As Haims mourned, she worked her way through her mother's unfinished projects, completing scarf after scarf, casting off on a navy blue sweater that clearly had been intended for Haims - it was in her high school colors.
And she found a new artistic calling, one centered on knitting and crochet. Now, she's known for her soft sculptures - some top 7 feet tall - and her yarn bombings, the "knit graffiti" that surprisingly appears wrapped around signposts, bike racks, and trees.
"While I make nothing that is functional, the handwork I do connects me to my past," she said. "It's my only true maternal connection: My mother, her mother, my father's mother, they all knitted and crocheted and sewed. They created for us the most basic of needs: blankets, sweater, booties to keep us warm. They were our protectors."
Her latest installation has taken over Mount Pleasant mansion in Fairmount Park, a 250-year-old home that its caretakers describe as a "colonial masterpiece." The exhibition, "Spring Forward: Contemporary Fiber Art in Historic Homes," up until June 30, includes another yarn-based display at nearby Lemon Hill mansion by artist Rachel Blythe Udell.
"The houses have craftsmanship, but it's 200-year-old craftsmanship," said Darren Fava, a manager with the city's Parks and Recreation Department, which administers the homes in partnership with the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
"This is a way to bring greater awareness to the houses that, for a lot of people, are off the radar," he said. "It's also a way to get a new generation to the houses. People who come across them are usually wedding or history lovers. The people who follow fiber artists are usually younger."
Haims said she jumped at the chance to bring color and contemporary design to Mount Pleasant via yarn bombing.
"It's bland. . . . I mean, it's quiet and serene. Can you insert a better word?" she said during an interview at the historic estate. "I knew doing something like this would really excite the building."
Philadelphia is filled with yarn bombers, so-called guerrilla knitters whose work is on display throughout the city. It's common to see webs of yarn stretching from tree to tree in Rittenhouse Square or colorful blankets around poles in the Italian Market.
Yarn bombing's beginnings can be traced to the early 2000s in the western United States. It's now an international phenomenon. Some detractors consider it vandalism, even though, unlike paint, it is easily removed. Fans like Haims say it's just "pure fun."
"It's a little gift to the world, something to open your eyes. Art's everywhere and this is one way of showing it," said Haims, who has bombed objects across the country. "We all have such mundane lives. We walk down the same streets every day and see the same telephone poles and bus stops and parking meters. And then to wrap these mundane things in yarn, we start to look at them differently."
Haims was once chased out of LOVE Park by police when she propped a ladder against a tree to adjust a 30-foot-tall knit work she and friends had put around a lamppost. But most people seem to enjoy her work, even if they're a little puzzled.
"They'll say, 'Why are you doing that?' and I'll say, 'This pole is really cold,' " she said.
Sometimes, Haims will return to the scene of a bombing to find her work has disappeared, easily snipped away. It doesn't bother her, she said.
"We're all here for a finite time, and art is, too," she said. "Of course, if I use synthetic yarn and no one touches it, that's going to last for 10,000 years."
Haims, who studied at Parsons School of Design and Temple's Tyler School of Art, notes that she is one of many fiber artists sharing their work in this unique manner. But she is the only one who partnered with Mayor Nutter for an April Fool's Day joke last year. (For details, see Haims' website, www.melissamaddonnihaims.com/work/yarn-bombing/april-fools.)
Her installation at Mount Pleasant mansion includes a "bombing" of the outdoor and first-floor staircases. The bright colors, including a brilliant teal, pop against the monochromatic building built in a style referred to as Middle Georgian or Palladian Classicism.
Inside, in rooms boasting some of the best architectural carvings of their time, Haims has placed a portion of her 100-piece soft sculpture project titled "Hell." The free-standing pieces, most in shades of red or black, are inspired by Dante's masterpiece. They are flamelike, and, fittingly, are displayed in two of the home's fireplaces.
"The yarn invites you in," said Justina Barrett, historic home site manager for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "These houses are fun places to visit, but there is so much to do in Philadelphia that they fade into the background. People go to the Art Museum, do the stairs, maybe get a cheesesteak. Maybe they'll see Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. We want to give people a reason to visit."
Haims' larger projects, like "Hell," can take years to complete. She is never without a needle and yarn, crocheting as she walks, knitting as she talks. Sometimes, her husband asks her to stop.
"If I don't outright laugh, I'll put it down," she said. "And then the shaking starts, and the rocking." She sat on her hands and began to sway to demonstrate. "And then I start doing it again."
The prolific artist, who has a studio in Germantown and lives in Chestnut Hill with her husband and 10-year-old daughter, finds working with her hands cathartic and meditative. She's certain it helped her work through her grief after the loss of her mother.
More recently, her best friend was killed by a drunken driver. Haims responded with "Offering," on display at Third Street Gallery through Sunday. The exhibition consists of crocheted stones of varying sizes, representing the objects left for the dead.
"I'm not sad about either one of them being gone because they live with me every day with the work I do," she said. "I'm fortunate I have that opportunity."
Her most lighthearted exhibit to date, "Cake!", will be in Philadelphia International Airport's Terminal D through November. Haims said the airport curator had long loved her work, but asked for something more uplifting to exhibit. (Not surprisingly, people about to step onto airplanes don't like being reminded of their mortality.)
The result is 27 knit and crocheted cakes that seem well-suited for a Dr. Seuss book or a production of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
"They are a total departure for me," Haims said. "Soft sculpture can be big and heavy, but it's [also] soft and squishy. Who doesn't love a little warm and fuzzy, after all?"