicine’s joint committee on Religion and Medicine (imagine!) to examine the relation of religion to health, and further, to — quoting the website here — “link developments in psychology and psychiatry to internal medicine, physiology, and other disciplines.” (In other words, maybe it isn’t all in your head.) And despite its name, the APS is an international outfit; the “Budapest” square attests to this, as does the Native American bird that reminds the couple of the Society’s Vancouver meetup.
Given the riot of colors and patterns, the two black squares pull on the attention like a black hole pulls light. “That one is actually from his Navy cracker jack uniform — the tie,” says Annette of one. “The silk ended up rotting, and that was the one piece I could save. He was a hospital corpsman; that’s why there’s a caduceus patch.” The other is adorned only with a tiny white signature from Mr. Jack Daniels. “We were going to move to Tennessee when we retired,” says Rick. “We had bought property down there, and we went to the distillery.”
Annette takes up the sad story. “We bought it with our best friend from Florida. Four acres on a lake on top of a mountain, three miles from where they have Bonnaroo. A couple of months later, she comes home to find her husband packing his bags. There was another woman. They sold their property, and we ended having to let ours go in a short sale to the man who divorced my friend.”
For a while, Hawaii seemed like another retirement possibility; the islands are the most common source of material for the squares. Rick has two from a visit to the telescopes atop Mauna Kea on the big island: one of the bulbous Canada-France-Hawaii telescope, and another showing the configuration of the installation’s various mirrors. The couple got stuck at the summit, because their visit coincided with that of a judge, a jury and both sides involved in the dispute over whether a new super-scope should be built on ground considered sacred by natives. (The natives lost; where’s a joint committee on science and religion when you need one?)
Rick also has two patches from the Black Rabbit Theater Company, which takes its logo from the Black Rabbit of Death in the animated version of Watership Down. “That was a local gypsy theater company,” he says. “I helped a friend put together a PowerPoint for a show they were producing, and they comped me tickets. After seeing the show, I thought, ‘I need to do something different. I need more in my life than to just be in the lab and take the dog to the park.’” So he started helping out with the company’s sound. (A glance at the internet wayback machine shows that in 2004, they put on a play by Clive Barker of Hellraiser fame: History of the Devil, an account of Satan’s legal case for re-entry into heaven.) When Black Rabbit’s prime movers left town, Nelesen found a spot with the still-extant Lamplighters Theatre in La Mesa; he currently serves as board member and treasurer. Next show: Butterflies are Free, a mother-son drama starting October 12.
“I haven’t been to as many places,” says Annette, “but I’ve been to Hawaii many more times,” and her prettier, more uniform quilt reflects that. “My favorite ones, from Haleakala and Kilauea (“It’s all about the lava”) are from Sergeant Leisure, which is no longer in business. And of course, you can’t miss the Road to Hana on Maui.” Her Survivor’s Club t-shirt reads: “Our winding road motto: There will be absolutely no whining, crying, eating, sleeping, reading, restroom, complaining, moaning, horsing around, blackmailing, sickness, or turning back.” “The first time I went with my friends, we stuck the camera through the moon roof and made a video of the whole road.” The second time, she caught a landslide on tape.
The two patches that really don’t fit the tropical theme are a Sandra Boynton “Go for Baroque” cartoon from the couple’s courtship, and the logo, taken from a cloth shopping bag, of the Central Market in Downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “My grandpa gave me that when they moved back there.” Oh, and a Buddha surrounded by the warning, “Don’t mess with karma.” “We keep hoping,” says Annette, perhaps thinking of Tennessee. “Of course, when people get their karma, you’re not always around to see it. We practice a little bit of this and a little bit of that; it’s always good for what ails you.”