Barbara Norton kept to herself, living alone on a her small retirement in an apartment in Fairview. Late in the summer of 2008, she died suddenly at her sewing machine. She was 61.
Anchorage police set about searching for her family. While at her apartment, APD chaplain Bert McQueen noticed there was very little furniture, but it was full of quilts. All waiting to be finished.
So McQueen called Maxine Holliday, who works in an administrative office at APD, because he knew she was a quilter. He said he'd give her name to Norton's family in case they wanted help dealing with the quilts. A few weeks later, Holliday's phone rang. It was Lorraine Morgan, one of Norton's only living relatives, a cousin, in Florida.
Morgan hadn't heard from her cousin in years. She didn't even know she was in Alaska. She couldn't afford to make the trip north. She didn't know anyone in Anchorage. Would Holliday clear out the apartment? All Morgan wanted was a family Bible, if it could be found, and the paperwork needed to give her cousin a military burial. Holliday could do what she liked with the quilts.
Holliday thought about it. She was curious to see the quilts. And if she didn't do it, who would? So she agreed.
The next weekend, Holliday and her daughter, Angela Lewis, opened the door of Norton's apartment. The first thing they noticed were the clean dishes on the drying rack in the kitchen. It seemed Norton had just washed them and set them there.
"She obviously wasn't scheduled to die," Holliday said.
The living area contained a kitchen table, a television and a futon. Quilts, small and large, in various stages of completion, covered nearly every surface. There were 100 pieces, maybe more.
Holliday has seen a lot of strangers' quilts. She has a little business adding batting and backs to quilt tops.
Norton's quilts were studies of natural scenes, vistas and fireweed blossoms, bear paws and raven wings. She cut intricate shapes and pieced them together, but many projects didn't get past that point before she started others. And so the quilts had piled up.
"Barbara had done all the cutting and tracing. We could see the potential," Holliday told me. "We wouldn't let them lay by the wayside; they were going to be finished."
Norton's house told the story of a simple, organized life. She kept note cards detailing novels -- mostly mysteries and true crime -- she had read or wanted to read. She clipped coupons and ate simple food, bought on the military base in bulk.
"When she found a shoe she liked, she bought six pairs in different colors," Holliday said.
She had one indulgence: fabric. Two-dozen shoeboxes sat stacked on a shelf. Each labeled for color and pattern. Inside, the fabric, even the smallest scrap, was ironed, folded and arranged by color.
"We are fabricaholics," Holliday said. "When we walked in, our eyes popped."
In the pantry, food had been replaced by shoeboxes of fabric. A rainbow of batiks and cottons, assortments of plaids. Her bed was on risers. Underneath it? More shoeboxes. Angela found one marked "important papers."
"I thought, finally, I found the family Bible," Angela said, "but it was fabric, too."
It took Holliday and Lewis more than a week to clear out the apartment. They donated Norton's belongings to a dozen charities. They gave her sewing machine to a friend.
Eventually they unearthed the family Bible and the paperwork. Holliday finished a small quilted wall hanging and sent it all to Morgan in Florida, using rolls of Norton's laundry quarters for postage. They never found anything personal in the house. No diary. No letters. Not a single photograph of Norton. Just the quilts.
"We didn't even know what she looked like until we saw a flyer for her memorial," Holliday said.
It's been a year. Holliday guesses she and Lewis have finished roughly 80 of Norton's quilts. They have been selling them at bazaars, and a few have been donated for charity auctions. Her pieces are all over the city.
As Holliday worked in her garage, sewing over the shapes that Norton had cut, she wondered about her. What did she do in the military? Why did she come to Alaska? How did she learn to quilt?
I found Norton's cousin to see if I could answer Holliday's questions. Lorraine Morgan told me she was raised with Norton in the small town of Point Washington, in northwest Florida. Norton was an only child, born when her parents were older.
"She was a very cherished child," Morgan said.
She learned to quilt from her mother. In the winter, Morgan remembered, her mother and Norton's mother would sit in the kitchen at the quilt frame.
Norton became a Navy dental technician. She was married once, but that ended. She always wanted children. The last time Morgan talked to her cousin, Norton told her she was thinking of moving to Alaska. That was four years ago.
Why did she think Norton went so far away? Why were there so few clues about her past in her apartment?
"It's always been kind of puzzling to me," Morgan said. "I guess it was like a fresh start. I guess a lot of people in Alaska are doing that, right?"
Norton's ashes were buried in the family plot in Florida, next to her parents. She has a Navy marker on her grave. Morgan told me she was glad her cousin's quilts would be finished. It seemed right that her cousin died sewing the way her mother had taught her in Florida when they were girls. They were still connected, even though they had all lost touch over the years, with all those miles in between them.
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