The names and messages were among those on 16 cloth squares, unpacked from sections of the vast AIDS Memorial Quilt that were delivered to the National Mall early Saturday in preparation for the upcoming Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Each square offered a small, intimate shrine to lives as diverse as America.
Some patches contained posthumous love letters and poems, written with unabashed grief or with slyly coded references to shared memories. Some contained equally frank replies, written by stricken souls who knew the end was near.
“I am so lost without you by my side,” a man named Rodney wrote to his friend Bobby Angelo, who died in 1995 at age 38. The square contained photos of them at happy moments — dressed up as cowboys, visiting Disneyworld. In one corner was a second message, shakily signed by Angelo. “I love you Rodney. [Remember] that if you ever read this.”
There was almost no one on the Mall when a trailer truck arrived from Atlanta carrying the first of five huge pieces of the quilt that was started with a single panel in 1987. It now weighs 54 tons and measures more than 50 miles long. No one had come to look for names and faces they knew; that would happen later, when sections of the quilt will be exhibited at the festival starting Wednesday, and at other area events in July.
Roddy Williams, 41, a quilt project volunteer, brought along a new patch he had created for his friend Andrew Lowery. Williams said he had carefully chosen the hobbies Lowery loved — crosswords, origami, a Halloween costume — and stitched them together for the fifth anniversary of his death on June 21, 2006.
“I made a list of words about him, and I sewed every single thread,” Williams said, proud of his amateur handiwork. Then he shook his head and turned away, suddenly unable to speak.
Even laid out on an empty field in the morning sun, the squares of cloth with their hand-made homages created a quiet, powerful testament to something larger than the individuals named there. Together, they told the story of a society gradually transformed by the AIDS epidemic — from early shock, denial and revulsion to empathy, compassion and cathartic grief.
“The quilt challenges us to recognize that we are all connected and responsible for each other. It makes all the stories ours,” said Julie Rhoad, president of the NAMES Project Foundation, who travelled from Atlanta with the quilt. Any stranger who peers at a dozen squares and sees the array of tributes — from fellow worshippers or sports fans, work colleagues or family members — “can make a connection and find a way in,” Rhoad said.
Shortly after the first cloth panel was unpacked and unrolled on the field, a woman named Karen Colson, 59, of Hagerstown, happened to stroll by with her sister and niece. She stared down at the patches for a while and sighed.
“I had a friend from college who got AIDS in San Francisco and died in 1984,” Colson said. “Nobody knew anything then. The fear was palpable. I like to think a lot of that has gone now. It is so important to educate people.”
Among the most moving messages on the squares were verses, some written to honor the dead and others written to comfort the living. On the patch for a man named Rick Pulley, who died in 1995 at age 28, someone had sewn an anonymous poem in his name, asking people not to mourn.
“I do not sleep,” it read. “I am a thousand winds that blow. . . . I am the gentle autumn rain. . . .I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds. . . . Do not stand at my grave and cry. I am not there. I did not die.”
A few yards away, on a service road through the Mall, stood an enormous FedEx truck. Inside were several thousand more panels, containing countless names and messages and mementos, waiting to be unloaded and unfolded in the sun.