Circle of Quilters (Elm Creek Quilts Series #9)by Jennifer Chiaverini
Elm Creek Quilts, the thriving artists' retreat at Elm Creek Manor, is a place that stakes its sterling reputation on the palpable creative energy and collective goodwill of its teachers and students. But when two of its founding members decide to leave the fold, the Elm Creek Quilters face untold changes not only in their personal lives but also in their business.… See more details below
Elm Creek Quilts, the thriving artists' retreat at Elm Creek Manor, is a place that stakes its sterling reputation on the palpable creative energy and collective goodwill of its teachers and students. But when two of its founding members decide to leave the fold, the Elm Creek Quilters face untold changes not only in their personal lives but also in their business. As the news spreads, a single question emerges: Who can possibly take their place?
An Elm Creek Quilter must not only possess mastery of quilting technique but teaching experience, a sense of humor, and that intangible quality that allows an individual to blend harmoniously into a group. With high hopes, Elm Creek Quilts posts an open call for applicants.
Suddenly, quilters everywhere are vying to land the prestigious post. Among the candidates are Maggie, whose love of history shines through in all her projects; Anna, a quilter and a chef whose food-themed quilts are wonderfully innovative; Russ, the male quilter whose pathbreaking style could lend Elm Creek Quilts an intriguing aesthetic departure; Karen, a novice teacher whose preternatural gifts for language complement her deep understanding of the quilters' mission; and Gretchen, the soulful veteran with a legacy steeped in quilting tradition.
"We must evaluate all of the applicants' qualities," advises Master Quilter Sylvia Compson. "Our choice will say as much about us and what we want for Elm Creek Quilts as it says about those we decide to hire." In the course of the members' careful deliberations, cherished memories resurface and inspiring visions for the future take shape. Only by understanding the meaning of what their own labors have wrought can they select the ones who have earned a place among the circle of quilters.
Amy Harmon Weigman, Country Marketplace magazine
"A series that neatly stitches together social drama and the art of quilting."
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"All of Chiaverini's novels introduce us to gentle but brave characters whose virtues triumph in the end."
William R. Wineke, Wisconsin State Journal
"A new generation of quilters embraces the craft with gusto...following the lead of Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts novels."
Susan Phinney, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Read an Excerpt
Circle of QuiltersAn Elm Creek Quilts Novel
By Jennifer Chiaverini
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 Jennifer Chiaverini
All right reserved.
Chapter One: Maggie
Every morning after breakfast, the Courtyard Quilters gathered in the recreation room of Ocean View Hills Retirement Community and Convalescent Center to quilt, swap stories about their grandchildren, and gossip about the other residents. Nothing escaped their notice or judgment, and woe be it to the new resident or visitor who pulled up a chair to their circle uninvited. No one made that mistake twice, not if they coveted the friendship of seventy-year-old Helen Stonebridge, the leader of the circle of quilters and the most popular woman in the facility.
Within days of coming to work at Ocean View Hills-a name she had trouble saying with a straight face considering they were in Sacramento-Maggie Flynn joined the ranks of Mrs. Stonebridge's admirers. Maggie had heard other members of the staff mention the woman as a sort of unofficial leader of the residents, but it wasn't until she witnessed Mrs. Stonebridge in action that Maggie understood how influential she truly was. On that day, Maggie was sorting art supplies in the recreation room not far from where the quilters gathered every morning after breakfast. Their conversation turned to an altercation in the cafeteria the previous day in which a certain Mrs. Lenore Hicks had knocked over another resident in her haste to be first in line.
"She plowed right into Rita Talmadge's walker," tsked one of the quilters. "Rita tumbled head over heels, and Lenore didn't even stop to help her up."
"Lenore must have seen the banana cream pie on the dessert tray," another quilter explained. "Never get between that woman and pie."
"Rita could hardly dodge out of the way," said the first quilter indignantly. "She's had three hip replacements."
Maggie was puzzling out how someone with only two hips could have three hip replacements when the youngest of the group, Mrs. Blum, piped up, "This isn't the first time Lenore's bumped into a lady with a walker. Remember Mary Haas and the Mother's Day brunch? Margaret Hoover and the reflecting pool? Velma Tate and the Christmas tree?"
The quilters considered and agreed that Lenore did appear to have a habit of barreling into the less agile residents of Ocean View Hills. So far none of her victims had suffered more than bumps and bruises-and in Margaret Hoover's case, an unexpected al fresco bath-but if the pattern continued, it was only a matter of time before someone broke a bone.
"I would be less concerned if there were not so many of these incidents," mused Mrs. Stonebridge. "It's also troubling that Lenore didn't help Rita to her feet. No pie is worth adding insult to injury."
The other ladies waited expectantly while Mrs. Stonebridge deliberated, her needle darting through two small squares of fabric with small, even stitches. Maggie found that she, too, had stopped sorting out watercolor paints in anticipation of the verdict.
After a few moments, Mrs. Stonebridge spoke again. "Dottie, would you please tell Lenore that I would enjoy chatting with her whenever she has a spare moment?"
Mrs. Blum, the spriest of the group, nodded and hurried off. Maggie suspected that Mrs. Stonebridge expected an immediate response despite the casual wording of the request, and sure enough, Mrs. Blum returned several minutes later with a tall, solidly-built woman with a slight stoop to her shoulders and a look of puzzled wariness in her eye.
Mrs. Stonebridge greeted her with a warm smile. "Oh, hello, Lenore. Won't you sit down?"
Mrs. Hicks nodded and seated herself in the chair Mrs. Blum had vacated. Mrs. Blum frowned and glanced about for another chair to drag over into the circle, but the only empty seats were heavy armchairs near the fireplace. She folded her arms and stood instead.
"You wanted to speak to me?" asked Mrs. Hicks, anxious.
"Yes, dear," said Mrs. Stonebridge. "You see, I'm worried about you."
Mrs. Hicks, who had clearly expected to be reprimanded for some forgotten offense, relaxed slightly. "Worried? About me? Why?"
"I'm concerned that you might have an inner ear disorder. You seem to have some balance problems. I'm referring, of course, to your unfortunate collision with Rita in the cafeteria yesterday. Anyone can have an accident, but you must have been feeling especially unsteady on your feet to be unable to help Rita up after you had knocked her down."
"Oh," said Mrs. Hicks, uneasy. "Well, I was in a hurry, you see, and her friends were there to help her, so I thought she was all right."
"It turns out she was," Mrs. Stonebridge reassured her. "But I'm sure you saw that for yourself when you went back later to apologize."
Mrs. Hicks said nothing, a guilty, pained expression on her face.
"Oh. I see," said Mrs. Stonebridge, sorrowful. "Well, I'm sure your balance troubles are nothing to worry about, but you should get yourself checked out just in case."
"I'll see the doctor today," said Mrs. Hicks in a small voice.
"And-this is just a thought-since poor Rita is still bruised from her fall, perhaps you could bring her meals to her until she recovers."
"The busboys can do that, can't they?"
"It will mean so much more coming from you, don't you agree?" Mrs. Stonebridge smiled. "Should we say...a month? Do you think that would do?"
Mrs. Hicks agreed, and for the next month, three times a day, Rita Talmadge waited at her favorite lunch table while a repentant Mrs. Hicks brought her meals to her on a tray. Mrs. Talmadge was satisfied, and Mrs. Hicks, who received a clean bill of health from the staff physician, learned to be more courteous of her fellow residents.
Maggie marveled at the simple elegance of Mrs. Stonebridge's solution and how well it restored harmony to Ocean View Hills -and with how willingly Mrs. Hicks and Mrs. Talmadge had complied. Over time Maggie learned that conflicts were often resolved with Mrs. Stonebridge's guidance and she found herself thinking that it was a shame the former professor of anthropology could not lend her services to heads of state in troubled regions of the world. Mrs. Stonebridge read the Sacramento Bee daily and the New York Times on Sunday, and her opinions on world events were always thoughtful and well-reasoned. At least Maggie thought so. She had no doubt Mrs. Stonebridge could offer brilliant and graceful solutions to conflicts around the globe if only political leaders knew where to find her-and if those same leaders could be persuaded to submit to her decisions with the same humility and desire for harmony as the residents of Ocean View Hills.
Since Mrs. Stonebridge kept herself appraised on the lives of the staff members with the same thoughtful diligence she applied to her fellow residents and to world events, when Maggie's personal life took an unexpected turn, she decided to tell Mrs. Stonebridge right away. She would ferret out the truth eventually anyway, and Maggie would not want to hurt her feelings by having her hear it secondhand.
On the morning after her twenty-fifth birthday, Maggie came into work early so she would have time to deliver the news before her shift started. She found the Courtyard Quilters gathered in the recreation room, their chairs arranged in a circle in front of the windows with the view of the garden, just like always. Mrs. Stonebridge looked up from her sewing to smile at her. "Well, there's the birthday girl. How was your party last night?"
"It was all right," said Maggie. After work, she had met her two best friends for happy hour at La Hacienda, where they filled up on free nachos, sipped margaritas, and discussed the men at the bar-at least, her friends did. Maggie merely played along, pretending to admire the cute guy in the tan suit who had smiled at her. She had little interest in meeting someone new a mere four hours after breaking Brian's heart.
"Well?" inquired Mrs. Blum, trying to get a good look at Maggie's left hand, which she quickly concealed in her pocket. "Did he pop the question or didn't he? Don't leave us in suspense."
"He didn't." Maggie hesitated. "We broke up."
The Courtyard Quilters' exclamations of astonishment and dismay brought an orderly running from another room. Mrs. Stonebridge waved him away with a shake of her head and a reassuring word.
"That louse," said one of the quilters. "I always knew he was no good."
"He's a good man," Maggie defended him. "He's just not the right man."
"How can you call him a good man after he broke your heart?" said Mrs. Blum, tears in her eyes. "And I've already started your wedding quilt!"
"I warned you not to," said another quilter. "That's bad luck. Never start a wedding quilt until you've seen the engagement ring on the bride-to-be's finger."
Mrs. Stonebridge was studied her. "I think Maggie has more to tell us."
"He didn't break up with me," explained Maggie. "I broke up with him."
This time, the quilters responded with exclamations of incredulity. "It's not because of that sense of humor thing, is it?" demanded one. "Because that's a lot of malarkey. Who cares if a man laughs at your jokes?"
"That's not it." At least, that wasn't the only reason, although Maggie had always been troubled by how out of sync their senses of humor were. She could not remember a single time in three years that anything of her small witticisms or amusing anecdotes had made him laugh. Smile politely, perhaps, but not laugh out loud in pleasure or joy. If he had no sense of humor at all, she could have excused it, but he laughed loudly enough at movies-even dramas-and at his friends' corny jokes. What made a person laugh spoke volumes about one's way of looking at the world. Brian's stoic response to things that amused Maggie made her feel as if they were gazing upon the same landscape but facing opposite directions.
But she understood the Courtyard Quilters' astonishment. In their three years together, she and Brian had occasionally discussed marriage, but Maggie had assumed their discussions were purely hypothetical. They had attended friends' weddings and confided how they intended to do things differently when their time came-but neither of them explicitly said that they were talking about marrying the other. Then came the day Brian's mother invited Maggie to try on her late mother-in-law's emerald engagement ring, a treasured family heirloom. "You'll need to get it sized," she had advised her son as the ring slipped too easily past Maggie's knuckle.
Inexplicably, Maggie had been seized by panic. She quickly removed the ring and replaced it in the jewelry box, managing a quick smile for Brian's mother. Had everything been decided without her? Brian's family seemed to assume that he would propose and that when he did, that she would accept. The thought filled her with dread. She liked Brian; she liked him very much. He was friendly and cute and loyal and easy to please-"All qualities one would look for in a golden retriever," Mrs. Stonebridge had remarked only weeks ago, when Maggie confided in her after the engagement ring incident. "But do you love him?"
Maggie wasn't sure. She enjoyed spending time with him and believed they could have a pleasant, steady life together. But she had to believe there was something more, something greater, in store for her. It was unbearable to think that she had nothing more to look forward to but a good old reliable ordinary life.
She had hoped for more time to sort things out, but as her birthday approached, Brian hinted that he had a very special evening planned. He reserved a table at the finest restaurant in Sacramento two weeks in advance, and she found a bottle of expensive champagne hidden in the back of his refrigerator. Alarmed, Maggie began making excuses not to see him, but he knew her shifts, her haunts, her home so well that he merely showed up wherever he knew she would be, forlorn and determined to put things right. He was so hurt and bewildered by her sudden, inexplicable coolness that she knew she would never have the courage to turn down his proposal. So she broke up with him before he had a chance to ask. Worse yet, she broke up with him by email, which was so cowardly of her that she couldn't admit it to the quilters.
"What was it, then?" asked Mrs. Blum, bewildered. "Brian seemed like such a nice young man."
"He was. He is," said Maggie. "But he's not the one."
"Maybe he's not the one but he's good enough," retorted one of the quilters, whom Maggie knew had never married.
"Hester, you won't change her mind," said Mrs. Stonebridge fondly. "Maggie's holding out for true love."
"As you should," said another quilter, wistful. She was famous among the residents for her five marriages and four divorces. "I didn't, and look where it got me."
"I did," said Mrs. Blum. "I was blessed that I met my true love when I was only seventeen. He's out there, Maggie dear. You'll know him when you meet him."
"In the meantime, you'll always have us," said Mrs. Stonebridge. And since Mrs. Stonebridge seemed to think Maggie had made the right decision, everyone else thought so, too, and she never heard another word of dismay or disapproval on the subject.
Two days later, Maggie walked home from the bus stop after work, dreading the thought of spending the rest of the evening alone packing up Brian's scattered belongings. He had already returned a carton of her own things-books and CDs, an old toothbrush anyone else would have thrown out. She would have to return the faded green sweater she had borrowed from him so long ago that he had probably forgotten it had ever been his. It had been her favorite, but she could not bear to put it on anymore.
Maggie reached her own street and passed a middle-aged couple cleaning up after a garage sale. More to procrastinate than to hunt for bargains, she browsed through some books and old vinyl albums stacked in boxes on a card table. She found a copy of Brian's favorite Moody Blues album and had to turn away. At the next table were several folded baby blankets in pink and yellow gingham. She moved on down the aisle and had nearly summoned up enough fortitude to go home when a glimpse of faded patchwork brought her to a stop.
It was an old quilt draped indifferently over a table. Intrigued, Maggie studied the patterns as best as she could without moving the tagged glassware displayed upon it. The two quilts she had made in her lifetime-one a Girl Scout badge requirement, the other a gift for her sister's firstborn-by no means made her an expert on quilts, but she knew at once that this quilt was unique, a sampler of many rows of different, unfamiliar blocks. The Courtyard Quilters would probably be able to identify each pattern easily-if they could see the pieces clearly enough through the layers of dirt.
"How much is this?" she called to the woman running the garage sale.
"That?" The woman dusted off her hands and drew closer. "You mean the quilt?"
"Yes, please. Is it for sale?"
The woman looked dubious. "We were just using it to hide an ugly table. I guess I'll take five bucks for it."
Maggie reached into her purse. "Are you sure?"
"Are you?" the woman countered. "Don't you want to take a better look at it first? It's not in very good shape."
Maggie agreed, though she had already decided to take the quilt home. They carefully moved the glassware and lifted the quilt from the table. The woman held it up so that Maggie could examine it. It was filthy; a good shake flung up a cloud of dust but left the surface as grimy as before. The woman apologized for its condition and explained that it had been kept in the garage since they moved to the neighborhood twenty-six years earlier. Her mother-in-law had bought it at an estate auction, and when she tired of it, she gave it to her son to keep dog hair off the car seats when he took his German shepherds to the park. Still, it was free of holes, tears, and stains, and the geometric patterns of the blocks were striking.
Maggie paid the woman, folded the quilt gently, and carried it home. There she moved the coffee table aside, spread the quilt on the living room carpet, and studied it. All one hundred of the two-color blocks were unique, and each had been pieced or appliqued from a different print fabric and a plain background fabric that might have been white once, but had discolored with age and neglect. Along one edge, embroidered in thread that had faded to pale brown barely distinguishable from the background cloth, were the words, "Harriet Findley Birch. Lowell, Mass. to Salem, Ore. 1854."
The discovery astounded her. How had a beautiful 133-year-old quilt ended up as a tablecloth at a garage sale?
The next morning she took the quilt to Ocean View Hills, and on her first break, she hurried to the recreation room to show it to the Courtyard Quilters. They were as excited and amazed as she had anticipated. "This is a remarkable find," said Mrs. Stonebridge, bending over to examine a block composed of sixteen tiny triangles. "What an impressive assortment of fabrics, and what care she must have given to every stitch for the quilt to have held up so well through the years."
"This a genuine treasure," exclaimed Mrs. Blum. "Here's a LeMoyne Star block, here's a Chimney Sweep- Hmm. Here's one I've never seen."
The other Courtyard Quilters drew closer for a better look, but no one recognized the pattern.
"I wonder who Harriet Findley Birch was," said Mrs. Stonebridge. "She had an excellent sense of proportion and contrast."
The other quilters agreed, and one added, "Maybe if you found out more about the quilt, you could find out more about her. Or vice versa."
"And of course you must find out how to care for such a precious antique," said Mrs. Stonebridge. "Well, my dear, it seems you have yourself a research project, just in time for the weekend."
On Saturday Maggie went to the Cal State Sacramento library to search for books on preserving antique quilts. She found a few books of patterns and others with old black and white photos of traditional quilts, but none with the information she sought. A librarian suggested she contact a professor in the art department, so she made an appointment the next day during her lunch hour. After viewing the quilt, the professor put her in touch with a friend, a museum curator in San Francisco named Grace Daniels. Maggie had to take a day off work to meet with her, but the ninety-mile drive from Sacramento was well worth it. The curator confirmed that the quilt was indeed a rare and unusual find. Grace offered to clean it properly for Maggie in exchange for permission to allow the museum's photographer to take a photo for their archives and for information about the quilt's provenance.
Maggie agreed, and the next day she returned to the home where the garage sale had taken place. The woman was surprised to see her again, but invited her inside to talk about the quilt. She called her mother-in-law, but all she remembered was that she had bought it at an estate sale run by an auction house in Bend, Oregon, about 130 miles southeast of Salem.
Maggie returned to the library and searched microfiche versions of all the phone books for the state of Oregon. She listed every Findley and Birch she could find, beginning with the Salem area, then Bend, and then working outward. It was slow, painstaking work that consumed several weekends while she waited for Grace Daniels to finish tending to the quilt.
Starting at the top of her list, she phoned the Findleys and Birches and asked if they knew of a Harriet Findley Birch, a quilter originally from Lowell, Massachusetts. Most said they had never heard of her; a few mentioned other Harriets much too young to be the one Maggie sought. One man said he did not know any Harriets, but he knew several Harrys she could call.
"Why would anyone think information about a Harry Birch would be useful?" Maggie asked the Courtyard Quilters one day when she found time to run down to the recreation room to update them on her progress-or lack thereof. "This is impossible. I should have known I wouldn't turn up anything."
"You can't give up now," protested Mrs. Blum. "Not after piquing our curiosity. Our old hearts can't take it."
"Don't play the 'We're so fragile, have pity on us' card on me," Maggie teased. "I saw you doing the polka in the library with Mr. Maniceaux not two weeks ago."
"Oh." A faint pink flush rose in Mrs. Blum's cheeks. "You saw that, did you?"
"Do continue your calls," urged Mrs. Stonebridge. "Someone on that list might be a descendent of Harriet Findley Birch. You'll never know if you don't call."
Maggie feared that it would be a waste of time, but she promised the Courtyard Quilters she would consider it.
A week later, curiosity and a sense of obligation to the Courtyard Quilters as well as the museum curator compelled her to resume her calls. Two-thirds of the way through the names and numbers she had collected, she reached a man who said that his great-grandmother's name was Harriet Findley Birch. "When I was a kid," he said, "my grandmother took me to see Harriet Findley Birch's grave, not far from our original family homestead in Salem. It's a tradition in our family, a pilgrimage we make when we're old enough to appreciate her."
Thrilled, Maggie told the man about the quilt she had found and asked him to send whatever information she could about his great-grandmother. He agreed, but the information Maggie received in the mail a week later was disappointingly scanty. Harriet Findley was born in 1830 or 1831 in rural Massachusetts. She married Franklin Birch in 1850 and traveled west along the Oregon Trail some time after that. She had six children, only two of whom survived to adulthood.
The next week Maggie returned to the museum. The quilt had been so beautifully restored she almost did not recognize it. Her information about the quilt's provenance seemed hopelessly inadequate compensation for Grace Daniel's work, but the curator brushed off Maggie's apologies. She had made a few discoveries of her own after contacting a colleague at the New England Quilt Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts.
While the Lowell curator had not heard of the Harriet Findley Birch quilt, she had posed an interesting theory. The more than one hundred unique fabrics in the quilt suggested that Harriet had ready access to a wide variety of cottons. While she could have saved scraps for years or traded with friends, it was also possible that she had worked in one of Lowell's cotton mills before her marriage. A mill girl could have collected scraps off the floor that otherwise would have been swept up and discarded, and before long, acquired more than enough for a quilt. Grace's colleague was not convinced that Harriet had been a mill girl, however, because existing diaries of mill girls from Harriet's era rarely mentioned quilting as a pleasurable pastime. Instead these young women new to the excitement of the city spent their precious off hours enjoying lectures, exhibitions, and other cultural events outside of the boardinghouses where they lived.
"I don't suppose we'll ever know for certain," said Grace.
Maggie reluctantly agreed they were unlikely to learn more.
She took the precious quilt home and draped it over her bed. She sat in a chair nearby and gazed at it lovingly, but with an ache of regret. The more she learned how rare and precious the quilt was, the more she realized she had no right to keep it.
But the extra print the museum's photographer had made for her was not enough.
She bought colored pencils, graph paper, and a ruler and began drafting the beloved little blocks, imagining Harriet Findley Birch sketching the originals so long ago. Had she worked on her quilt on the front porch of her boardinghouse, enjoying the fresh air after a fourteen-hour shift in the stifling mill? Had she sewn in her parents' front parlor, envying the confident, independent mill girls who passed by her window on their way to work?
One Saturday morning after she had drawn ten blocks, Maggie visited a quilt store the Courtyard Quilters had recommended, the Goose Tracks Quilt Shop, to purchase fabric and sewing tools. She felt too shy to ask any of the busy customers or saleswomen for help, so she wandered through the aisles scanning the bolts for fabrics that looked like Harriet's. She chose ten, carried them awkwardly to the cutting table, and asked the shop owner to cut her enough of each one to make a six-inch quilt block.
"Okay," the woman said carefully, clearly recognizing her as a novice but not wishing to discourage her. "Do you think a quarter of a yard will do? An eighth?"
Maggie had no idea, but just in case, she asked for quarter yard cuts.
"We have fat quarters over there if you're interested," the woman said, gesturing with her scissors toward stacked rows of baskets full of rolled bundles of fabric. "What are you making?"
"Bring some of your finished blocks along next time. I'd love to see them."
Flattered, Maggie agreed, but her quilting skills were so rusty she wasn't sure she wanted to show her handiwork to anyone. Fortunately, when she told the Courtyard Quilters about her project, they eagerly offered her a refresher course in the art of quilting by hand. With their assistance, she relearned how to make a precise running stitch, how to applique, how to sew perfectly smooth curves, and how to set pieces into an angle. Breaks and lunch hours she usually passed on her own she now spent in the company of the Courtyard Quilters. By the time she finished making her eighth block, she had earned a chair of her own among the circle of quilters.
A few weeks after her first visit to the Goose Tracks Quilt Shop, when Maggie had completed ten blocks and had sketched the second row of ten, she returned for more fabric. This time she knew exactly what she needed and chose from the baskets of fat quarters with confidence. The shop owner recognized her and asked how her sampler was progressing. Maggie placed the ten little blocks on the counter, her pride in her work abruptly vanishing as other customers gathered around to look. "I'm just a beginner," she apologized, fighting the urge to sweep the blocks back into her purse. To her surprise, the other quilters admired her work and insisted they never would have guessed she was a beginner.
"What do you call this pattern?" asked one of the women, indicating a five-pointed star.
"I don't know," said Maggie. "I'm copying blocks I found in an antique quilt."
With prompting from the quilters, the whole story of Harriet Findley Birch's quilt came out. The women marveled at Maggie's lucky find and begged to be allowed to see Harriet's quilt for themselves, so Maggie agreed to meet them at the shop the following Saturday.
In the interim, she completed five more blocks and sketched a dozen more in anticipation of her return to the quilt shop. The women she had spoken to the previous week must have told their friends, because more than twice the number of people she had expected were there, eager to admire Harriet Findley Birch's masterpiece. After seeing the original version, several of the quilters told Maggie that they respected her courage for taking on such a daunting project, which would surely take years to complete. Until that moment, Maggie had not thought of how much time she would need to invest in her replica. She simply wanted one she could keep.
Harriet's quilt began to consume more and more of Maggie's life. She sketched blocks in the morning before leaving for Ocean View Hills. She sewed by hand with the Courtyard Quilters on her lunch hour. After work she made templates, or read books about the mill girls of Lowell, or tracked down leads at the library, longing to know more of Harriet Findley Birch's story. Her work friends complained that they never saw her anymore, so she made time for them when she could. They did not understand her new fascination and tentatively suggested she start dating again. "I don't have time," she told them.
And then came a day she had long dreaded: the day she finished sketching the one hundredth sampler block.
She called the woman from the garage sale and arranged to meet. She carefully typed up everything she had learned about the quilt, including her unconfirmed theories about the life of Harriet Findley Birch. The woman's eyes lit up when she saw the folded bundle in Maggie's arms. "I was hoping you would bring it by to show me after you restored it," she exclaimed, holding her front door open and ushering Maggie inside.
"I didn't bring it just to show you," said Maggie. "It's worth much more than I paid for it and I think in all fairness I should return it to you. Or, if you're willing, I would be very grateful if you would allow me to keep the quilt and pay you the difference."
"Don't be silly," said the woman. "It sat in my garage for all those years and I did nothing with it. Thank goodness you rescued it before it was nothing more than a rag."
"But-" Maggie hesitated. "You could probably sell it for much more than what I paid you."
"Well, certainly, now. Thanks to you. You're a sweet girl, but you don't owe me anything for this quilt. You bought it fair and square, and if you decide to sell it for a profit, then more power to you."
Grateful, Maggie told the woman everything she had learned about the quilt and felt herself at ease for the first time in months. But the feeling did not last. The next day she phoned Jason Birch and offered the quilt to him, the only descendent of Harriet Findley Birch she had been able to locate.
"That would be awesome," Jason Birch replied. "I'd love to have that quilt."
"Okay," said Maggie, heart sinking. "Should I send it to you, or would you prefer to pick it up? I would hate to risk losing it in the mail-my heart nearly stops just thinking about it. But if the drive is too inconvenient, I could insure the package for a lot of money to encourage them to keep track of it."
"When you put it like that..." Jason hesitated. "I should at least reimburse you for your expenses."
"I bought it for five dollars at a garage sale."
"What? Five bucks? In that case, keep it."
Maggie was tempted to thank him and hang up, but she couldn't. She could not let him turn down her offer because he believed the quilt was an old rag. "I had the quilt cleaned by an expert and I know it's worth much more than what I paid for it. I could have it appraised if you like."
"No. You know what? It's not like my family lost Harriet's quilt. One of us chose to sell it, and that choice has consequences. You should keep it. It's obviously important to you. I'll make you a deal: You keep the quilt, but let me know anything you learn about my great-grandmother."
"I'll do that," Maggie managed to reply, overwhelmed by gratitude.
Now that Harriet Findley Birch's quilt was truly hers, the original impetus for sewing her replica was gone, but Maggie enjoyed her project too much to abandon it. Every week she stitched a few more blocks; every Saturday she met with the regulars at the quilt shop to show off her progress. A few of them asked if she minded if they tried their hand at a few of the patterns. Flattered, Maggie agreed to share her drawings with them. She had completed eighty-four of the blocks and had already begun sewing them into rows.
A year and a half after discovering Harriet's quilt at the garage sale, Maggie completed her quilt top. During her next lunch hour, she layered and basted it on the ping-pong table in the Ocean View Hills recreation room. Many of the residents gathered around to admire her work while the Courtyard Quilters threaded needles and helped her baste the top, batting, and backing together. Their enjoyment salvaged what had otherwise been an unpleasant day. At the morning staff meeting, the director informed them that their parent company had sold them off to an HMO, one with a reputation for slashing budgets and cutting staff. Maggie had an excellent record and the faith of her supervisors, but those accomplishments suddenly seemed inconsequential.
When new management took over a few months later, Maggie kept her job, but ten of her coworkers, including her direct supervisor, were laid off. Maggie was shaken enough to consider canceling her long-anticipated vacation to Lowell, Massachusetts to research Harriet Findley Birch's life, but she had already purchased her airline tickets and people were expecting her. Postponing her trip might help prove her commitment to her job at a critical hour, but with Ocean View Hills in such disarray, the ideal time for a vacation might never come.
"Go," Mrs. Stonebridge commanded. "You've been wanting to do this for so long. You'll regret it later if you cancel your plans."
"We won't let them fire you while you're gone," promised Mrs. Blum. When the other quilters looked at her in exasperation, she quickly added, "Not that you're in any danger. That's just silly."
It didn't seem silly to Maggie, but finally she realized she could not cancel a trip that had been so many months in the planning. In Massachusetts, she spent a week admiring the fall foliage, exploring the local quilt shops, and sharing Harriet's quilt with the curator of the New England Quilt Museum. The curator in turn introduced Maggie to local historians and a professor who had extensively researched the history of the cotton mills. He was able to identify more than twenty of the cotton prints in Harriet's quilt as fabrics made in the early nineteenth century by the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, and he promised to see what else he could find in his university's extensive historical archives.
The visit was over far too soon, but Maggie returned home determined to complete her own quilt. The Courtyard Quilters had identified many of the traditional patterns for her, but there were many others none of them had ever seen, nor could find in any quilt pattern reference book. Maggie invented names of her own, inspired by Harriet's imagined life-Oregon Trail, Rocky Road to Salem, Mill Girls, Lowell Crossroads, Franklin's Choice.
On the same day Maggie finished sewing the binding on her quilt, the staff of Ocean View Hills were offered the opportunity to accept a ten percent pay cut or a pink slip. With great misgivings, Maggie chose the pay cut. She loved her job but wondered how much longer she would be able to keep it.
She forgot her worries for a time on Saturday, when she displayed her completed quilt at the Goose Tracks Quilt Shop. Her new friends were there, and many other quilters who had heard through the grapevine that she might bring the finished quilt that day. They admired and praised her work, and took photos-not only of the quilt, but of Maggie posed beside the quilt, and of themselves with Maggie in front of the quilt. Several encouraged her to enter it in a quilt show, but Maggie thought of how far her quilting skills had come since she began the quilt and shuddered to think what a judge might say about her first blocks.
After the group broke up, Lois, the quilt shop owner, came over for a closer look. "It's lovely," she said. "What are you going to call it?"
"'My Journey with Harriet,'" said Maggie. "Do you think that's all right?"
"I think it's perfect, but it doesn't matter what I think. It's your quilt." Lois bent forward to study one of the blocks more closely. "I was wondering if you would be interested in teaching a class here in the shop. So many of my customers have admired your quilt. I'm sure they'd want you to show them how you did it."
"I've never taught quilting," said Maggie. "I'm not even a very experienced quilter. I'm just a motivated beginner."
Lois shrugged. "I don't care if you just started quilting last week. If you can make a quilt like this, you have something to share. I'll pay you, of course."
Maggie thought of her recent pay cut, summoned up her courage, and agreed.
Almost immediately, she wished she had not. What if no one signed up for the class? What if the students mocked her graph paper sketches and cardstock templates? But she needed the extra money, and she understood completely the desire other quilters might have to re-create Harriet's quilt for themselves. If they wanted her help, she couldn't ignore them.
In the month leading up to her first class, Maggie redrafted some of the blocks and designed templates. She wrote lesson plans and made new versions of the first five blocks she planned to teach, this time using popular jewel tones that she thought would appeal more to her students. If she had any. Lois said that the classroom held a maximum of twenty students, but a typical class at the shop enrolled half that number. Maggie fervently hoped for at least five. She would not break even, but the seats would not be empty.
On the evening of her first class, Maggie drove to the Goose Tracks Quilt Shop and found the parking lot full. Lois met her at the door, shaking her head. "I warned people to sign up early, but no one ever believes me. The waiting list is already twelve deep, so if someone doesn't show up, let me know right away, okay?"
Struck speechless, Maggie nodded and made her way through the store with her box of quilts, blocks, and handouts. Twenty students awaited her in the classroom. They murmured with expectation as she went to the front and unpacked her box of supplies. She started class by displaying Harriet Findley Birch's quilt, and was stunned when the students burst into applause. As she explained the general structure of the course and took in their eager nods, a glow of warmth began to melt away her fears. She was not alone in her admiration for Harriet Findley Birch's magnificent creation. Just like the Courtyard Quilters, the women gathered here felt the same way.
With each week, she felt more assured and confident in front of the classroom. Each week she demonstrated several blocks, which her students began in class and completed at home. When the course ended, her students begged Lois to create an advanced class especially for them, so Maggie agreed to teach them some of Harriet's more difficult patterns while repeating her first course for beginners. After those courses concluded, she added Harriet's Journey III to her schedule. The local quilt guild invited her to speak about the quilt, and she did so, not realizing until they handed her a check afterward that they had intended to pay her. The guild must have enjoyed her presentation, because they recommended her to another guild, who recommend her to another, until it seemed that every quilt guild within 200 miles of Sacramento had sent her an eager invitation.
Not long after her first class of students began bringing their own completed Harriet's Journey quilts to show-and-tell for her newest students, Maggie received a letter from the history professor she had met during her visit to Lowell two years before. His search to find a record of Harriet Findley Birch's employment at the Merrimack Manufacturing Company had failed, but he had discovered convincing evidence in the Lowell Offering, a literary journal for the mill workers. In 1849, a mill girl had contributed a story about a young woman torn between the independence she enjoyed as a mill worker and her love for a handsome suitor. The professor had enclosed a copy.
The story told of a young woman, probably a thinly disguised version of the author, who lamented, "Though earning her own living was reckoned as a suitable accomplishment for a young maid, few would consider it appropriate for a wife to spend her hours thus employed. Indeed, Hannah's own dear William had often declared that no bride of his should weave or spin in the mills when she could be better occupied cooking his breakfast. And yet Hannah loved him, and would cleave to his side, though he would summon her from the friends and life that had become so dear and bid her go with him to distant lands far from home and family."
The author was Harriet Findley.
At last, Maggie filled in the missing pieces of Harriet's story. She had worked as a mill girl until marrying Franklin. When her husband decided to move west, Harriet, the obedient wife, had agreed, though her heart broke to part from her dear friends, many of whom still worked at the mills. Knowing she would no longer be able to trade patterns with her acquaintances, she stitched her masterwork as a record of all the blocks they knew, so that no matter how far West she traveled, she would have a wonderful variety of patterns to chose from when making quilts for her growing family. Scraps she had saved from her own days in the mill intermingled with pieces shared by beloved friends and relatives. She could not have sewn on the seat of a jolting wagon as they crossed the country on the Oregon Trail, so she had likely pieced the blocks in Lowell and quilted the top in Salem. Into the quilt she had stitched her grief, her hopes, her faithfulness, and her memories.
That was the story Maggie told in her classes and lectures, admitting that it was only one possible version of Harriet's life. Her students did not seem to mind the ambiguity, but they often spoke of finding Harriet's home in Lowell and of seeking out the indisputable truth. Wouldn't it be wonderful, they sighed, if they could find an old, sepia-toned photograph of Harriet? A diary in which she had confided her reasons for making the quilt? Letters she had written home to Lowell from the Oregon Trail?
Maggie, too, longed to know the truth, but she was grateful for every cherished scrap of information she had collected over the years and would not demand more.
When Maggie had saved enough money, she bought a new car, choosing a sensible model with a large trunk and excellent gas mileage because of her expanding schedule of speaking engagements. Her first road trip took her north to Salem, Oregon, to Harriet's final resting place. She planted flowers by the headstone, and on the soft green grass nearby, she spread out Harriet's quilt and the four duplicates she had made. She spoke at a nearby quilt guild that evening, spent the night in a bed and breakfast run by the guild treasurer, and drove home in the morning after meeting Jason Birch for breakfast. She wished she could have stayed longer, but Ocean View Hills had cut her vacation from two weeks a year to three days, a reduction that would have been considered unfair and damaging to employee morale when she had first begun working there.
Maggie taught nearly every evening at the quilt shop and twice on Saturdays. She was more grateful than ever for the extra income after a second round of budget cuts trimmed the staff at Ocean View Hills by another four employees and a promised cost of living increase fell through. One evening, Maggie tentatively approached Lois about increasing the fee for her classes to cover printing expenses. "We could do that," said Lois, "but surely you don't plan to give away your patterns forever."
The day her pattern book, My Journey with Harriet: The 1854 Harriet Findley Birch Quilt was published, Lois threw a party in Maggie's honor at the quilt shop. Her sister, brother-in-law, and two nieces flew in from Phoenix, and the curator of the New England Quilt Museum sent her flowers. The most able of the Courtyard Quilters attended, and Maggie was finally able to reveal the secret she had been keeping since the day she had begun her manuscript: The dedication of her book read, "To the Courtyard Quilters, who welcomed me into their circle, offered me their guidance, and shared my journey with Harriet from the very first step."
Lois had sold out of copies, that night, and the brisk sales at Goose Tracks were mirrored in quilt shops across the country. Second and third printings swiftly followed. Maggie taught workshops at quilt guild meetings and lectured at national quilt shows. She moved across town to a larger house with a spacious formal dining room she converted to a quilt studio. Childhood friends with whom she had fallen out of touch contacted her after reading articles about her in their local newspapers. A former teacher phoned after spotting My Journey with Harriet featured in a book club supplement of his Sunday newspaper.
But her success was tempered with sorrow. Her beloved circle of quilters, whose numbers and composition had always fluctuated over time according to what Mrs. Stonebridge euphemistically called "natural attrition," began to loose members faster than they could welcome newcomers as concerned family members responded to staffing cuts by transferring their mothers and grandmothers to other facilities. Mrs. Stonebridge's son wanted to move her closer to his home, but she told him she would never leave Ocean View Hills as long as at least one friend remained. Maggie wanted to believe that would be a very long time, but each day her hopes diminished.
When My Journey with Harriet went into its twelfth printing seven years later, Harriet wanted to create a revised and updated edition, but all her editor wanted to know was when she intended to write something new. "When I find another quilt like Harriet's," replied Maggie, hoping that would end the discussion.
"How hard have you looked?"
"Not very," Maggie admitted, but she promised to try harder if her editor would agree to consider a new edition. It was an unsatisfactory compromise, so Maggie hung up with the excuse that she had to get to her day job.
She arrived at Ocean View Hills to find the staff fairly roiling with uneasiness. Rumors had circulated for weeks that their HMO was going to consolidate with another health care corporation, and no one in management knew what that would mean for their jobs and their residents. Though Maggie could not help feeling as unsettled as the rest of her colleagues, she reassured herself that her thirteen years of exemplary employment had to count for something.
The blow came at an emergency meeting of all senior management. Ocean View Hills was not going to merge with anyone. The other health care corporation was going to buy them out and shut them down.
Maggie did not understand the reasoning behind their decision. The director, visibly shaken by his own pending unemployment, provided a lengthy explanation about profitability and tax liabilities, but Maggie was too upset to follow the corporate finance intricacies. She struggled to absorb the truth that in six months, her beloved residents would be scattered around northern California wherever their families could find appropriate care for them, and she would be out of a job.
"At least you have your quilt book and your teaching," a coworker grumbled to Maggie in the lounge where the senior staff had gathered to collect their wits before returning to work. They had been sworn to secrecy until a letter could be drafted to the other employees and the residents' families, although Maggie doubted any of them could keep silent for long. The other employees knew about the meeting, and as far as Maggie was concerned, it would be cruel to mislead them.
"I can't live off that income," said Maggie. Worse, she had received only vague assurances from the director that their pensions would be protected. She also had a modest 401K, but although she was only thirty-eight, she had hoped to take early retirement in ten years and devote herself to quilting and writing full time. That dream, she knew, was over.
In a move that received criticism from some of the residents, the director informed their families first and allowed the family members to tell their parents and grandparents as they deemed best. Some of the Courtyard Quilters felt that Maggie had betrayed them by not telling them about the closure as soon as she knew. "I wanted to tell you, but I couldn't," Maggie said. "The director forbade it."
"What do you care what he says?" glowered one of the quilters. "What's he going to do, fire you?"
"Don't blame Maggie," said Mrs. Stonebridge, kindly but in a manner that demanded cooperation. "She has professional responsibilities that take priority over ties of friendship. What if one of the patients from C Wing overheard us talking before their children had an opportunity to prepare them? Consider how that might upset the poor dears."
C Wing was where the patients with dementia and other serious chronic medical conditions resided. Thinking of them, the quilters relented. Some even murmured apologies, which Maggie accepted although she did not think she deserved them. She had wanted to warn them of what was coming, but she could not afford to give the director any reason to fire her.
"I can't bear to think our circle of quilters will be split up," lamented Mrs. Blum.
"We can try to stay together," said another. "Maybe our children could find a place with room for all of us."
One quilter shook her head. "Not me. My daughter has already decided that I'm moving in with them. The girls will share a bedroom and I'll get the extra." She paused. "It will be wonderful to see more of the kids, but I'll miss my girlfriends."
"We will have to keep in touch as best we can," said Mrs. Stonebridge. "With any luck, two or three of us will end up in the same place."
The Courtyard Quilters nodded, believing their longtime leader by force of habit, or, Maggie thought, as an act of faith.
That evening at the quilt shop, she taught her class so woodenly that Lois thought she was ill and offered to take over. Maggie briefly told her what the real problem was and forced herself to shake off her worries and get through the evening. She could not afford to lose this job, too.
As she packed up her teaching materials, Lois entered the classroom with a magazine in her hand. "I'm tempted not to show you this," she said, opening the magazine as she passed it to Maggie. "I would hate to lose you."
Maggie read the ad Lois had circled in red pen. "A quilt camp," she said. "That sounds like heaven. But it's all the way across the country."
"You could come back to visit. And teach for me."
"Don't worry," said Maggie, hugging her friend. "I couldn't leave California."
"When you see Elm Creek Manor, you'll change your mind."
Maggie doubted it, but she tossed the magazine in the box with her class samples and took it home.
The next morning, she scanned the Help Wanted ads over breakfast. There were several listings for jobs in geriatric care, but none comparable to her current position in either authority or compensation. After a tense day at work, where she comforted more than one tearful junior colleague in the staff lounge and promised to write letters of recommendation for several more, she found Lois's magazine in her quilt studio and gave the ad for the quilt camp teaching position a second look. After supper, she went online and Googled Elm Creek Quilts. She perused the camp's own website thoroughly, but also read evaluations and reviews former campers had posted on quilting bulletin boards and blogs. The comments were unanimous in their praise. Elm Creek Quilt Camp sounded like a wonderful place, though Maggie was not sure how she would fare in winter weather after spending her entire life in California.
With nothing to lose, Maggie put together the portfolio the Elm Creek Quilters had requested and sent it off, hoping for the best.
She also sent out resumes to every retirement community within a hundred miles, but received only three requests for interviews. As the weeks passed, the residents of Ocean View Hills began to disperse as children and grandchildren found them new homes. Going to work became lonelier and more dispiriting as one by one the Courtyard Quilters departed and her closest friends among the staff left for new jobs or retired at a fraction of their pensions.
A month after Maggie submitted her portfolio, Sarah McClure from Elm Creek Quilt Camp called with an invitation to come to Pennsylvania for an interview. As a test of her skills and creativity, Maggie was also instructed to design an original quilt block that could be used as a logo for Elm Creek Quilts. She was so thrilled to have an interview that she would have agreed to anything. She adapted two of Harriet Findley Birch's patterns, a leaf design and a star, and overlaid them to create a new block. Imitating Harriet's flowing script, in one corner of the block she embroidered "Elm Creek Quilts" and in another, "Waterford, Penn."
Throughout the years, Harriett had often felt like a guardian spirit to Maggie, lingering just beyond her vision, offering wisdom, encouragement, sympathy, understanding. Maggie wondered what Harriet would make of her pinning all her hopes on a job on the other side of the country. Perhaps more than anyone else, she would have understood.
The plane touched down at the Pittsburgh airport after a bumpy descent above meandering rivers. Maggie rented a car and drove the rest of the way to Waterford on a winding journey through the Appalachians, whose lush, forested hills cradled patchwork farms in valleys below.
From the highway, the town of Waterford appeared to be everything Lois had warned-remote, rural, and overpopulated by college students. Beyond the outskirts of town, Maggie drove down a rough gravel road through a leafy wood, taking the left fork that led to the rear parking lot as Lois had recommended. The narrow road wound through the trees and emerged into a sunlit apple orchard through which several women strolled. The car passed a red barn, climbed a low hill, and crossed a bridge over a creek. Then the manor came into view-three stories of gray stone and dark wood, its unexpected elegance enhanced by the rambling, natural beauty of its surroundings.
She parked the car, leaving her messenger bag in the trunk with her suitcase. She considered going around to the front entrance, but when three other women entered through the rear door without knocking, she followed them inside. She peered through the first open doorway she passed and found herself in the kitchen. Two women bustled from stove to countertop to refrigerator, too intent on their work to look up. "Summer, would you help me with this?" one of the women asked as she opened the oven to reveal a large roasting pan.
"You're on your own," replied the younger, auburn-haired woman. "I don't eat anything with a face, and I don't help cook it, either. I could have put together a very plausible tofu chicken if you had let me."
The first woman made retching sounds, and Maggie left, reluctant to disturb them. She continued down the hall until she arrived at a foyer with a black marble floor, tall double doors on the far wall, and a ceiling open to the third story. Women of all ages climbed a grand oak staircase that led to balconies on the second and third floor, or passed through a doorway opposite the front entrance. Maggie asked one of the women where she might find Sarah McClure, and was told to try the library on the second floor. At the library, an older woman wearing glasses on a silver chain told her to try the kitchen. Perplexed, Maggie said, "I was just there, and I didn't see anyone but the two cooks."
The woman laughed. "Two cooks? Oh, that's rich. Well, rather than send you on a mission to find Sarah, may I help you instead?"
"My name is Maggie Flynn. I'm here for a job interview, but it's not until tomorrow. Sarah McClure said I should spend the night here."
"Maggie, of course. I should have recognized you from the photo in your book." The older woman shook Maggie's hand briskly. "I'm Sylvia Compson. Have you had a chance to look around?"
Except for getting lost on her way to the library, Maggie had not, so Sylvia proposed a tour. She showed Maggie what seemed like the entire estate, from the library where most of the camp business was conducted to the hallways lined with bedrooms for the campers. Back on the first floor, Sylvia led Maggie into a grand ballroom that had been separated into several classrooms by tall, moveable partitions. Voices and sewing machines created a happy buzz, and when Maggie remarked that she wondered how the students avoided being distracted by the sounds from adjacent classrooms, Sylvia said, "Distracted? Oh, they enjoy eavesdropping on one another. We consider it part of the entertainment."
From the converted ballroom they went to the banquet hall, where four young men, three of them surely no more than teenagers, were setting ten round tables for supper. "Michael, don't forget the soup bowls," Sylvia called out. "And close the curtains partway so it's more difficult to see the food."
The eldest looked up from his work and nodded solemnly. "Don't worry. I'll take care of it." Another boy, blond and handsome, snorted and shook his head.
"They're brothers. The younger one has trouble accepting that the elder is in charge," Sylvia confided as she led Maggie from the room. "The other two are new this summer. One is the son of the neighbor of one of our instructors, and the other is the son of one of our instructor's colleagues. They're working off a rather large debt to another Elm Creek Quilter. They're quite a pair of juvenile delinquents, or so I've been told, but Michael and Todd will keep them in line."
Maggie nodded, trying to sort out the tangled relationships. She wondered how much she would be expected to remember for the interview the next day. And why would Sylvia not want the campers to see the food on their plates? Lois, who had attended camp twice, had praised the cooking. Her only complaint was that she had gained two pounds from the rich desserts.
The tour turned to the grounds of the manor, which Sylvia seemed to believe were just as essential to the camp as the classrooms and dining facilities. They passed several quilt campers who recognized Maggie, and a few of them asked if she had come to Elm Creek Manor to teach a class. Grateful for the perfect timing of their praise, Maggie told them she had come for an interview, but she would be thrilled to become an Elm Creek Quilter.
By the end of the day, she realized that was true-and not only because she desperately needed the work. She longed to be a part of the world these amazing, inspiring women had created. It was a haven in the central Pennsylvania countryside, a place of respite and healing. If they offered her a job-whether as teacher or office clerk or scullery maid-she would gratefully sign up for a lifetime term.
Sylvia left her to explore the estate on her own until supper, when she joined the staff and campers in the banquet hall for a delicious meal of roast chicken, sauteed vegetables, and an amazing spicy chickpea soup served with warm flatbread. Five women introduced themselves as the other Elm Creek Quilters and made her feel as welcome as if they had known her for years. After supper, she toured the north gardens with Sarah McClure, the woman she had mistaken for the head chef earlier that day. Sarah told her about the manor's history, from its founding in 1858 by Sylvia's great-grandparents and its role as a station on the underground railroad to its rebirth as a retreat for quilters. When Sarah mentioned that Sylvia's ancestors had left behind quilts and a journal from the manor's earliest days, Maggie thought of how long she had yearned to discover a similar record of Harriet Findley Birch's life. She hoped that Sylvia treasured these gifts and wished she could be invited to see them.
As twilight approached, Sarah escorted her back to the manor for the evening program, a fashion show of the campers' quilted clothing. Afterward, Sarah showed her to a charming room on the third floor with a private sitting area and a sampler quilt on the bed, and bade her goodnight.
Weary from travel and the extended effort to impress, Maggie slept soundly.
The next morning after breakfast, she repacked her suitcase and dressed in her new tan slacks, a crisp white blouse, and a blue blazer, hoping that they would mark her down for not wearing a suit. Her only suit, a black, somber ensemble she wore to funerals and board meetings, summoned forth too many memories of unhappy occasions to be worn on a day when she needed every ounce of confidence.
Carrying her small suitcase and messenger bag, she went downstairs to the first floor to find the parlor where she was supposed to officially meet the Elm Creek Quilters. On her way across the foyer, she heard a frustrated sigh drift down to her from somewhere above. She looked up and spotted a white-haired woman seated in an armchair on the second floor balcony.
"Are you okay?" called Maggie. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, it's nothing. I just can't applique a smooth curve to save my life, that's all."
Maggie glanced at her watch and saw that she had a few minutes to spare. "Want me to take a look?"
When the older woman gratefully agreed, Maggie returned upstairs and demonstrated her variation of the needle-turned applique technique. The older woman took a few awkward stitches and shook her head in frustration. "I still don't understand."
Maggie showed her again, but more quickly this time, mindful of the waiting Elm Creek Quilters. Then she apologized and explained that she was late for an appointment.
"That's all right, dear." Behind her pink-tinted glasses, the older woman's blue eyes beamed with satisfaction. "I think I've learned all I need to know."
Maggie hurried back downstairs to the parlor and knocked on the door. Sarah McClure invited her inside, where some of the other Elm Creek Quilters were seated on the far side of a coffee table from a single armchair.
"Gwen couldn't make it," said Sarah as Maggie seated herself. "She has a class. But this is really more of a formality, since you've already met everyone."
"Almost everyone," said a pretty blonde Maggie did not recognize. "I had to go home and feed my family last night, so I missed the supper party. I'm Diane."
"Maggie Flynn." Maggie rose to shake Diane's hand, which felt smooth and cool, though Diane squeezed a fraction harder than necessary.
Sarah began with a few perfunctory questions about Maggie's employment history. When Sylvia asked her to tell how she came to publish a book, Maggie told the story of discovering Harriet Findley Birch's quilt and how that one chance encounter had changed her life. At another Elm Creek Quilter's request, Maggie showed them the block she had designed. Everyone complimented her pattern and handiwork-everyone except Diane, who took a page from a folder on her lap and frowned at it. Giving it a surreptitious glance, Maggie recognized the paper as a color copy of a photograph of her original "My Journey with Harriet" quilt. With a quaking heart she thought of her first few blocks, those first stumbling efforts that had eventually launched her career, and wondered if Diane was marking her mistakes. Surely a missed stitch or two would not be evident in a picture of that resolution.
Then Diane set down the photocopy and tapped two squares with her pen. "I thought your original block looked familiar."
Maggie did not like the emphasis Diane placed on "original block," but she nodded. "I adapted two of Harriet Findley Birch's patterns to create my own. Since I'm best known for documenting her quilt, I thought that would be appropriate. Was I wrong?"
"Your block is fine," the youngest Elm Creek Quilter assured her.
Diane did not look as if she agreed. "I was wondering, too, why you didn't send us any pictures of your other quilts."
Maggie hesitated. "I sent twelve photos."
"Yes, but all twelve are of the same quilt. You haven't made twelve different quilts; you've made twelve versions of the same quilt."
"They aren't exactly the same," said Maggie. "I've used different fabrics, color palettes, and techniques with each variation. Each version was made for a specific purpose." She reached into her messenger bag and pulled out copies of the same photos she had included in her portfolio. "This one, my third Harriet's Journey, was an exercise in contrast and value. The blue and white version I made entirely by machine just to prove to some of my reluctant students that it could be done. I personally prefer hand piecing."
"You do seem capable of adequate hand work," said Diane, "which makes it all the more disappointing that you sold out to the machine mafia."
"I don't understand."
Diane gestured to the photo. "You said it yourself. You prefer one technique, but you pandered to lazy advocates of an easier method to reel in more students, to sell more books."
Taken aback, Maggie replied, "I don't consider it selling out to encourage a quilter to try a project that is more challenging than what she's previously attempted."
"Of course not," said Sylvia briskly. "Does anyone else have a question for our guest?"
Summer glanced at her notes and looked up with a smile for Maggie. "How do you account for your continuing interest in this one quilt? It's not just about the patterns, is it?"
"No," said Maggie. "Although I'm awed by Harriet's sense of geometry, balance, and proportion as well as her technical skills, my fascination has always been with the quilter more than her creation. Who was she? Why did she make this quilt? Did anyone help her? What did she think about as she sewed? Did she have a good marriage? Was she happy? Was she lonely? Did she regret leaving Massachusetts for the West? There's so much I'll never know about her, but working on this quilt makes me feel closer to her."
Some of the Elm Creek Quilters nodded, encouraging her to continue. "Over the years, I've made several visits to Lowell to try to retrace Harriet's steps. I've found tantalizing clues to her past-a baptismal record, a bill of sale for a plot of land that her father owned, a few other facts relating to her ordinary daily life. But a collection of facts isn't the truth. I think Harriet's truth lies in the story her quilt tells, and that's the story of a woman who was creative, resourceful, and steadfast. I'll never know for certain, and that mystery compels me to make sure she is remembered, not only for her sake, but for all those other women whose sacrifices built this country but whose names never made it into the history books."
Sylvia smiled. "If only we had more time, I have some quilts in my attic I would love to show you. I think you would appreciate them."
Sarah took that as her cue to wrap up the interview, and Maggie was surprised that she was no longer eager for it to end. For all that she had promised Lois she could never leave California, she had seen enough of Elm Creek Quilt Camp to know that she would feel at home there. Aside from Diane, the Elm Creek Quilters had been kind and welcoming. She knew she would enjoy working with them and becoming their friend.
Now she could only hope that the impression she had made over the previous twenty-four hours would be enough to dispel any concerns Diane might raise after she left.
Sarah rose to show her to the door. Maggie shook their hands, even Diane's, and told them she hoped to hear from them soon. She collected her bags and left the parlor to find that someone had arranged a row of folding chairs along the wall just outside the door.
The white-haired woman she had tried to help earlier was in the hallway leading to the west wing. She brightened and seemed about to speak, but Maggie was spent from the interview and did not want to talk. She turned quickly and hurried to the tall double doors that marked the front entrance, though her car was parked around back.
As she stepped out onto the verandah, she saw a younger woman dressed in an interview suit struggling up the stairs with an oversized stroller and two little boys in tow. Maggie could only imagine how Diane would react at the sight of the children, and although this woman was the competition, she moved to sympathy, knowing what was in store for her.
"Watch out for the blonde," Maggie warned as they passed on the stairs. The young mother paused, but Maggie had a long drive to Pittsburgh ahead of her and a flight to catch, so she hurried on her way.
Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Chiaverini
Excerpted from Circle of Quilters by Jennifer Chiaverini Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Chiaverini.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
Amy Harmon Weigman, Country Marketplace magazine
"A series that neatly stitches together social drama and the art of quilting."
Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
"Circle of Quilters is a true delight, complete with fascinating characters from all walks of life."
Sheri Melnick, Romantic Times
"A new generation of quilters embraces the craft with gusto...following the lead of Jennifer Chiaverini's Elm Creek Quilts novels."
Susan Phinney, Seattle Post-Intelligencer
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