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Ellie's old grandmother, Julia Creath Summerwaite, came east that summer for the first timein her life, her own life of eighty years, and Ellie's life of twelve. She arrived at the airport from Nebraska with a cracked cardboard suitcase and wearing a navy-blue hat withhard red berries on it. When she stepped off the plane and walked down the ramp into the waiting room, her pocketbook contained the letter Ellie's father, her youngest son, had senther.
All right, Momma, the letter promised. I'll take you and the children to the Natural History Museum and leave the three of you there alone. Whatever you say. just as long as you come.
It was the only reason she could see for coming at all.
Ellie's father had laughed at his mother's request. "I'll bet it's those old dinosaur bones," he had told his wife. "The ones from that Nebraska farm."
Ellie's mother had said how typical it was of Grandma Surnmerwaite to sound so mysterious, like there was some great secret in the museum, a secret she could tell only to the children.
Their parents had laughed, but Ellie and her younger brother Stevie wondered silently into each other's eyes what it was all about. They walked alongside the old woman through the walkways of the busy airport, looking up at her now and then, remembering her more from photographs than from that longago trip to Nebraska. She was round -and soft like an overstuffed bed, and she smelled faintly like mothballs, false teeth, and lilacs.
"So how was your trip, Momma?" Charlie Surnmerwaite asked. She didn't answer, and he spoke louder. "It was a clear day, huh, Momma? You had a smooth flight?"
"Yes,yes," she said grumpily. "Not as smooth as railroad tracks though. Nothing as smooth as steel rails."
"Now, Momma, you know you're too old for that long trip by train. It would've taken you days. This way you're here in a matter of hours."
"I'm too old to fly, if you ask me," she muttered under her breath. "If the good Lord had wanted me to fly He would've given me a propeller."
Ellie laughed. "I took the train to Nebraska, Grandma," Stevie said, slipping his hand through the handle of her pocketbook. "But I was too little. I don't remember."
"You don't remember Nebraska?" She was shocked. "Don't you remember sitting on your daddy's shoulders when he walked you through the cornfield? Don't you remember the kittens?"
"I remember the kittens, Grandma," Ellie said, instantly remembering the smell of the barn and the cozy darkness. "And your quilts. I remember the quilt on my bed with the tiny little triangles all over it."
"And did you do some piecing like I showed you when you got home?" her grandmother asked.
Ellie glanced quickly at her mother and then away. She remembered how the tiny pieces of fabric had not lain flat. They had buckled and twisted and her mother hadn't known how to help her. They were still in a shoe box under her bed. "Nah, I was too little. Maybe we can start again this time. I kept the patches. You can show me again.",
The long walkway finally opened into a large room with conveyor belts and signs that marked which flights would be unloading at which place. Charlie Summerwaite stood still for a minute, gazing up at them, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his baggy tan pants. "Lees see, let's see," he mused. "Right over here. Your baggage should come out right here as soon as they unload the plane."
Stevie plopped himself down on the edge of the conveyor belt, and his parents were about to scold him and tell him to stand up when the old woman sat down next to him- "Oh, my poor feet," she sighed. Her son and his wife were silent for a moment and then, "Momma, be careful there. That belt's going to move soon."
She didn't hear him or she ignored him, and the two parents withdrew slightly. The five of them, like a small herd of buffalo, clustered into two groups according to their needs, the young children close to their grandmother.
"Did you know that clouds are born out of the rivers?" she asked them.
The children looked at her blankly.
"Did you ever wonder where clouds were born? I never did. Never thought about it, thought they just appeared out of nowhere, but I could see from the airplane, white wispy clouds rising up out of the rivers and heading over the land, just like steam coming off a jelly pot."
"Were they hot, the rivers?" Stevie asked.
"Never knew a hot river," she answered, slipping her shoes off Ellie looked down at her grandmother's knobby feet, twisted like old tree roots, and the same color.
"And you know what else? You remember that crazy quilt I had on my bed, Elizabeth? The one with all the velvets and golden threads and no rhyme or reason, just patches all crazy?"
Ellie's face lit up. "Yes! I remember! The crazy quilt, with the black and maroon velvet patches." She could almost feel them smooth and old along the tips of her fingers.
"Well, from the sky, the Nebraska farms look exactly like crazy quilts. I swear. Now how did all those women know that? Without ever being in the sky? How did they know to make their crazy quilts look just like their husbands' farms? That's what I want to know." The old woman looked like she wanted an answer.
"Maybe the farmers liked the quilts first, Grandma," Stevie said. "And then they made their farms look like them."She shook her head in disagreement or impatience and grew quiet. People were beginning to gather ...