Quilt brings message that AIDS victims were here

November 01, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

ROUGHLY THE size of a cemetery plot, the quilt panel is sewn to resemble a brick wall. Spray-painted across it in bold white letters:

"Nancy and Bosco Jr. were here."

Nancy and Bosco Jr. were a mother and her son who died of AIDS. They shared the sort of tough, brief ghetto history which slaps at the sensibility of the mainstream like graffiti. They also shared a friend who believed America should not forget them.

After seeing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of AIDS quilt panels, Robert Hanson continues to tell people about the one for Nancy and Bosco Jr. It presents the grief and love and outrage that has made the quilt one of humanity's most poignant communal expressions.

"The quilt is a very new, unique way to express grief," Hanson says. "This may sound trite, but it really does give meaning to everyone who has died."

With the help of Patty Burns, a social worker who helps AIDS patients, Hanson, an architect, directs the Baltimore chapter of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt. Approximately 200 panels will be displayed at Johns Hopkins University next week as the fulcrum of a series of programs to educate the public about the AIDS epidemic.

The idea for the quilt was born in San Francisco four years ago when Cleve Jones spray-painted the name of his friend Marvin Feldman onto a piece of cloth the size of a grave. It became the first panel in a quilt which has grown to include more than 14,000 panels commemorating AIDS victims, less than a fifth of the number who have died in America.

The NAMES Project Foundation, based in San Francisco, takes care of the existing panels, collects new ones and organizes the quilt's touring schedule. Portions of the quilt are exhibited regularly to inform the public about the disease.

It also serves as an outlet for those who have lost family and friends. Elaine Mack discovered its solace after her son Jerry died. Her panel shows the yellow balloons which brightened Jerry's final days at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Mack has seen the quilt displayed seven times and has served as a monitor for it. She will help out next week, too.

"The quilt is very alive and warm and loving," she says. "I find I just don't want to leave it. It's very comfortable for me. It's different than a cemetery, you feel closer to people."

When Mack and others speak about the quilt, their words often fall short and they look for help with the emotion it generates. Describing the experience of walking past hundreds of names and hundreds of lives, they falter as if they were recalling bittersweet, very personal stories.

They tell of panels sewn from baby blankets and long-ago treasures, of panels made from denim, leather and pink gauze. Many are stitched with photographs. The quilt is perhaps the first perpetual garden to personalize the lives of the dead -- and the love of those who mourn them.

It is also a continuing source of rage. The most current estimate is that the national quilt display planned for October 1992 on the Washington Mall will join 20,000-plus panels in more than four miles of walkways.

Before he died, Jerry Mack told his parents he was particularly worried about young people falling prey to the disease. His son Jason is now 21.

"Jerry asked us if we would please speak up and talk about the disease whenever we could," says his mother, a local legend among AIDS volunteers.

RF She can think of nothing which speaks as eloquently as the quilt.

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