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When Christmas Eve comes to Elm Creek Manor, the tenor of the holiday is far from certain. Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, the Master Quilter, has her own reasons for preferring a quiet, even subdued, Christmas. Her young friend Sarah McClure, however, takes the opposite view and decides to deck the halls brightly. As she explores the trunks packed with Bergstrom family decorations that haven't been touched in more than fifty years, Sarah discovers a curious Christmas quilt. Begun in ...
When Christmas Eve comes to Elm Creek Manor, the tenor of the holiday is far from certain. Sylvia Bergstrom Compson, the Master Quilter, has her own reasons for preferring a quiet, even subdued, Christmas. Her young friend Sarah McClure, however, takes the opposite view and decides to deck the halls brightly. As she explores the trunks packed with Bergstrom family decorations that haven't been touched in more than fifty years, Sarah discovers a curious Christmas quilt. Begun in seasonal fabrics and patterns, the quilt remains unfinished.
Sylvia reveals that the handiwork spans several generations and a quartet of Bergstrom quilters — her great aunt, her mother, her sister, and herself. As she examines the array of quilt blocks each family member contributed but never completed, memories of Christmases past emerge.
At Elm Creek Manor, Christmas began as a celebration of simple virtues — joy and hope buoyed by the spirit of giving. As each successive generation of Bergstroms lived through its unique trials — the antebellum era, the Great Depression, World War II — tradition offered sustenance even during the most difficult times. For Sylvia, who is coping with the modern problem of family dispersed, estranged, or even forgotten, reconciliation with her personal history may prove as elusive as piecing the Christmas Quilt.
Elm Creek Manor is full of secrets, from a Christmas tree with unusual properties to the sublime Bergstrom strudel recipe. Sylvia's tales at first seem to inform her family legacy but ultimately illuminate far more, from the importance of women's art to its place in commemorating our shared experience, at Christmastime and in every season.
Sylvia's childhood home was so full of memories it was a wonder there was any room for furniture. As the December days grew colder and the nights longer, the bygone years seemed to encroach ever more insistently into the present — vexing Sylvia day and night with their persistence. She imagined spirits of Christmases past crowding the halls, arguing over favorite chairs by the fire, looking about Elm Creek Manor, and shaking their heads in dismay over how she had let the place go. She would earn a small fortune if she could charge them rent, but regrettably, the spirits offered only longing whispers and mournful sighs. Nothing would appease them save an old-fashioned Bergstrom family Christmas, with all the trappings of the holiday, every beloved tradition fulfilled to the letter.
If Sylvia addressed the spirits — which she would not do, she was seventy-six but not quite ready to speak aloud to an empty room, thank you very much — she would warn them that they were bound to be disappointed. As much as Sylvia missed the Christmas joys of her youth, the Bergstroms were gone, every last one of them save Sylvia herself, and their traditions had passed on with them. Besides, Sylvia had a plan whose success depended upon this being the dullest, least festive, and most yawn-inducing Christmas in the history of Elm Creek Manor.
Her young friend Sarah McClure laughed off Sylvia's warnings of a dreary Christmas in their remote central Pennsylvania home. "Excitement is precisely what I'm trying to avoid," explained Sarah as she sewed three quilted stockings to hang before the fireplace in the library. "Christmas at my mother's house would be interesting, but for all the wrong reasons."
Exasperated, Sylvia strengthened her resolve to bring about reconciliation between Sarah and her mother. After all, Sarah had promised to try. A year and a half earlier, Sylvia had returned to Elm Creek Manor after a fifty-year absence, the sole heir to the Bergstrom estate upon the death of her estranged sister, Claudia. She had intended to sell it, but with Sarah's help, she made peace with her past and realized that she could never sell her beloved family home. The question remained, however, of how to restore life and happiness to the manor, which was much too large for one old woman living alone. Sarah had devised an ingenious solution, combining their love for quilting with their need for community by turning the Bergstrom estate into a summer retreat for quilters. As Sylvia and Sarah negotiated their business agreement, Sylvia, in repayment for all Sarah had done to help Sylvia reconcile with estranged loved ones, decided to add a clause that would encourage Sarah to mend fences in her own life.
"I don't know what kind of conflict stands between you and your mother," Sylvia had said, "but you must promise me you'll talk to her and do your best to resolve it. Don't be a stubborn fool like me and let grudges smolder and relationships die."
The unexpected request had clearly caught Sarah by surprise. "I don't think you know how difficult that will be."
"I don't pretend to know, but I can guess. I don't expect miracles. All I ask is that you learn from my mistakes and try."
Sarah had hesitated so long before making her reply that Sylvia had feared she would refuse and that their agreement to create Elm Creek Quilt Camp would fall through, but at last, Sarah agreed. Sylvia took her at her word and both women devoted themselves to the creation of Elm Creek Quilts. They worked so hard that first year to realize their vision that Sylvia could excuse Sarah's failure to make good on her promise. They were so busy, working fourteen-hour days or more with the help of Sarah's husband, Matt, and their talented staff of quilting teachers, that Sarah had no time to visit her mother and resolve their differences. But then camp ended for the summer, and still Sarah did little more than call her mother for a brief chat every other week. When she announced her intention to spend the holidays at Elm Creek Manor, Sylvia realized that Sarah would put off fulfilling her promise forever if she could get away with it. Since voiding their agreement was out of the question — Elm Creek Quilts had enriched Sylvia's life too much for her to throw it all away — she must see to it that her condition was fulfilled.
Sylvia figured there was no better time than Christmas to seek peace within a family, but Sarah could hardly reconcile with her mother from a hundred miles away. Somehow Sylvia would have to persuade Sarah that she would have a much merrier Christmas in her own childhood home, with a mother who loved her even if they did not always get along. Unfortunately, Sarah wasn't buying. Instead of seeking a happier holiday elsewhere, she had become determined to force a Merry Christmas upon Sylvia whether she wanted one or not.
If Sylvia had her way, she would observe Christmas as she had every season since abandoning her family estate for a modest home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania — church services in the morning, a Christmas concert on the radio after, perhaps dinner later at the home of a persistent friend who refused to heed Sylvia's firm assurances that she did not mind spending the holidays alone. It had always sufficed, and she had woken every December 26 relieved that she had made it through another Christmas without a fuss, without too many wistful reminiscences of holidays long past. But it had been much easier to ignore the whispers of memory from a distance. Now that she had returned home, she found herself longing to heed their call.
And if she didn't know better, she might suspect that Sarah knew how close she was to giving in, so often did she tempt her to abandon her plans for an unremarkable Christmas.
"Sylvia?" Sarah called from the hallway, moments before she appeared in the doorway to the kitchen where Sylvia was preparing a cup of tea. "Are you busy?"
Sylvia stirred honey into her tea. "I was just about to settle down with a good book."
"Then you have time to help me find the Christmas decorations."
"I already told you where to look." Sylvia carried her cup into the west sitting room, her favorite place to read or quilt. Sunlight streamed in through the windows shut tight against the cold. Through the bare branches of the stately elms outside, she glimpsed the bright red of the barn on the other side of Elm Creek, which was a slash of gray-blue cutting through the white crust of snow.
"You told me the decorations are in the attic. If you can't be more specific than that, it will be Easter before I find them."
Sylvia shrugged, lifted her book from where it lay facedown on her chair, and seated herself. "Perhaps you shouldn't bother then."
"Honestly, Sylvia," admonished Sarah. "It's the morning of Christmas Eve. If we don't decorate today, what's the point?"
"You're right. Why don't we forgo decorations this year? We'll have to take them down in a few days anyway. It hardly seems worth the effort."
Sarah stared at her in disbelief. "I half expected you to wrap that up with a 'Bah, humbug!'"
Sylvia slipped on her glasses, which hung from a fine silver chain around her neck. "I am neither a Scrooge nor a Grinch, thank you, but I have kept a quiet Christmas since before you were born. I warned you time and time again. If you wanted a more festive holiday, you and Matthew should have accepted your mother's invitation. I imagine her decorations are lovely."
Sarah frowned as she usually did whenever Sylvia brought up her mother. "My mother invited me, not Matt."
"Is that so? I assumed your husband was included implicitly. Husbands usually are for this sort of thing."
"You've never met my mother or you'd know better than to assume Matt's included unless she mentions him by name. She still hopes our wedding was a bad dream and she'll wake up one morning to find me engaged to my boyfriend from freshman year at Penn State."
Sylvia was certain Sarah was exaggerating. Matthew was a fine young man, and Sylvia could not imagine how Sarah's mother could possibly disapprove of their marriage as vehemently as Sarah claimed. "But what of your agreement to alternate visits between your side of the family and Matthew's? Since you spent last Christmas with his father, your mother was quite reasonable to expect you would visit her this year."
"We could have." Sarah sat down in the chair opposite Sylvia's. "Except that we wanted to have Christmas here, with you."
"Christmas is a time for family."
"You know you're like family to us. Elm Creek Manor is our home now. We couldn't bear to leave you in this big house all alone at Christmas time."
Sylvia feigned indifference and turned a page, although she had not read a word of it. "Don't lay the burden of your decision at my feet. I managed just fine last year."
"If we had known we were leaving you here by yourself, we would have stayed. You told us you were going to invite Agnes for Christmas dinner."
"My sister-in-law was out of town visiting one of her daughters."
"Yes, which you'd known since Thanksgiving but neglected to mention. Would you please put down that book and talk to me?"
Sylvia closed the book, marking her page with a finger, and peered at Sarah over the rims of her glasses. "Very well, young lady. I'm listening."
Sarah regarded her with fond exasperation. "You keep suggesting that if Matt and I wanted a festive Christmas, we should have gone somewhere else. I don't understand why we can't celebrate a Merry Christmas here, with you."
Privately, Sylvia acknowledged that Sarah had good reason to be puzzled. After all, they had so much worth celebrating: Sylvia's return to the family estate, the successful first year of Elm Creek Quilt Camp, new friends, and a future bright with possibilities. If anyone ought to be dancing about with a "Merry Christmas" on her lips, it should be Sylvia.
She should have known Sarah was too perceptive to be deceived by her simple ruse, but she wasn't quite ready to give up.
"I'm too old to make such a fuss," she said. "Christmas is for children."
She could tell from Sarah's expression that she had done little to dampen her young friend's enthusiasm. "Then long live childhood," Sarah declared. Sylvia sighed and opened her book again, but Sarah reached over and closed it. "You must have some Bergstrom family Christmas traditions you'd like to revive."
It was true; the Bergstroms had passed down many lovely Christmas traditions through the generations. The week before Christmas, the best cooks in the family would labor in the kitchen, turning out the most delicious treats — cookies, gingerbread, and strudel from her great-grandfather's sister's secret recipe. Delicious aromas of spices and baking once filled Elm Creek Manor at Christmastime, mingling with the scents of pine and holly and cinnamon. Every member of the family helped trim the stairways and mantels with freshly cut boughs, but only the most recently married couple was allowed to select the family Christmas tree. Before the south wing of the manor was constructed, the Christmas tree was displayed in the front parlor, but in later years it occupied the ballroom. They adorned the tree with the accumulated treasures of three generations — ceramic figurines from Germany, sparkling crystal teardrops from New York City, carved wooden angels with woolen hair from Italy. The children's favorite ornament was an eight-pointed glass star. Its red points with gold tips shone in the candlelight, casting flashes of brilliant color from floor to ceiling. On Christmas Eve, an adult would hide the star somewhere in the manor and send the children searching. The lucky child who found the star would win a prize, a small toy or bag of candy, and would be lifted high to place the star on the top of the tree. Twice Sylvia had found the star, but after her brother learned to walk, she always let him find it. Her sister had never found the star without the help of a kindly uncle whispering in her ear.
There was so much more, of course — memories crowded in of church services, music, stories, friends, and laughter. Yes, the Bergstroms had enjoyed many wonderful holiday traditions, but Sylvia did not think she could bear seeing them restored by well-meaning youngsters who could not truly understand their significance, especially if it meant that Sarah would postpone for yet another year a visit home for Christmas.
Undaunted by Sylvia's silence, Sarah persisted. "You can't be too old to sit back and enjoy Christmas decorations."
Sylvia sighed. There seemed little point in preventing her. "Of course not."
Sarah took her hands. "Then keep me company in the attic while I look for the decorations. We have to put up a little tinsel and holly or Santa will think we've forgotten him."
Sarah insisted Sylvia precede her up the narrow, creaking attic steps — the better to break her fall should she stumble, Sylvia supposed. She shivered in the chilly darkness as Sarah stepped around her toward the center of the space. With a tug on the pull cord, pale light from the single, bare bulb spilled down, illuminating a circle of floorboards. Stacks of trunks, cartons, and old furniture cast deep shadows in the corners beyond the reach of the light.
To Sylvia's right lay the older west wing of the manor, the original home of the Bergstrom family, built in the middle of the nineteenth century by the first Bergstroms to immigrate to America from Germany. Directly before her stretched the south wing, added when her father was a boy. In the attic, the seams joining the original house and the addition were more evident than on the first three stories, the color of the walls subtly different, the floor not quite even. Little visible evidence betrayed that fact, as the belongings of four generations of her family covered nearly every square foot of floor space.
Sarah surveyed the attic with satisfaction, in all likelihood congratulating herself for finally persuading Sylvia upstairs. "Well? Where should we begin?"
Sylvia hadn't the faintest idea. Since returning from her self-imposed exile, she had visited the attic as infrequently as possible. She had not sought out the boxes of Christmas trimmings in more than fifty years.
"Over this way, I suppose," Sylvia told Sarah, gesturing toward what she guessed was the general location of two trunks, one green and one blue, and one sturdy carton. At first she stood aside and let Sarah do the work, but soon she began to feel foolish and impatient standing idle, so she joined in the search.
"I think I've found something," called Sarah from the other side of the trap door. Sylvia watched as she dragged a long rectangular box into the open, her wavy brown hair falling onto her face. The box, embellished with a forest of green pines, announced in red ink, "Festive Christmas Tree." Smaller black print identified the product as, "Evergleam. Made in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, U.S.A."
"I've never seen that before," said Sylvia, dusting off her hands and coming closer for a better look. Sarah opened one end of the box, reached inside, and with some effort pulled out a handful of what appeared to be wood shavings as shiny as tinfoil.
"It's one of those aluminum Christmas trees," said Sarah, delighted. "My grandmother used to have one."
"Mine didn't," said Sylvia dryly, imagining her father's mother recoiling in horror at the very thought. "This must be one of Claudia's more recent contributions to the estate. It reflects her taste."
"Oh, don't be so hard on her. These were the height of fashion once." Sylvia tugged until more of the atrocious foil tree emerged from the box.
"Hmph. If you say so."
"Would you mind if I set it up in my room?"
"If your husband can bear it, you may do whatever you like." Sylvia quickly amended, "As long as you promise to keep it out of my sight."
"I wonder if it came with one of those rotating colored floodlights like my grandmother had." Sarah disappeared behind an old wardrobe, her voice momentarily replaced by the sound of boxes scuffing across the floor. "Wait a minute. Sylvia? What color did you say those trunks were?"
"One was blue and one green." Sylvia picked her way through the clutter to join Sarah, who was removing a paint-spattered drop cloth from the top of a dusty forest green trunk with brass fastenings. "My word. You found it."
"Here's the other one," said Sarah, beaming up at Sylvia in triumph, resting her hand on a blue trunk. "The carton must be nearby."
"One would think so. There," said Sylvia. She could not help but be pleased to see them. Claudia had sold off so many things in Sylvia's absence that she had prepared herself for the possibility that they would not have found the trunks in the attic. The Bergstroms' old ornaments and trims probably had no more than sentimental value, but Sylvia would not have put it past Claudia to part with them for pocket change.
She tried to talk Sarah into waiting until her husband came home to carry the trunks and carton downstairs, but Sarah insisted upon doing it herself. It took four trips, but Sarah managed with Sylvia doing little more to help than barking anxious directions when her young friend seemed likely to tumble down the stairwell. After the last was settled three floors down in the foyer, Sarah barely paused to catch her breath before throwing back the lid of the blue trunk. Sylvia looked on warily, wondering if her sister had replaced their family heirlooms with thin aluminum varieties, but she relaxed at the sight of the green-and-red tartan tablecloth and a garland of gold beads. One familiar treasure after another — a wooden nativity set her grandfather had carved, eight personalized Christmas stockings, a china angel blowing a brass horn, the family Christmas tree ornaments — emerged from the trunk looking exactly as they had when she last packed them away, as if they had not been disturbed in more than fifty years.
Was it possible that her sister had never opened the boxes in all that time?
As Sarah turned to the second trunk, Sylvia sat down on the floor beside her, marveling over each item as Sarah passed them to her. Her brother's nutcracker, dressed in the bright red coat of a soldier, a sword in his fist. The wooden music box shaped like a sleigh full of toys that played "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" when the key was wound. The paper angels she and Claudia had made in Sunday school. A wreath made of pinecones she and her mother had gathered in the forest along Elm Creek. The memory of a snowy afternoon flooded her — the sound of her mother's laughter, the crisp winter air nipping her cheeks — and she clutched the wreath so tightly that brittle pieces broke off in her fingers.
She gasped and set the wreath on the floor. Sarah glanced over her shoulder, her expression darkening with concern. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." Sylvia shifted on the floor so that Sarah would think discomfort rather than grief had provoked her. She forced a smile. "Well. You should have plenty of decorations to work with, don't you agree?"
"Enough for the entire manor, but before I get started, I want to see what's in those other two boxes."
"Two?" Sylvia checked, and sure enough, two cartons sat on the marble floor just beyond the trunks. "Goodness. If I had paid more attention I could have saved you that last trip upstairs. I said two trunks and one carton, remember?"
Sarah shrugged, returning her attention to the contents of the green trunk. "I know, but I peeked inside and saw some Christmasy colors, so I brought them both down. Maybe Claudia added to the collection while you were away."
Judging by the metal tree her sister had acquired, Sylvia certainly hoped not. She went to the nearest carton and pulled open the flaps. There she discovered more familiar decorations — candlesticks, china teacups and saucers encircled with pictures of holly leaves and berries, the jolly Santa Claus cookie jar Great-Aunt Lucinda kept filled with lebkuchen, anisplaetzchen, and zimtsterne from St. Nicholas Day through the Feast of the Three Kings. She sorted through the carton, each discovery rekindling a long-neglected memory until it was almost too much for her to continue. When she finished, she scanned the items Sarah had laid out on the floor as she emptied the trunks. Nothing seemed to be missing except for the ruby star for the top of the tree, which had been lost long ago — but what, then, filled the last box?
"Perhaps you should open that one," said Sylvia, less than enthusiastic at the prospect of discovering more of her sister's garish purchases.
Sarah dusted off her hands and opened the last carton. "Good news. I told you I didn't waste a trip to the attic. It's more Christmas stuff."
"What's the bad news?"
"There is no bad news. Come and see for yourself." Sarah grinned over her shoulder at Sylvia, amused by her wariness. "I'm sure you'll like it. It's fabric, not foil."
A memory tickled the back of Sylvia's mind, but as soon as she peered inside the box, the memory struck with the full force of a blow. "Oh, my goodness."
"What is it?"
Sylvia sank to her knees beside the box, overwhelmed by the sensation of discovery and loss. She had never forgotten the Christmas Quilt, nor had she ever expected to see it again. Begun by her Great-Aunt Lucinda when Sylvia was very young, the unfinished quilt had been taken up and worked upon by a succession of Bergstrom women — among them, Sylvia herself. From what she could see of the folded bundle of patchwork and applique, not a single stitch had been added since she last worked upon it. And yet every intricate Feathered Star block, every graceful appliqued cluster of holly leaves and berries had been tucked away as neatly as if a conscientious quiltmaker had had every intention of completing her masterpiece. Even the scraps of fabric had been sorted according to color — greens here, reds there, golds and creams in their own separate piles. The Christmas Quilt had been abandoned, but it had not been discarded.
Had Claudia intended to finish it herself one day, only to find that it evoked too many painful memories? She had borne no children, so she could not have meant to leave it for a member of the next generation to finish, as their great-aunt and mother had, each in her turn. She certainly could not have been saving the quilt for Sylvia's homecoming.
How many Christmases had her sister spent in Elm Creek Manor, alone and longing, haunted by memories of more joyful times long past?
"Sylvia?" Sarah placed a hand upon Sylvia's, concerned. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, you know how it is with me every time you insist upon poking around in this old place." Sylvia patted Sarah's hand and sighed. For Sarah it was great fun, a trip back in time into the history of Elm Creek Manor. For Sylvia it was something else entirely. "Whenever we stumble upon some old artifact from Bergstrom family history, I'm reminded of how I failed my ancestors by walking out, by allowing everything they spent their lives building to fall apart."
"You left, but you also returned," Sarah reminded her, as she always did. "Elm Creek Manor still stands, and you brought life back to it. Your family would be proud."
"Astonished, yes. Proud?" Sylvia shook her head. "I'm not so certain."
Sarah smiled, understanding her perfectly. "Granted, they probably never imagined the manor as a quilters' retreat, but everything you've told me about them suggests they valued art and education and community. Isn't that what Elm Creek Quilts stands for?"
Sylvia considered. "Perhaps you're right."
"I know I'm right." Sarah reached into the box and took out a folded bundle of patchwork. "You never mentioned a long-lost Christmas quilt." She unfolded the fabric and discovered that instead of a finished quilt top, she held only a strip of Log Cabin blocks sewn together and wrapped around a small stack of additional blocks. "Oh. It's a UFO."
"It is indeed an Unfinished Fabric Object, and destined to remain so." Sylvia removed the next carefully folded bundle, and felt a twist of painful longing in her heart upon recognizing her mother's handiwork, the perfect applique stitches that were her trademark. "My great-aunt Lucinda began this quilt before I was born. It became something of a family joke. Every November she would take it from her sewing basket and declare that this year she would finish it in time for Christmas morning. Of course she never did, and once the holidays passed, she would lose interest in it and pack it away. I understand her point; who thinks about Christmas projects in April? But without fail, when Thanksgiving rolled around, she'd get in a Christmas mood again and pick up where she left off." Sylvia nodded to a thin stack of green-and-red Feathered Star blocks as Sarah removed them from the box. "She made those. Her original design called for twenty, if I remember correctly, but I don't believe she ever made more than six."
"And then she switched to Variable Stars?" guessed Sarah, glancing inside the box at what remained.
"Good heavens, no. Lucinda wouldn't have resorted to something so simple after devoting years to these Feathered Stars." With a sniff, Sylvia dismissed the blocks remaining within the carton. "Claudia pieced the Variable Stars when she took it upon herself to finish the quilt. Before my sister got her hands on it, my mother appliqued these holly wreaths." Sylvia remembered all too well the day her mother had set the quilt aside, and why. Years later, Sylvia tried to finish what the other women of her family had begun, thinking, wrongly, that her Log Cabin blocks would pull the disparate pieces together. "I'm afraid what you see here amounts to nothing more than good intentions gone awry. Or rather, gone nowhere."
Sarah's glance took in the different sections of the quilt. "We could finish it."
Sylvia snapped out a laugh. "I don't think so."
"Why not? We've finished other quilts together. My sampler, the memorial quilt Claudia and Agnes made from your husband's clothes — "
"That's different. Those quilts were begun in special circumstances."
"And this quilt wasn't?"
"Well — " Sylvia fumbled for an excuse. "We won't have time to quilt, dear. Have you forgotten? We have Christmas decorations to put up."
Sarah regarded her skeptically. "Not twenty minutes ago you insisted that there was no reason to decorate for Christmas, and now it's more important than working on this quilt?"
"I suppose I've come around to your way of thinking. I believe you underestimate how long it takes to decorate such a large house. Then there's Christmas dinner to make, and church services in the morning, and I have gifts for you and Matthew. By the time we get to the quilt, you'll find that Christmas is over and you won't feel like working on it anymore, just like my great-aunt Lucinda."
"All the more reason to work on it now, while I'm full of Christmas cheer."
Sylvia indicated the trunks and cartons and decorations Sarah had spread out on the floor. "So you intend to leave the foyer in this state, after dragging those heavy trunks down from the attic?"
Sarah surveyed the mess guiltily. "I suppose I should tidy up first."
"I can take care of it myself if you need the time to pack — "
"Sylvia, for the last time, I'm not going to my mother's for Christmas."
"Well, don't expect me to help you with that quilt when we both know you ought to be in a car on your way to Uniontown," said Sylvia, finally out of patience. She knew that the moment Sarah decided to finish that quilt, she had dealt Sylvia's plan a staggering blow. And time was running out.
Sarah returned the pieces of the Christmas Quilt to the box, but the affectionate pat she gave Great-Aunt Lucinda's Feathered Stars told Sylvia they wouldn't remain set aside for long. As Sylvia suspected she would, the young woman also declared that since the decorations were already down from the attic and out of the boxes and trunks, it made more sense to put them up than to put them away. Sylvia decided to leave her to it, so she returned to the west sitting room and her book, and the cup of tea that had long since grown cold.
Exasperated, she went to the kitchen to put the kettle on, shaking her head at Sarah's irrepressibility. Now Sarah had a decorating plan and a quilt to keep her in the manor. Once that young lady caught hold of a fanciful idea, she would not let go until it sent her soaring off into the clouds as if it were the tail of some enormous kite. She always managed to latch on to some grand scheme. Creating a quilt camp, for example. Or convincing a bitter old woman to take a second chance on life.
Then again, compared to what Sarah had already accomplished, finishing a quilt that had daunted several more experienced quilters might prove to be a simple matter.
The kettle whistled and sent up a thin jet of white steam. Sylvia poured and waited for the tea to steep, lost in thought. From down the hall, faint music drifted to her ear. Curious, she quickly stirred honey into her cup and carried it back to the foyer. Sarah had accomplished little in the way of tidying up, but she had hung wreaths on the two tall double doors of the manor's front entrance and had strung garlands along the grand oak staircase. In the corner she had plugged in her CD player, which was responsible for the strains of "White Christmas" that had beckoned Sylvia from the kitchen.
"Things are shaping up nicely here," remarked Sylvia, looking about the foyer.
Sarah glanced up from sorting through a box of ornaments and smiled. "Later I'll call Matt on his cell phone and ask him to bring home a Christmas tree from the lot at the mall."
"Nonsense. I won't have him pay ten dollars a foot for a tree when we have plenty to choose from right here on the estate. Besides, you're supposed to bring in the tree together."
"He is a landscape architect. If he can tend an orchard I'm sure he can pick out a Christmas tree."
"I'm not questioning his qualifications, but in my family we always..."
When she did not continue, Sarah prompted, "You always what?"
"We always...saved our money for more important things and cut down a tree from our own woods. But you and Matthew may do whatever you like."
"So you won't mind having a Christmas tree?"
"Not as long as you sweep up the fallen needles."
"It's a deal." Sarah gave the ornaments one last admiring look, rose, and made a show of checking her watch. "Ten o'clock. I think it's time for a quilting break."
"But you just started."
In reply, Sarah simply picked up the box holding the pieces of the Christmas Quilt.
Clutching her teacup, Sylvia trailed after Sarah, down the hall and through the kitchen to the west sitting room. Frowning, Sylvia sat down in her favorite chair by the window and picked up her book, studiously ignoring Sarah as she spread out the various sections of the incomplete quilt on the sofa and the rug. The younger woman studied the Bergstrom women's handiwork for several minutes in silence before she spoke. "I think we have enough for a complete quilt right here."
Sylvia closed her book. "Don't be ridiculous. It couldn't possibly be that easy or one of us would have done it years ago."
Sarah peered closely at the patchwork and applique, considering. "Maybe it took an objective outsider to see the possibilities."
"Young lady, I've been quilting much longer than you have. A person can stitch together any two pieces of fabric in any haphazard way they choose and call it a quilt, but unless you've lowered your standards, I expect you to strive for something that also pleases the eye. That simply isn't possible with what you see here. You don't have enough of any one of the blocks for a complete quilt, and yet you don't have enough variety for an attractive sampler."
"No, look," said Sarah, rearranging two of the appliqued holly plumes so that they flanked one of Claudia's Variable Stars. "This could be the center of the quilt. We could set the Feathered Star blocks around them, kind of like a rectangle with the other Variable Stars in the corners. The Feathered Star blocks will be the focus of the quilt, which is perfect because they're so beautifully made."
"Indeed they are," said Sylvia, proud of her great-aunt. "You could always leave out my sister's Variable Stars rather than risk ruining the quilt. Accuracy was never her strong suit. Some of those blocks don't look to be true squares."
"I wouldn't dream of leaving Claudia out of a family quilt. I'm sure her blocks are accurate enough."
Sylvia was far less certain, and she could cite a wealth of evidence to support her assessment of Claudia's piecing skills, but she did not feel like arguing — and, she reminded herself, it did not matter to her whether this quilt would ever be finished. So she settled back down with her book and her now lukewarm cup of tea, but after reading a few lines, Sarah's shuffling of blocks and patches drew her attention. She had arranged Great-Aunt Lucinda's six Feathered Star blocks in an elongated ring — two on one side, two on the other, and one on each end. Sylvia had to admit the placement would complement the exquisite blocks. Lucinda had pieced all of her quilts by hand and was as precise and exacting in her sewing as she was generous and forgiving in every other aspect of her life. She was Sylvia's grandfather's youngest sister, the baby of their family, and perhaps that was why the others teased her so affectionately about her repeated failures to complete the Christmas Quilt. In Sylvia's earliest childhood memories, Lucinda always appeared as a patient and reassuring figure, calm and wise — and old, although in hindsight Sylvia realized she was probably not yet fifty when she set aside the Christmas Quilt for the last time.
In fair weather Lucinda enjoyed sewing on the front veranda, but the approach of autumn beckoned her inside to the front parlor, which looked out upon the veranda and the broad, sweeping lawn that separated the house from the forest. Sylvia, who had not yet learned to quilt, often watched her aunt drawing templates for a new quilt with a freshly sharpened pencil, carefully tracing their shapes on the wrong side of brightly colored fabrics, and cutting out the pieces with brisk snips of her shears. Sylvia hung on to the arm of her chair as she sewed, watching and pestering Lucinda with questions as she stitched four small, cream-colored triangles to a larger octagon cut from cheerful red fabric. Eager to help, she paired green triangles with white so they would be ready for her great-aunt's needle. Sylvia admired the intricate blocks, which she thought resembled green snowflakes with red tips. As the fifth Feathered Star took shape, Sylvia begged Lucinda to teach her how to make one. "I will teach you to quilt someday," promised Lucinda, "but this pattern is too difficult for a little girl's first project. Let's make a Log Cabin quilt instead."
"When?" persisted Sylvia. "When can we start?"
With a nod, Lucinda indicated the Feathered Star pieces spread on her lap. "After I finish my Christmas Quilt, we will begin yours."
Thrilled, Sylvia raced off to tell her older sister the news, secretly pleased when Claudia tossed her brown curls and declared that she was too busy helping Mother to quilt with Great-Aunt Lucinda, a sure sign that she was sick with jealousy. Then Claudia added, "Everyone says she'll never finish that quilt, anyway."
"She will so," snapped Sylvia and marched back to the parlor to help. She had heard the teasing remarks, too, but they had never been a cause for worry until now.
To Sylvia's relief, her great-aunt kept up an industrious pace and showed no signs of abandoning her quilt. As Christmas approached, Sylvia forgot her worries in the excitement of the season. She and Claudia were both chosen to participate in the Christmas pageant at school — Claudia as an angel, Sylvia as a lamb. Between rehearsing for the pageant and practicing with the children's choir at church, helping Grandma with the baking and secretly working on Christmas gifts for the family, Sylvia had little time to spare for observing the Christmas Quilt. Still, Great-Aunt Lucinda made good progress despite Sylvia's absence from her side every hour of the day. Although she did take time away from her sewing to bake Christmas cookies, she always returned to her Feathered Stars by evening. Sylvia's quilting lessons would surely begin before the end of winter.
The approach of Christmas brought visitors to Elm Creek Manor, friends and relatives from near and far. Best of all was the day Sylvia's beloved second cousin Elizabeth returned, accompanied by her parents. For the past five summers, she had come to Elm Creek Manor to help care for the children and, as she said, "enjoy the fresh country air." Sometimes she went riding with a boy her age from a neighboring farm, but except for those annoying interruptions, she was Sylvia's nearly constant companion, favorite playmate, and most trusted confidante. Sylvia could not help but adore her; Elizabeth was kind and funny and smart and beautiful — all the things Sylvia hoped to be when she grew up.
Elizabeth was barely in the door before Sylvia was tugging off her coat and seizing her hand to lead her off on some secret adventure. Elizabeth laughingly obliged, shaking snow from her hair and handing off her mittens to her mother, but she seemed distracted and quiet. When Sylvia asked her what was wrong, Elizabeth looked surprised. "Nothing," she said. "Everything is wonderful." Then she tickled Sylvia and acted like the old Elizabeth so convincingly that Sylvia decided to believe her.
Great-Aunt Lucinda finished her fifth Feathered Star block on the morning of Christmas Eve. "Only fifteen more to go," she told Sylvia at breakfast, and Sylvia's heart sank in despair. So many blocks stood between her and her lessons! But she brightened up when Elizabeth came to the table, breathless and apologizing for her tardiness, her long golden hair tied back in a grosgrain ribbon the color of the winter sky. Sylvia had a ribbon almost the exact same hue, and if Elizabeth helped Sylvia fix her hair the same way, they could be twins — except that Sylvia's hair was dark brown.
After breakfast, Uncle William and his wife went out to find the Christmas tree, sent on their way with teasing and laughter and strange remarks from the other grown-ups that Sylvia suspected she only partially understood. The couple had been married less than a year, and Sylvia overheard her grandmother say that it would be a very bad sign if they were gone more than two hours.
"It will be a far worse sign if they're back within thirty minutes," Sylvia's father replied. The uncles grinned and the aunts nodded thoughtfully. Sylvia looked around at the faces of her family, puzzled. If they found a perfect tree right away and brought it home as quickly as they could cut it down, what could be wrong with that? They could begin trimming the tree sooner, and Sylvia couldn't wait. The previous day, she and Claudia had helped Elizabeth and their grandmother unpack the two trunks of Christmas ornaments. They'd had a wonderful time admiring their favorite pieces, singing carols, and munching on Great-Aunt Lucinda's lebkuchen still warm from the oven — until a cousin appeared in the doorway and called Elizabeth away to meet a visitor. Elizabeth rushed off with barely a word of good-bye, but Sylvia had not minded until dinnertime, when she discovered that the visitor was that man Elizabeth used to go riding with in the summers, and that he had taken the seat beside Elizabeth Sylvia usually reserved for herself. She scowled at him from across the table, but he merely smiled pleasantly back, so he was obviously not smart enough to understand when someone was angry with him.
The newlyweds returned with a tree not quite two hours after they had departed. "That's just about right," Sylvia's grandmother told Lucinda as they trailed after the rest of the family to the ballroom, where the tree would be raised. Her voice was so soft that Sylvia knew she was not meant to overhear. "Any sooner and I'd worry that she wouldn't be strong enough for him."
"William can be stubborn," said Lucinda. "I suspect he gave in quickly rather than displease his lovely bride. That contrary behavior can't possibly last. We'll see how long it takes them next year, and whether they're still speaking when they return home."
"If they'll be eligible to choose the tree next year," said Grandmother archly. "I suspect they may not be allowed a second turn."
The women exchanged knowing smiles and disappeared into the ballroom. Sylvia stopped in the foyer, frowning as she mulled over their words. Why shouldn't Uncle William and his wife be allowed to pick the tree again? There wasn't anything wrong with the one they had chosen. Was Great-Aunt Lucinda jealous because she had never been allowed a turn? Sylvia searched her memory but could not recall any other time when her great-aunt had seemed envious. Well, if Great-Aunt Lucinda wanted to pick the Christmas tree, she would just have to get married. That's what the rules said, and Sylvia strongly disapproved of anyone — even Great-Aunt Lucinda — thinking she could simply toss out the family's rules when it suited.
Noise and laughter beckoned her from her worries, and she hurried into the ballroom rather than miss all the fun. As young and old adorned the branches of Uncle William's tree with their favorite ornaments, Great-Aunt Lucinda told them stories of long-ago Christmases when her mother, Sylvia's great-grandmother Anneke, was a little girl in Germany. Sylvia was surprised to learn that her great-grandmother had not been allowed to help decorate the Christmas tree. "None of the children were," explained Great-Aunt Lucinda. "The adults of the family decorated the tree while the children waited in another room. On Christmas Eve, her mother would ring a bell and all the children would come running in to admire the tree and eat delicious treats — cookies and nuts and fruits. My mother and the other girls and boys would search the branches of the tree, and whoever found the lucky pickle would win a prize."
"A pickle?" said Sylvia. "How did a pickle get in their tree?"
"Not a real pickle, dear. A glass pickle, an ornament. Her mother or father would hide it there before the children came in." Great-Aunt Lucinda paused thoughtfully. "I suppose that's where our tradition of hiding the Christmas star came from."
"Did Santa bring her presents?" asked Claudia.
"Not on Christmas," said Lucinda. "Of course you know that Santa Claus is really St. Nicholas, and that we celebrate his day on December 6. On the night before, Great-Grandmother Anneke and her brothers and sisters would each leave a shoe by the fireplace, just as you children hang stockings. If they had been good children all year, when they woke in the morning, they would find their shoes filled with candy, nuts, and fruit. If they had been naughty, they might find coal or twigs. One year, my uncle found an onion. I always wondered what he had done to deserve that."
"But we get St. Nicholas Day and Christmas," said Sylvia. It didn't seem fair that her great-grandmother had not.
"You are very lucky children," Great-Aunt Lucinda pronounced. "You're fortunate in another regard, too. In your great-grandmother's day, St. Nicholas traveled with a helper named Knecht Ruprecht. He carried St. Nicholas's bag of treats for him, and it was he who went up and down the chimneys filling the children's shoes. But he also carried a sack and a stick. He used the stick to beat the naughty little children, and if a child was very, very bad, Knecht Ruprecht would stuff him in the sack and carry him off, never to see his family again."
"Aunt Lucinda, you're frightening the children," said Sylvia's mother.
"Why should these children be scared?" protested Great-Aunt Lucinda. She looked around the circle of worried young faces, brow furrowing in concern. "None of you children were naughty this year, were you?"
The children shook their heads fervently, but as they did, Sylvia thought of the times she had argued with her sister, disobeyed her parents, and taken cookies from Great-Aunt Lucinda's cookie jar without permission. She hoped Knecht Ruprecht had stayed behind in Germany with the pickle trees.
"Perhaps a less alarming story, Aunt Lucinda?" prompted Sylvia's mother.
Great-Aunt Lucinda played along. "Did I ever tell you children about the Bergstroms' first Christmas in America?"
They shook their heads.
"I've been remiss, then." She composed her thoughts for a moment. "Your great-grandfather, Hans, arrived in America several years before Anneke and Gerda — Hans's sister — but their first Christmas together wasn't until 1856. The stone house that we now know as the west wing of the manor wouldn't be built for another two years, so for a time they lived in a log cabin on the land they called Elm Creek Farm. Hans and Anneke were newlyweds, and Anneke was determined to make their first Christmas one to remember, as grand an affair as she would have put on had she been a hausfrau in Berlin, the city of her birth.
"As you can imagine, this was not easily done. The Bergstroms were recent immigrants living in a small cabin in the middle of rural Pennsylvania. They had the land, some livestock, and the stores of their first harvest, but none of the comforts we enjoy today. Anneke wanted a goose for Christmas dinner, but there were none to be had. She wanted to give her new husband a gift that befitted her love for him, but the shops in town had nothing suitable that she could afford."
"And no pickles for the trees?" asked Sylvia.
"Not a single pickle," said Great-Aunt Lucinda. "On Christmas Eve, Gerda discovered Anneke digging through the steamer trunk she had brought over from Germany. Anneke confessed that she was searching for a Christmas gift for Hans, but she had found nothing worthy of him. 'What will he think of me,' lamented Anneke, 'if I have no gift for him on Christmas morning?'
"'Do you think my brother loves you for the things you give him?' asked Gerda. 'Give him the gift of your heart and your company, and he will want nothing more.'
"'But I've already given him those,' said Anneke.
"'Then he already has his heart's desire.'
"Anneke seemed comforted by this, but not completely satisfied. So late that night, after everyone else had gone to bed, she wrote Hans a letter telling him how much she loved him and how much she looked forward to their future together. On Christmas morning, she gave him the letter. He read it in silence, and when he finished, he hugged her and told her it was the greatest present he had ever received."
"Did Hans get her anything?" asked Claudia.
Great-Aunt Lucinda considered. "I suppose he did, but the story doesn't say. I do know what Gerda gave Hans and Anneke, though. She had traded with a neighbor for two shiny, red, perfect apples, and as she gave one to her brother and one to her sister-in-law, she said, 'I give you simply the joy and hope of the season.'"
At this the grown-ups nodded and murmured in approval, but Sylvia frowned. "She gave them apples?"
"They were more than just apples," said Great-Aunt Lucinda. "Think of the sweetness of the fruit and the promise in the seeds. In that simple gift, Gerda was expressing how joyful her life was with Hans and Anneke, and how full of blessings their future would be."
Claudia looked dubious. "They were just apples."
"They were not just apples," said Great-Aunt Lucinda firmly. "They were expressions of her love and hopes, simply and eloquently presented. Don't you see? You can give someone all the riches of the world, but it is an empty gesture if you withhold the gift of yourself."
"I think that's beyond their understanding," said Uncle William with a grin. "They're awfully young for such philosophizing."
"Perhaps." Great-Aunt Lucinda looked around the circle of young, curious faces until her gaze settled on Sylvia. "If they don't understand today, someday they will."
Sylvia longed to show Lucinda that she understood, but she was not sure that she did. An apple didn't seem like much of a present to her, but maybe back in the olden days, apples were considered wonderful gifts. Maybe, she thought suddenly, Hans and Anneke had planted the seeds of the apples Gerda had given them. Maybe those very seeds grew into the orchard their family tended and enjoyed today. If that were true, Gerda had indeed given Hans and Anneke the joy and hope of the season — and continued to give it, with every harvest, to their descendants.
When the tree decorating was almost finished, Grandmother entrusted Elizabeth, her namesake, with the task of hiding the glass star somewhere in the manor. Sylvia hoped Elizabeth would give her a secret clue to help her find the star before the others, but a few minutes later, Elizabeth slipped back into the room, whispered close to her grandmother's ear, and smiled equally warmly at all her young cousins. If anything, her gaze lingered longest on her friend, that man from the neighboring farm, who had reappeared while the family was setting the tree in its stand and showed no sign of leaving anytime soon. With dismay, Sylvia realized that she would probably lose her favorite seat at the dinner table two nights in a row.
Lost in this new troublesome concern, she did not hear her grandmother send out the children to search for the star. "Sylvia," she heard her mother call. "Aren't you going to help find the star this year?"
Sylvia raced for the ballroom door, but Claudia and the cousins had made a good head start. She could only watch from a distance as they sped off in all directions, intent upon reaching the manor's best hiding places first. She ran for the front parlor, where Claudia had found the star the previous year, only to discover that a cousin had already claimed that room. She ran upstairs to the library, but two other cousins were already searching there. In every room it was the same: Claudia and the cousins raced about, laughing and shrieking and tearing the house apart in their quest for the star, leaving Sylvia with no choice but to dart out of the way.
Miserable, Sylvia went to the bedroom she and Claudia shared, knowing it was the one place no one would bother her. All of the fun had gone out of the game, but she would be disgraced if she returned to the ballroom before the star was found. Squeezing her eyes shut to hold back tears, she flung herself upon the bed — and gasped when her head struck something hard beneath the pillow. In a moment she was sitting upright on the bed, the star in her lap, its eight red-and-gold points glistening faintly in the dim light.
The star, beneath her own pillow. Elizabeth had left it where no one else would think to look. She had left it especially for Sylvia, her favorite.
Bursting with pride and gratitude, Sylvia climbed down from the bed and hurried downstairs, clutching the precious glass star to her chest. "I found it," she called out as she ran. "I found it!" She burst into the ballroom, breathless. "I found the star!"
The adults crowded around her, offering her hugs and congratulations. Someone called out to the other children that the game was over. In the distance, Sylvia heard their answering cries of dismay.
"Where did you find it?" one of the uncles asked.
Sylvia could not bring herself to tell him. "Upstairs," she said, and her eyes met Elizabeth's. Her cousin smiled at her, bright-eyed and mischievous, and raised a single finger to her lips. Sylvia, suddenly warmed by happiness, smiled until she laughed out loud.
The prize her grandmother awarded her was a small tin filled with red-and-white striped peppermint candy. At her mother's prompting, Sylvia offered each of the other children a piece, and her joy in the secret she and Elizabeth shared made it hardly matter at all that the tin was returned to her half empty.
All the while, Sylvia clung to the Christmas star. Suddenly, strong arms swept her up. "It's time, little miss," her father said, lifting her high above his head beside the tree. "Reach for the highest branch. You can do it."
Sylvia stretched out her arms and fit the star upon a strong bough that pointed straight up to the ceiling. Everyone applauded as her father lowered her to the ground. As the aunts lit the candles upon the tree, Sylvia stepped back so she could take in the whole of it, from the quilted skirt draped around the trunk to the star she had placed so perfectly upon the very top.
"It's beautiful," said Elizabeth. Her friend smiled and placed an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him with a sigh of perfect contentment. Sylvia glared at him, but neither he nor her cousin noticed.
At dinnertime, he earned another glare by stealing Sylvia's seat again, just as she had known he would. She had raced for the dining room as soon as they were called to supper, and she would have beaten him, too, except that her mother had taken her aside to wash her face and hands, sticky with peppermint candy. Sylvia was stuck at the far end of the table between Uncle William and Claudia.
After dinner was served, Uncle George rose and cleared his throat. "I know it's customary for Father to make the first toast on Christmas Eve," he said, with a nod to Grandpa, "but tonight I have a very special announcement, and I think Millie might burst if we don't share our secret with you at once."
Sylvia looked at her aunt and saw to her surprise that her face shone with happiness, though her eyes brimmed with tears. Aunt Millie reached for Elizabeth's hand and held it tightly. An expectant murmur went up from the table, but Sylvia's eyes were fixed on Elizabeth as she leaned over to speak encouragingly in her mother's ear, then, with a quick smile for her friend, turned her attention to her father.
"Many of you have known Henry longer than I have since he grew up around here, and I'm sure you're all aware of what a fine young man he is." He cleared his throat. Sylvia stared. Was he going to cry? "What you may not know is that he has become like a son to me. He tells me he loves my daughter, and my daughter assures me the feeling is mutual. It must be, because he asked her to marry him and she said she would. So please join me in wishing health and happiness to the beautiful bride-to-be and the luckiest man in the world."
The joyous clamor that followed was so deafening that Sylvia stuffed her fingers in her ears. She felt ill. If Henry came to live at Elm Creek Manor, Sylvia would never have her cousin to herself. Everyone else seemed so happy, even Aunt Millie, who was crying, but Sylvia could not imagine anything worse than allowing Henry to join the family.
A few days after Christmas — a hollow, anxious day in which the joy of the season was unbearable and even the presents Santa had left beneath the tree could not lighten her heart — Sylvia discovered that there was more to Elizabeth's wedding than she could have imagined.
She was playing with her toy horses and stable, a gift from Santa, when Elizabeth came to the nursery. "Hello, Sylvia," she said, tucking her skirt beneath her as she sat on the floor beside her. "Why have you been hiding up here all alone?"
"I'm not hiding, just playing," said Sylvia. "Where's Henry?"
"He's in the stable with your father and Uncle George, looking after the horses."
Sylvia knew what that meant. If her father and uncles were willing to share the secrets of Bergstrom Thoroughbreds with Henry, they already considered him part of the family. "I don't think the horses like strangers in their stables. He should go home."
Elizabeth laughed. "Oh, Sylvia. You don't like Henry very much, do you?"
Sylvia shook her head.
"Well, I do. He's my very best friend in the world, and it would make me very happy if you could learn to like him, too. Do you think you could try?"
"I don't think so."
Elizabeth sighed and drew Sylvia onto her lap. "Please? As a special wedding present to me?"
Sylvia thought about it. "If he promises to let me sit by you sometimes at dinner. And even after he comes to live here he should go away for a little while sometimes and let us play alone the way we always do."
Elizabeth went still. "Henry isn't coming to live here," she said. "Didn't you know?"
Sylvia shook her head, suddenly hopeful. If Henry wasn't moving in, then maybe things wouldn't be so bad after all. Sylvia could pretend he and Elizabeth weren't even married.
"But the day after Christmas we explained — " Elizabeth inhaled deeply. "But maybe you were too angry to listen. Darling, Henry and I won't be living at Elm Creek Manor after the wedding."
Sylvia twisted her head to peer into her cousin's face. She knew at once that Elizabeth was not teasing her. "Where are you going to live? Close?" If Elizabeth told her they were going to live with Uncle George and Aunt Millie, Sylvia thought she might burst into tears. They lived in Pennsylvania, too, but many miles away, in Erie.
Elizabeth held her tightly. "Henry bought a ranch out in California. We'll be leaving the day after the wedding, in the spring."
Sylvia's throat closed up around her grief. She scrambled out of Elizabeth's lap and fled the room, ignoring her cousin's pleas.
Sylvia didn't want to believe that Elizabeth was telling the truth, but the other grown-ups soon confirmed it. Worse yet, the wedding was not going to take place next spring, but this coming spring, barely three months away. After discovering this, Sylvia ran to her mother and begged her to make Elizabeth change her mind.
"I couldn't even if I wished to," Sylvia's mother told her gently. "Henry and Elizabeth want to make a life for themselves out in California. We will all miss them very much, but they've made their decision."
"Can't we make them wait?" cried Sylvia. "Why do they have to get married so soon? Can't they wait until next year?"
"Why should they wait?" interrupted Claudia. "They love each other, and weddings are so beautiful. Didn't you hear, Sylvia? Elizabeth said we could be flower girls."
"I don't want to be a flower girl!"
"Well, I do, and I won't let you spoil it." Claudia tossed her head. "You're just jealous because Elizabeth likes Henry more than you."
"She does not," shouted Sylvia. "I'm her favorite. She hid the Christmas star especially for me! She put it under my pillow where no one else would find it."
Claudia's eyes narrowed. "I knew you were too little to find that star all by yourself so fast. You cheated!"
"I did not!"
"You did so. Tell her, Mama. Tell her she and Elizabeth both cheated."
"We didn't cheat. It was just helping."
"Now, girls," their mother said. "Claudia, you can see your sister is upset. Let's not make things worse."
"But it's not fair."
"We can discuss that another time."
Sylvia tugged at her mother's hand. "Will you tell Elizabeth to wait? Please?"
In reply, Sylvia's mother shook her head sadly and reached out to console her, but Sylvia broke free of her embrace and ran off to find Great-Aunt Lucinda. Everyone listened to her. If she asked Elizabeth to wait another year, Elizabeth would do it, no matter how Henry complained.
She found Lucinda in the front parlor lost in thought as she worked on her Christmas Quilt. Reluctant to annoy the only member of the family likely to help her, Sylvia crept up to her softly and sat on the floor at her feet, resting her head against the ottoman. Lucinda offered her a brief smile but kept her eyes on her work. Sylvia watched as Lucinda joined one row of star points to others she had already assembled, her needle darting through the bright fabric, in and out, joining the pieces together. Before long she tied a knot at the end of the seam and laid the finished block on her lap, pressing it flat with her palms. Sylvia was struck suddenly by the similarity between the Feathered Star blocks her great-aunt had made and the star on top of their Christmas tree, the star Elizabeth had left beneath her pillow.
Silently she counted the blocks in the pile next to her great-aunt's sewing basket, remembering to add the one on her lap. "That makes six."
"Yes, that's right. Six down, fourteen to go." With a sigh, Lucinda gathered her sewing tools and returned them to her basket. "But they will have to wait for another day."
Sylvia's heart sank, and she had not thought it could go any lower. "Why? Why are you putting it away?"
"I don't have time to work on my Christmas Quilt now that your cousin is getting married," said Lucinda. "We have so much to do, and far less than the usual time to do it. I must help your Aunt Millie make the wedding gown, and of course we must have a wedding quilt, as well as a few good, sturdy quilts for every day and all the other things your cousin will need to take with her to California."
Sylvia chose her words carefully. "Maybe if you told Elizabeth you won't have enough time to finish all the sewing, she'll wait until next year to get married."
Lucinda laughed. "Oh, I see. That's a very clever plan, but I'm afraid it won't work. Henry has his heart set on leaving as soon as fair weather arrives. We'll have a wedding at the end of March whether we like it or not, so you and I will have to make the best of it."
Sylvia felt a small stirring of hope. Great-Aunt Lucinda wasn't completely happy about the wedding, either. Perhaps Sylvia had found an ally.
But then Lucinda dashed her hopes. "Don't worry, Sylvia. We'll get to your quilting lessons soon enough."
Sylvia could not speak for her despair. Great-Aunt Lucinda thought that Sylvia cared only for her quilting lessons, and worse yet, she intended to join in on the work that would hasten cousin Elizabeth's departure.
Sylvia was on her own.
New Year's Day came. Most of the relatives returned to their own homes at the close of the Christmas season, but Elizabeth remained at Elm Creek Manor. This would have pleased Sylvia had she not known that she had stayed on for Henry, not for her favorite little cousin. Sylvia kept close to Elizabeth when her fiance was not around, but as soon as he showed up, Sylvia ran off to the nursery or to the west sitting room, where her mother often sat reading or simply enjoying the afternoon sun and the view of Elm Creek. Her mother had a weak heart, the lingering consequence of a childhood bout with rheumatic fever. She often had to rest, but she was never too tired to offer Sylvia a hug or tell her a story.
But as the winter snows melted and buds began to form on the elm trees surrounding the manor, even her mother became so caught up in the preparations for the wedding that she had little time to comfort a sulky daughter.
On one rare occasion when Sylvia and Elizabeth were alone, Sylvia asked her, "Why do you want to go away from home?"
"You'll understand someday, little Sylvia." Elizabeth smiled and hugged her, but there were tears in her eyes. "Someday you'll fall in love, and you'll know that home is wherever he is."
"Home is here," Sylvia insisted. "It will always be here."
Elizabeth gave a little laugh and held her close. "Yes, Sylvia, you're right."
Happily, Sylvia realized that finally her cousin had come to her senses and had decided to stay. But when Elizabeth rose and ran off to the sitting room when Aunt Millie called her to a dress fitting, Sylvia's joy fled. Elizabeth intended to marry Henry, even though it was obvious she did not really wish to leave home. It was all his fault; Elizabeth wouldn't be going anywhere if not for him.
Sylvia realized that the only way to keep Elizabeth close was to drive Henry away.
From that moment on, Sylvia did all she could to prevent the wedding. She hid Aunt Millie's scissors so that she could not work on the wedding gown, but Aunt Millie simply borrowed Lucinda's. She stole the keys to Elizabeth's red steamer trunk and flung them into Elm Creek so that she could not pack her belongings. She refused to try on her flower girl dress no matter how the aunts wheedled and coaxed, until they were forced to make a pattern from the frock she had worn on Christmas. In one last, desperate effort, she told Henry that she hated him, that he was not allowed to sit in her chair at the dinner table ever again, and that everyone in the family including Elizabeth wished he would just go away, but they were too polite to say it.
Her efforts were entirely unsuccessful, of course. In late March, Elizabeth and Henry married and moved to California. Sylvia treasured every letter her beloved cousin sent her, even as they appeared less and less frequently over the years, until they finally stopped coming.
Sylvia never saw Elizabeth again. She often wondered what had become of her, why she had stopped writing. If Claudia had kept in touch with Elizabeth or her descendants, Sylvia had found no record of their correspondence in her sister's papers.
Sarah interrupted her reverie. "What do you think?" she asked, admiring her arrangement of the various pieces of the Christmas Quilt and looking to Sylvia for approval.
Sylvia dared not look at the quilt blocks for fear of what other memories they would call forth. "I think it's time to finish decorating." She rose from her chair and left the room without waiting to see if Sarah followed.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Chiaverini
Posted July 20, 2013
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I am working my way through this series and have enjoyed the tales of
family understanding it expresses.
If only we all could understand these things.
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