WINTERPORT – Sewing machines whirred, scissors snipped and a steam iron sputtered on a recent sunny Saturday in Martha Stepp’s sewing room in Newburgh.
Here, Stepp and Cindy Thomas of Winterport put a 21st century spin on the 19th century quilting bees that served as a means for women to produce bedding and other functional goods, all the while socializing.
Threads from the women’s new project reach back to remember a beloved son – and forward to comfort patients at Eastern Maine Medical Center’s CancerCare of Maine.
Cindy Thomas has sought solace in this room sharing patterns, joys, concerns and chocolate with kindred spirits, especially since her son Ryan died in January.
A mere month later – fueled by Ryan’s generous spirit – she spearheaded a project that would, in turn, let cancer patients know they are not alone.
Her goal was to gather stitchers together to create and stuff about two dozen quilted fabric sacks to be presented to CancerCare patients.
The quilted 5-inch-by-7-inch zippered satchels, shaped not unlike wontons, are small enough to fit in your hand, but large enough to contain such tantalizing tidbits as playing cards, miniature composition books, colorful pens, hand sanitizer and even mini-Slinkys. Thomas stashed a tiny chocolate bar in some.
“The bags are a nice way to keep your hands busy,” said Stepp.
Each one takes about an hour to complete “once you get on a roll,” Thomas said.
Before quietly delivering the fruits of their labor in mid-April, Thomas, Stepp and Jan Bennett of Hampden had completed and stuffed more than 50 bags.
All this bonhomie masks the grief that often weighed Thomas down during her son’s long bout with bone cancer from September 2005 until his death on Jan. 2.
“Everybody had hope. He came this close to beating cancer,” she said while pressing her thumb and forefinger together. “We never had any doubt.”
In fact, the former standout University of Southern Maine basketball player, gifted writer and committed Big Brother was making plans to marry his fiance, oncology nurse Amy Corrao. Ryan and Amy had entered a video they filmed at Portland Head Light in a contest to win a free wedding.
“I still have that,” Thomas said.
The young couple’s love and plans could not keep the cancer from showing up again last year. Doctors eventually removed one lung.
“His friends rallied around him,” Thomas said of her 6-foot-8-inch middle son. Eldest son Beau lives in Oakland; the youngest, Evan, resides in Barre, Vt.
“Everyone loved Ryan,” Thomas said. “He would go at the drop of a hat to help a friend in need. It seems so unreal that he is gone.”
Ryan’s friendships went back to his days at Hampden Academy, where he graduated in 1999. He and Matthew Stepp were fast friends, as are their mothers, who sighed as they recalled hot summer days watching their carefree boys frolic in Stepp’s backyard pool.
“Ryan’s sense of humor was unmatched,” his mom said. “He was so caring; even when he was in pain, he put other people first. He never complained.”
“Ryan was just like my brother,” Matthew Stepp said. “He had a big heart.”
There was no fanfare when Cindy Thomas delivered the quilted sacks to Cancercare of Maine.
But she knows what her son would have thought:
“Ryan would have said these are awesome.”