As each holiday season approaches, some revel in welcoming the New Year ahead; others quietly mourn the passing of time gone by. "We can't hold on to the past," says Master Quilter Sylvia Compson, "but we can keep the best part of 'Auld Lang Syne' in our hearts and in our memories, and we can look forward to the future with hope and resolve." As Sylvia, a late-in-life newlywed, has discovered, love can enter our lives at any age. Yet before she can truly delight in her present happiness, she must face the sorrow hidden in her past -- her own role in the tragic circumstances that left her estranged from her sister, Claudia, until it was too late to make amends. Vowing not to repeat the mistake with her new daughter-in-law, Amy, who opposed Sylvia's marriage to her father, Andrew, Sylvia must convince Amy that family is more precious than pride. As Sylvia takes up a quilt for the season, begun and abandoned over six years, she recalls the New Year's Eve festivities of her youth at Elm Creek Manor as a member of the Bergstrom family. She titles the quilt "New Year's Reflections," after her belief that year-end reflections precede resolutions. The quilt blocks she chooses commemorate the wisdom that no one can ever be truly alone if she keeps the memory of those she loved and those who loved her alive in her heart. The New Year's Quilt is a novel to enjoy today and to treasure anew each holiday season.
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Sylvia spun the radio dial through pop songs and talk shows until she came upon a station playing big band versions of holiday favorites. "We should break the news to her gently," Sylvia said. "We should sit her down, give her a stiff drink, and tell her in calm, soothing voices what we've done."
"You're likely to find that drink thrown in your face," Andrew retorted. "No, we should just tell her straight out, like tearing off a bandage. The sooner we tell her, the sooner she can start getting used to the idea."
Andrew knew his daughter better than Sylvia, but she doubted the direct approach would work. "How about this?" she suggested. "We'll say, 'Amy, dear, we have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that we've gotten married. The good news is that since we got married on Christmas Eve, you won't have to buy us a separate wedding present.'"
"I don't like calling our marriage 'bad news.'"
"I don't either, but I'm sure that's how Amy will look at it."
"If she had any idea how happy I am that you finally consented to be my bride, I can't believe she'd refuse to be happy for us."
"Perhaps you should tell her how happy you are," said Sylvia. "Perhaps it will be as simple as that."
They considered that for a moment, and then in unison said, "I doubt it." Andrew chuckled, and Sylvia caressed his cheek before returning her gaze to the passing scenery, to snow-covered hills alight with the thin sunshine of a late December morning. She could not remember the last time she had been so content. Her husband of nearly two days was by her side, the pleasures of a winter honeymoon awaited them, and dear friends -- a second family -- would welcome them home to Elm Creek Manor after the New Year.
If only Andrew's daughter had not objected to the marriage, Sylvia's happiness would be complete.
She muffled a sigh, reluctant to allow Amy's perplexing disapproval to ruin her good spirits. If only she could rid her thoughts of Amy's last visit to Elm Creek Manor, of her disappointed frown and the determined set to her shoulders when she reminded her father of Sylvia's stroke two years earlier, of how deeply Andrew had grieved when Amy's mother died of cancer. Sylvia and Andrew tried their best to put Amy's concerns to rest, but she had made up her mind, and nothing they said could persuade her that their marriage would not inevitably end in sorrow. "We all would love for you to have many, many years together," Amy had said, "but the end is going to be the same."
Eventually Andrew had heard enough. "If being by your mother's side throughout her illness taught me anything, it showed me that nothing matters but sharing your life with the people you love. Your mother had a great love of life. I'm ashamed that in her memory, you want me to curl up in a corner and wait to die."
Amy went scarlet as her father stormed off. Sylvia tried to reassure Amy that she had fully recovered from her stroke, she was in excellent health for her age, and she had sufficient resources to ensure that she would not become a burden to anyone, but Amy could not be appeased. Having failed to persuade her father, Amy appealed to Sylvia instead, but although Sylvia offered a sympathetic smile to soften her words, she resented the younger woman's ridiculous implications that she was on her deathbed and spoke more bluntly than she should have. "I'm sure you mean well," she said, "but we've made our decision, and I'm afraid you're just going to have to live with it."
Amy's startled expression told Sylvia that Amy had never expected her concerns to be dismissed so quickly. How could she have expected anything else? She should have known that Andrew had too much honor to withdraw a marriage proposal merely to please stubborn children, especially when it went against his own wishes and all common sense.
Sylvia sighed as the winter scenery rushed past her window, dreading their arrival in Hartford and the unpleasant scene that was sure to unfold when Andrew broke the news that they had married on Christmas Eve. She was grateful for the reprieve their two-day honeymoon in New York City would provide, but she knew they were only delaying the inevitable. In her more optimistic moments, Sylvia hoped that Amy would set aside her foolish objections when she realized the deed was done, her father was married, and nothing would change that. More often, however, she feared that learning about the wedding after the fact would only inflame Amy's anger, and the recent months of estrangement between father and daughter would become a permanent condition.
The wedding had been lovely, for all that it had been pulled together in a matter of weeks. Sylvia and Andrew had hoped Amy would attend with her husband and three children, and naturally, they had invited Andrew's son, his wife, and their two daughters as well. Months earlier, Bob and Kathy had expressed misgivings when Andrew announced the engagement, but after the shock wore off, they seemed to accept his unexpected decision to remarry. Even Amy's husband had privately told the couple that he wished his own widowed father had been fortunate enough to find a second love as they had.
Sylvia and Andrew had invited everyone to Elm Creek Manor for Christmas without mentioning the wedding, a secret they had divulged only to the young couple that would act as witnesses and the judge who would officiate at the ceremony. They had intended to tell Andrew's children about the upcoming nuptials once they arrived at Elm Creek Manor, a few hours before Sylvia and Andrew would exchange their vows -- enough time for them to get used to the idea but not enough for them to arrange flights home before the ceremony. Perhaps, Sylvia reluctantly admitted to herself, their plan had been misguided, even underhanded, and far more likely to backfire than to win the children over. Not that it mattered. Amy had turned down the invitation with a weak excuse about wanting to spend a quiet Christmas at home, and Bob, unwilling to risk angering his sister by appearing to take sides, had stayed away, too.
They had missed a beautiful wedding. Sarah McClure, Sylvia's quilting apprentice and business partner, and her husband, Matt, had staged a holiday wonderland. The candlelit ballroom of Elm Creek Manor glimmered with poinsettias, ribbon, and evergreen boughs. Andrew had built a fire in the large fireplace, then added the nostalgic decoration of the nativity scene Sylvia's father had brought back from a visit to the Bergstroms' ancestral home in Baden-Baden, Germany. The youngest Elm Creek Quilter, Summer Sullivan, had taken charge of the musical entertainment, setting Christmas carols wafting on air fragrant with the scents of pine and cinnamon and roasted apples. Just across the dance floor, the cook and two assistants -- his daughter and her best friend, or so Sylvia had overheard -- placed silver trays of hors d'oeuvres and cookies on a long table and prepared the buffet for hot dishes still simmering in the kitchen. Someone had opened the curtains covering the floor to ceiling windows on the south wall, and snowflakes fell gently against the windowpanes.
Sylvia could not have imagined a more festive place to spend a Christmas Eve.
Soon guests began to fill the ballroom -- the Elm Creek Quilters and their families, other friends from the nearby town of Waterford, college students Sylvia had befriended while participating in various research projects, and Katherine Quigley, the mayor, who was one of the few people in on Sylvia and Andrew's secret. Cocktails were served, followed by a delicious meal of roasted Cornish game hen with cranberry walnut dressing that reminded Sylvia all over again why some quilters claimed they came to Elm Creek Quilt Camp for the food alone. Summer put some big band tunes on the CD player and led her boyfriend to the dance floor. Other couples joined them, and soon the room was alive with laughter, music, and the warmth of friendship.
"I don't think I've ever had a happier Christmas Eve," said Sylvia as she danced with Andrew. "I hate to see it end."
"Is that so?" He regarded her, eyebrows raised. "Does that mean you've changed your mind?"
"Of course not," she said, lowering her voice as the song ended. "In fact, I was just about to suggest we get started."
He brought her hands to his lips. "I was hoping you'd say that."
Sylvia signaled to Sarah, who found Mayor Quigley in the crowd and told her that the time had come. Andrew smiled as Sylvia fidgeted with her bouquet. "Nervous?"
"Not at all," she said. "I just hope our friends will forgive us."
"They'll have to, once we remind them that you and I never said anything about waiting until June."
"May I have everyone's attention, please?" called Sarah over the noise of the crowd. Someone turned down the volume on the stereo. "On behalf of Sylvia and Andrew and everyone who considers Elm Creek Manor a home away from home, thank you for joining us on this very special Christmas Eve."
Everyone applauded, except Andrew, who straightened his tie, and Sylvia, who took the arm of her groom.
"It is also my honor and great pleasure," said Sarah, "to inform you that you are here not only to celebrate Christmas, but also the wedding of our two dear friends, Sylvia Compson and Andrew Cooper."
Gasps of surprise and excitement quickly gave way to cheers. Sylvia felt her cheeks growing hot as their many friends turned to them, applauding and calling their names.
"You said June," one of the Elm Creek Quilters protested.
"No, you said June," retorted Sylvia.
"But I already bought my dress and picked out your gown!"
All present burst into laughter, and, joining in as loudly as anyone, Sarah held up her hands for quiet. "If you would all gather around, Andrew would like to escort his beautiful bride down the aisle."
The crowd parted to make way for the couple, and Summer slipped away to the CD player. As the first strains of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" filled the air, Sylvia and Andrew walked among their guests to where the mayor waited.
To Sylvia, every moment of the simple ceremony rang as true as a crystal chime. They pledged to be true, faithful, respectful, and loving to each other until the end of their days. They listened, hand in hand, as the mayor reminded them of the significance and irrevocability of their promises. They exchanged rings, and when they kissed, the room erupted in cheers and applause. As Sarah and Matt came forward to sign the marriage license, Sylvia looked out upon the assembled friends wiping their eyes and smiling, and she knew that she and Andrew had wed surrounded by love, exactly as they knew they should.
If only Andrew's children and grandchildren had come to share this moment. If only they could be as happy for Sylvia and Andrew as their friends were. Sylvia looked up at her new husband and saw in his eyes that he shared her wistful thoughts.
She reached up to touch his cheek. He put his hand over hers, and smiled.
IT HAD TRULY BEEN a marvelous wedding, exactly the celebration she and Andrew had wanted. Even the Elm Creek Quilters had enjoyed themselves too much to complain that they would have to abandon their own plans for a June wedding.
The only shadow cast upon their happiness was the absence of Andrew's family.
Sylvia, who considered herself something of an expert on the subject of familial estrangement and its consequences, knew that Amy was the key. If they could win her over, the others would follow, relieved to see family harmony restored. Amy had clearly inherited her father's stubbornness, but with any luck, she had also inherited his kind heart.
As Bing Crosby crooned "I'll Be Home for Christmas," Sylvia forced her worries aside and reached into the back seat for her tote bag. Mindful of Andrew's travel mug in the cup holder between them, still half-full of coffee from the Bear's Paw Inn, she took out her current work-in-progress, a patchwork quilt in blues, golds, and whites with touches of black scattered here and there wherever the whim had struck her. The quilt had a wintry feel to it, or so she had always thought, and it had suited her to work on it when the days were short and the nights long and cold. In recent months, she had decided to finish the quilt once and for all, and not only for the satisfaction of crossing another item off her Unfinished Fabric Object list. The one task that remained was to sew on the binding, the outermost strip of fabric that concealed the raw edges of the quilt top, batting, and lining. Usually Sylvia found such simple handwork tedious, the least creative and enjoyable task of the quilting art, but today she welcomed the distraction.
Andrew glanced over as she threaded her needle. "Is that our wedding quilt?"
"I'm sorry, dear, but it isn't." Deftly Sylvia drew her needle through the raw edge of the quilt, hid the knot within the batting, and began sewing the binding to the back of the quilt with small, barely visible ladder stitches. "It's only a lap quilt, not big enough for our bed. You'll have to wait a few months if you want a wedding quilt from me."
"Maybe the Elm Creek Quilters will make us one."
They were her dearest, closest friends, so perhaps they would. On the other hand..."After they've had a chance to recover from their surprise, they might."
Andrew grinned. "And if they forgive us for denying them the wedding of their dreams?"
"Precisely." In sharp contrast to Andrew's children, the Elm Creek Quilters had been so delighted by the announcement of their engagement that they had been carried away with wedding-planning enthusiasm. Sylvia felt a twinge of guilt for spoiling their plans after her friends had gone to the trouble of choosing the wedding cake, finding the perfect wedding gown in a bridal magazine, and setting the date for the ceremony after a comparison of their schedules ruled out half the Saturdays in June, but it had to be done. Sylvia and Andrew couldn't bear the thought of putting on an enormous production knowing that his children would refuse to attend. This way, they could make themselves believe that Amy and Bob and their families would have come for Christmas if they had known that a wedding would take place. This way, in the years to come, Andrew's children would not be haunted by guilt for refusing to attend their father's wedding.
Sylvia hoped to spare Amy and Bob regrets they were too young to know lay ahead of them.
"Though it's not our wedding quilt," Andrew said, "it still must be important or you wouldn't have brought it along on our honeymoon."
"It is, indeed." Sylvia spread it open on her lap so he could glimpse more of the colorful patchwork, although he would not truly be able to appreciate the quilt's loveliness in such cramped quarters. "It's a quilt for the season. I call it New Year's Reflections."
"Reflections, not resolutions?"
"Reflections should precede resolutions, or so I've always thought."
Andrew shook his head. "I don't believe in making New Year's resolutions. If someone needs to change, they should change, and not wait for the New Year to do it."
"Some people don't have your self-discipline," said Sylvia, smiling. "Some people need an important occasion to herald a time for change."
"Some people, meaning yourself?"
"Perhaps. I'm very much in favor of New Year's resolutions, and I support anyone who chooses to make one. They are a sign of optimism and hope in an increasingly cynical world. Someone who makes a New Year's resolution is declaring that they have hope, that they believe they can improve their lives, that we can change our world for the better."
"You don't need to change. I wouldn't change a thing about you."
"Spoken like a true newlywed," teased Sylvia. "It's very good that you don't want to change me, because you can't, you know. And it's not because women of a certain age are set in their ways or any such nonsense. No one can make another person change. One has to change oneself."
But that did not mean a caring friend couldn't point out a new direction to someone headed down the wrong road, and hope they took heed. The New Year's Reflections quilt never failed to remind her of that, or that a new path chosen without careful reflection would lead even the most resolute traveler in a broad circle, back to where she had begun, and no better off than when she had set out on her journey.
Andrew fell silent while Sylvia methodically sewed down the binding, each stitch bringing her closer to the completion of an on-again, off-again quilt nearly six years in the making. Out of the corner of one eye, she observed Andrew frowning slightly as he pondered the mystery of her quilt's presence on their honeymoon. "Did you bring the quilt because last year you resolved to finish it before midnight on New Year's Eve, and you're running out of time?"
"No," said Sylvia with a little laugh. "I brought it along because it's a gift for Amy."
"But we sent the kids their Christmas presents weeks ago."
"It's not a Christmas gift. It's a New Year's gift." Sylvia hesitated before deciding to tell him the whole truth. He was, after all, her husband now. "It's a gift to thank her for accepting my marriage to her father."
Andrew shot her a look of utter bewilderment. "But she didn't," he said, quickly returning his gaze to the road ahead. "She doesn't. She made that perfectly clear when I told her I was going to marry you whether she liked it or not. Sylvia, I think you should prepare yourself. This peace offering of yours -- it's a pretty quilt and a nice gesture, but it might not be enough. This whole trip might be a waste of time."
"I refuse to believe that," said Sylvia. This attempt at reconciliation was for the newlyweds as much as it was for Amy. It would do them some small good to know they had tried, even if Amy rebuffed them.
And while it was true that Amy had not accepted her father's engagement and almost certainly would not welcome news of his marriage, perhaps by the time the New Year dawned, she would have a change of heart. Sylvia would put her trust in the power of the season to inspire new beginnings, even if Andrew did not.
AS THEY DROVE through eastern Pennsylvania on their way to New York, Sylvia chatted with Andrew and worked on the New Year's Reflections quilt, every stitch a silent prayer that Andrew and his daughter would reconcile. She could not bear to be the cause of their estrangement. She knew all too well the ache of loneliness that filled a heart that learned forgiveness too late.
For more than fifty years, bitterness and grief had separated Sylvia from the home she loved -- and the sister whom she blamed unfairly as the cause of all her sorrow. Every New Year had offered her an opportunity to start over, but she had stubbornly awaited an apology that never came, an apology she perhaps did not deserve. Only after Claudia's death did Sylvia return to Elm Creek Manor and discover that her sister had missed her and had longed for her return. If only Sylvia had not cut off her ties so completely, Claudia might have been able to find her, to send word to her, to offer the apology Sylvia had resolutely awaited. If only Sylvia had not allowed obstinate pride to prevent her from reaching out to Claudia first.
Sylvia would not allow Andrew and Amy to repeat her mistakes. Some good had to come of her hard-earned lessons. Their disagreement was not longstanding; surely the wound would heal if they tended it quickly and did not allow the infection of anger to take deeper root.
Sylvia tucked the needle into the edge of the binding and held up the quilt to inspect her work. The double-fold bias strip of dark blue cotton lay smooth and straight, without a single pucker, a perfect frame for the twelve blue-and-gold patchwork blocks of her own invention, twelve variations of the traditional Mother's Favorite block.
Claudia probably would have had something to say about Sylvia's choice. Each daughter had longed to be their mother's favorite, and as a child, Sylvia had wavered between fear and certainty that she wasn't it. Claudia probably would not have believed that Sylvia had chosen the pattern despite its name, not because of it. It was visually striking, with a four-inch central square set on point by white triangles and framed by narrow strips of blue. Triangles pieced from lighter blue trapezoids and white triangles made up the corners of the block, creating a distant resemblance to the better-known Pineapple block. But Sylvia had complicated an already difficult pattern by substituting miniature patchwork blocks for the solid, four-inch squares in the centers. These blocks she had indeed chosen for their names, for their symbolism, for the memories of long-ago New Year's celebrations that came to mind whenever she worked upon the quilt.
Sylvia ran a hand over the patchwork surface, wishing the pieces of her life fit together with such precision. It was difficult to look to the year ahead with anticipation and hope when she could not help glancing over her shoulder with regret at the mistakes of the past. Throughout her long, lonely exile from Elm Creek Manor, picking out the threads of her past mistakes had become a New Year's Eve tradition for her, as much a part of the holiday as the countdown to midnight and "Auld Lang Syne."
It had not always been that way. She had not learned that melancholy habit at her mother's knee, or from any of the other Bergstrom women who passed down family traditions through the generations. When Sylvia was a girl, the Bergstrom family ushered in the New Year with joy and merriment whether the world beyond the gray stone walls of the family home was at peace or at war, enjoying prosperity or enduring hardship.
A lifetime ago, as 1925 approached, the Bergstrom family had had much to be thankful for: the comfortable manor large enough to accommodate their extended family, the sustenance their farm provided, the company of those they loved, and unprecedented success and prosperity mirroring the nation's rise in fortune. During the few years before, newly wealthy businessmen from as far away as Chicago and New York City had flocked to Elm Creek Manor, eager to add prized Bergstrom Thoroughbreds to their growing lists of possessions. Even little Sylvia understood that they wanted to impress friends and rivals and to prove themselves the equals of the "old money" families who had kept Bergstrom Thoroughbreds in their stables almost from the time Sylvia's great-grandfather had founded the business before the Civil War. Although Sylvia mourned the departure of each elegant mare or proud stallion, she did not complain. She knew the family owed their livelihood to these stout businessmen in fine suits who spoke in brash accents as they puffed their cigars and watched her father and uncles put the horses through their paces. She was old enough to understand that each horse the men bought meant food on their table, new dresses and shoes to wear to school, and money to pay her mother's doctor bills.
Sylvia's favorite cousin, Elizabeth, had more reason than any Bergstrom for happiness that season, as she had recently become engaged to her longtime sweetheart, Henry Nelson, a young man from a neighboring farm. The wedding plans had already begun in earnest despite the holiday because, much to Sylvia's dismay, Henry and Elizabeth planned to marry at the end of March and move to California, where Henry had purchased a cattle ranch.
Sylvia had never liked Henry. Whenever he came around, Elizabeth forgot her favorite little cousin and went off riding or walking or picking apples with Henry instead. When he stayed for supper, he took Sylvia's chair at the table without even asking permission, as if he had more right to sit at Elizabeth's side than Sylvia. No matter how often Sylvia scowled at him or spoke impertinently or squeezed herself between Henry and Elizabeth when they sat by the fire turning pages of a book, Henry seemed stupidly unaware of how unwelcome he was. Whenever Elizabeth visited from Harrisburg, Henry included himself in every holiday gathering at Elm Creek Manor, and he wasn't even family.
But he would be, soon. Sylvia felt sick at heart as she realized that when Henry and Elizabeth married, she would lose her favorite playmate and confidante forever.
Even Elizabeth's promise that Sylvia and Claudia could be flower girls at the wedding did nothing to console her. Instead, Sylvia strengthened her resolve to persuade Henry to go away and never come back. If he went to California without Elizabeth, that would be best of all, but Sylvia would be satisfied if he stayed on the other side of the fence separating the Nelson farm from the Bergstroms'.
Sylvia tried her best, but she was not naturally devious and she had to be careful not to raise the ire of her parents, aunts, and uncles, who did not seem to realize that Henry had to be stopped. One day, inspiration struck as she came upon Henry waiting in the parlor while Elizabeth finished a wedding gown fitting upstairs with Sylvia's mother and aunts. "Is Elizabeth still crying?" she asked him, strolling into the room and plopping down on her grandma's favorite upholstered chair.
Henry regarded her warily. "What do you mean?"
Sylvia fingered a loose thread on the ottoman and did her best to look nonchalant. "Oh, you know. She's always crying these days. Grandpa says she's 'turning on the waterworks.'"
"Is that so?" Henry's brow furrowed. "Do you know what she's crying about?"
"I'm not sure. She never cries when she's with me." Sylvia felt a thrill of delight when Henry's frown deepened. "But I heard her tell my mama..."
"What?" Henry prompted.
"I'm not supposed to listen at doors."
"I won't tell anyone."
Henry nodded, barely containing his impatience. "Of course. Go on. What did Elizabeth say?"
"She told my mama that it would break her heart to go to California and never see her family again."
Henry sat back in his chair. "She said that?"
Sylvia nodded. What Elizabeth had really said was that she would miss Elm Creek Manor terribly and she dreaded the moment of her departure, but she loved Henry and it would break her heart to stay behind and let him go to California without her. That was what Elizabeth had said, but Sylvia knew Elizabeth and she understood the real meaning hidden behind her words. Henry was wrong to take her away, and since Elizabeth was too afraid to hurt his feelings, it was up to Sylvia to tell him the truth.
Henry rose and strode from the room. Sylvia jumped up and peered through the doorway after him, but her heart sank in dismay when she spied him crossing the black marble floor of the front foyer on his way to the grand oak staircase instead of slinking off down the west wing hallway to the back door. Jolted by guilty alarm, she hurried off the way Henry should have chosen, barely pausing to pull on her boots and coat before racing outside into the snow.
She hid out in the barn, keeping warm in the hayloft while the cows scuffed their hooves and lowed complaints below. She had missed lunch, and her stomach growled. When her mittened fingers grew numb, she had no choice but to return indoors. Henry's boots no longer stood in a puddle of melted snow just inside the back door. She tried to find encouragement in his absence, but her stomach was a knot of worry.
She tiptoed upstairs to the nursery to find her mother and Claudia sitting on the window seat reading a book. Claudia glared, accusatory and triumphant. Sylvia could not bear to meet her mother's gaze.
"Claudia, darling, would you please wait for me downstairs?" Sylvia's mother asked.
"Now you're going to get it," Claudia whispered, brushing past Sylvia on the way out the door.
"Sylvia, come here." Her mother patted the window seat.
Sylvia obeyed, dragging her feet across the nursery floor. She sat beside her mother, eyes downcast, and did not resist when her mother took her hands. "Goodness, Sylvia," she exclaimed, chafing her daughter's hands with her own. "You're half frozen. Where have you been hiding?"
"In the barn."
"I would have guessed the stable -- you love the horses so much."
The stable would have been Sylvia's first choice, but she would have risked discovery there. Her father and uncles were in and out of the stable all day, tending the horses.
Mama was silent for a moment, but then she sighed. "Darling, I know how much you love Elizabeth. I know you're going to miss her when she goes to California. But Elizabeth loves Henry, and she is going to marry him. Being mean to him won't change that."
Tears sprang into Sylvia's eyes. Henry had told on her. She had always known he couldn't be trusted.
"I suppose I've been too lenient. I've excused your little pranks because of the holidays, because I know how much you admire your cousin, how important it is for you to be her favorite..." The distant look in her mother's eyes suddenly disappeared, and she fixed Sylvia with a firm but loving gaze. "I'm sure you want what's best for Elizabeth. She loves Henry, and Henry loves her. Our family has known him since long before you were born. If I thought he wouldn't make her happy, if I suspected for one moment that he wasn't a good man, don't you think I'd be with her right this moment trying to talk her out of it?"
"I..." Sylvia had not thought about it. "I guess so."
"Once, long ago, I almost married the wrong man for the wrong reasons, so trust me when I say I've learned to recognize a bad match -- " Mama caught herself. "But that's a story for another day. The problem, Sylvia, isn't Elizabeth's choice or your feelings about it. The real problem is that you lied." Surprised, Sylvia blurted, "No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did. It was very naughty of you to tell Henry that Elizabeth doesn't want to go to California with him. It was wrong for you to make him think he was making her unhappy."
But he was making her unhappy. He made Elizabeth cry. Elizabeth didn't want to leave Elm Creek Manor; Sylvia had heard her tell Mama so. "But I didn't lie. What I said was true, I know it was."
"Sylvia." The single word, gently spoken, was reproach enough for Sylvia. She knew she hadn't lied, but Mama believed she had and could not hide her disappointment. Sylvia wished she had never come in from the barn. The one rule her father and the other grown-ups of the household upheld before all others was that no one should upset Mama. She had suffered a terrible illness that had injured her heart when she was a little girl no bigger than Sylvia. Although Father could not stop Mama from romping with the children in the nursery or riding her favorite horse, his worried admonitions alarmed the girls and made them cautious. Whenever Mama was forced to take to her bed, Sylvia hid from Dr. Granger as he raced up the steps, black bag in hand, certain he would scold her for whatever she had done to make his visit necessary.
What if, by trying to keep Elizabeth close, Sylvia had harmed Mama?
Sylvia flung her arms around her mother. "I'm sorry," she said, her voice muffled by her mother's sweater.
Mama stroked Sylvia's long, tangled curls. "It's all right, darling. I know you won't do it again. I can't ask you to like Henry, but for all our sakes, please try to be kinder to him. Perhaps for the New Year you can make a fresh start. Elizabeth loves him. Perhaps you can resolve to try to love him a little, too."
Sylvia couldn't imagine ever feeling anything but anger and resentment for Henry, especially now that he had turned out to be a big tattletale, but she nodded to please her mother. She wished the grown-ups understood that she was only doing what was best for everyone. She could not imagine how Elizabeth would ever be happy, so far away in California with only dreary Henry for company.
Concealing her dislike wouldn't be easy, but Sylvia would have to try because the alternative was to hide in her room until the holidays passed, and she couldn't bear to miss out on all the fun. This year, Great-Aunt Lucinda had decided to revive an old tradition her parents and aunt had brought to America from Germany, a Sylvester Ball on New Year's Eve. The last time the Bergstrom family had celebrated the night of Holy St. Sylvester was before Sylvia was born, so Sylvia had no memory of those happy occasions. Great-Aunt Lucinda said there would be dancing, singing, and lots of delicious treats to eat and drink. She also promised Sylvia that she and Claudia could stay up until midnight to welcome the New Year. Sylvia knew that any more naughtiness could cost her that privilege, so she vowed to behave herself, at least until January 2.
Snow fell on the morning of December 31. Sylvia and Claudia spent most of the day outside, sledding and building snowmen, until their mother called them inside for a nap. Claudia went inside without complaint, but Sylvia balked at going to bed in the middle of the day. Only when her mother warned her that she would never be able to stay up until midnight if she did not rest first did she reluctantly come inside.
Cousin Elizabeth passed her on the landing, breathless, her golden curls bouncing, her eyes alight with pleasure and mischief. How could Sylvia not adore her? "Hello, little Sylvia," Elizabeth sang, sweeping her up in a hug. "Where are you off to on this last day of the year?"
When Sylvia reported that she had been sent to bed, Elizabeth gave her a quizzical frown. "You don't look sleepy to me."
"I'm not," said Sylvia, glum. "Naps are for babies."
"I couldn't agree more. Come on." Elizabeth took her by the hand and quickly led her up another flight of stairs to the nursery. "This is your first big dance, and we don't have a lot of time to get ready."
Sylvia threw a quick, anxious glance over her shoulder, but no one was around to report to her mother. "Claudia will tell on me when I don't come to bed."
"Oh, don't worry about her. When I passed your room she was already snoring away. She'll never know what time you came in."
Sylvia hated to disobey her mother so soon after resolving to be good, but a chance to spend time alone with Elizabeth might not come again for a very long while, if ever. She tightened her grasp on her cousin's hand until they shut the nursery door behind them. Elizabeth slid a chair in place beneath the doorknob. "That'll give you time to hide should anyone come snooping," said Elizabeth. "We'll have to keep our voices down. Take off your shoes and show me what you know."
Sylvia took off her Mary Janes and bravely demonstrated the few ballet steps her mother had taught her and Claudia, half-afraid that Elizabeth would laugh and send her off to take a nap after all. Then she stood in first position, awaiting her cousin's verdict. "Well, you're not a lost cause," said Elizabeth. "In fact, that's a very good beginning. I started out in ballet myself. Your aunt Millie insisted. But that's not the kind of dancing we're going to be doing tonight. You have a lot to learn and not a lot of time."
Elizabeth took her hands and, over the next two hours, introduced Sylvia to grown-up dances she called the fox-trot, the quickstep, and one Sylvia had seen her parents do -- the waltz. When Sylvia proved to be an apt pupil, Elizabeth praised her and taught her the tango and the Charleston. Dancing hand in hand with her cousin, gliding over the wood floor in her stocking feet, smothering laughter and asking questions in stage whispers, Sylvia realized she had not been so happy since before Elizabeth announced her engagement. Henry Nelson seemed very far away, as if he had already gone off to California, alone.
Sylvia gladly would have danced on until the guests arrived, but suddenly Elizabeth glanced at the clock and exclaimed that they had better return downstairs quickly and get dressed if they didn't want the neighbors to catch them in their underthings. Giggling, Sylvia crept downstairs to her bedroom, where she rumpled her quilt, opened the blinds, and woke Claudia, who never suspected her sister had not just risen from a nap herself.
Soon Mama bustled in, slim and elegant in her black velveteen gown, to make sure the girls had scrubbed their hands and faces and put on their best winter dresses. Sylvia's was only a hand-me-down, Claudia reminded her, while her own was new; Grandma had sewn it for her especially.
"Now, girls, don't bicker," said Mama, brushing the tangles from Sylvia's hair and tying it back with a ribbon that matched the dark green trim of Claudia's outgrown dress. Sylvia wanted to protest that she wasn't bickering, that Claudia was the only one who had spoken, but she had already upset Mama once that day and didn't want to push her luck, even if it meant letting Claudia get the last word.
Soon the guests arrived, friends and neighbors from nearby farms and the town of Waterford, two miles away. Sylvia stuck close to Elizabeth until Henry Nelson arrived with his family and Elizabeth dashed off to welcome them. Sylvia scowled at them from across the foyer as Elizabeth kissed his cheek and helped his mother out of her coat. It didn't matter. When the dance began, Elizabeth would come back. Hadn't she said that Sylvia was a swell partner? Hadn't they spent two hours practicing? Hadn't she declared that together they would show everyone what Bergstrom girls could do?
The Sylvester Ball began with a supper of lentil soup, followed by pork and sauerkraut. Pork roasted with apples was one of Sylvia's favorite dishes, and she loved Great-Aunt Lucinda's sauerkraut, chopped much finer than Great-Aunt Lydia's, mildly flavored, and thickened with barley. Since the Bergstroms enjoyed pork and sauerkraut every New Year -- although they usually ate the meal on New Year's Day rather than the night before -- Sylvia was surprised to see some of their neighbors wrinkling their noses at the aromatic, fermented cabbage. "Try it," she urged Rosemary, Henry's younger sister, but Rosemary shook her head and gingerly pushed the shredded cabbage around her plate with her fork. A few of the more reluctant guests took tentative bites only after Great-Aunt Lucinda insisted that the meal would bring them good luck in the year to come. Germans considered pigs to be good luck, she explained, because back in the old days, a farm family who had a pig to feed them through the long, cold winter was fortunate indeed. "Why do you think children save their pennies in piggy banks," she asked, "when any animal could have done as well?" And since cabbage leaves were symbolic of money, a meal of pork and sauerkraut would help secure good fortune throughout the New Year.
"Dig in, son," Uncle George advised his future son-in-law, and Henry gamely took an impressive portion of sauerkraut. Sylvia wished he had refused. That would have convinced everyone that he didn't belong in the family.
Afterward, the party resumed in the ballroom, where the musicians Uncle George had hired from Harrisburg struck up a lively tune that beckoned couples to the dance floor. Sylvia looked around for Elizabeth, but Claudia grabbed Sylvia's hand and dragged her over to a corner where they could play ring-around-the-rosie in time to the music. Sylvia had no interest whatsoever in playing a baby game to what was obviously a quickstep, but when she saw Elizabeth on Henry's arm, she gloomily played along to appease Claudia. When the song ended, she slipped away and wove through the crowd to Elizabeth, but now her beautiful cousin was waltzing with Uncle George, and Sylvia knew she would be scolded if she interrupted.
Her turn would come, she told herself, but dance after dance went by, and always Elizabeth was with Henry, or her father, or Henry's father, or one of her uncles. Mostly she was with Henry. When she finally sat out a dance, Sylvia raced to her side. "There you are," Elizabeth exclaimed, and as far as Sylvia could tell, her cousin was delighted to see her. "Are you having a good time?"
Sylvia was miserable, but Elizabeth could easily fix that. "Can I have a turn to dance with you?"
Elizabeth fanned herself with her hand. "Absolutely, right after I rest with some of your father's punch." She looked around for Henry, but Sylvia quickly volunteered to get Elizabeth a cup, and she hurried off through the crowd of dancers and onlookers to the fireplace at the opposite end of the room.
Her father sat by the fireside, joking with his brothers and Henry's father, who waited impatiently to sample her father's renowned Feuerzangenbowle. Into a large black kettle he had emptied two bottles of red wine, some of the last of his wine cellar. Sylvia caught the aroma of rich wine and spices -- cinnamon, allspice, cardamom -- and the sweet fruity fragrances of lemon and orange. Her father stirred the steaming brew, careful to keep the fire just high enough to heat the punch without boiling.
"At this rate it'll be midnight before we can wet our whistles, Fred," one of the neighbors teased.
"If you're too thirsty to wait, have some coffee and save the punch for more patient men," Sylvia's father retorted with a grin. "Sylvia can show you to the kitchen."
Sylvia froze while the men laughed, relaxing only when she realized none of the men intended to take her father up on his offer. Although many of their neighbors of German descent had brewed their own beer long before Prohibition, few could obtain fine European wines like those Father's customers offered him to sweeten their deals. They wouldn't leave the fireside without a glass of Father's famous punch, and neither would Sylvia. She was determined to serve Elizabeth before Henry did, to prove just how unnecessary he was.
Father traded the long-handled spoon for a sturdy pair of tongs, grasped a sugar cone, and held it over the kettle. With his left hand, he slowly poured rum over the sugar cone, or Zuckerhut as the older Bergstroms called it, and let the liquor soak in to the fine, compressed sugar. At Father's signal, Uncle William came forward, withdrew a wooden skewer from the fire, and set the sugar cone on fire. Sylvia watched, entranced, as the bluish flame danced across the sugar cone and carmelized the sugar, which dripped into the steaming punch below. When the flame threatened to flicker out, her father poured more rum over the Zuckerhut until the bottle was empty and the sugar melted away. With a sigh of anticipated pleasure, the uncles and neighbors pressed forward with their cups as Father picked up the ladle and began to serve. Sylvia found herself pushed to the back of the crowd, and not until the last of the eager grown-ups had taken their mugs from the fireside was she able to approach her father.
He eyed her with amusement. "This isn't a drink for little girls."
"It's not for me." Sylvia glanced over her shoulder and spied Elizabeth still seated where Sylvia had left her, laughing with Rosemary, Henry's sister. "It's for Elizabeth."
"I don't know if Elizabeth should be drinking this, either."
"If she's not old enough for punch, maybe she's not old enough to get married."
Her father was so astonished that he rocked back on his heels and laughed. Sylvia flushed and turned away, but her father caught her by the arm. "Very well, little miss, you may take your cousin some punch. Mind you don't sample it along the way."
Sylvia nodded and held very still as her father ladled steaming punch into her teacup. With small, careful steps, she skirted the dance floor and made her way back to Elizabeth. She scowled to find that Henry had replaced Rosemary at Elizabeth's side.
"Here you go," Sylvia said, presenting the cup to her cousin. Elizabeth thanked her and took it with both hands. Pleased with herself and relieved that she had accomplished the task without spilling a single drop, she sat down on the floor at her cousin's feet, ready to block her path should Henry take her hand and attempt to lead her to the dance floor.
"Your father won't be happy to see you drinking," Henry warned in a low voice that Sylvia barely overheard.
"My father is the last person who should complain about anyone's drinking."
"He's not drinking tonight."
"Yes, and don't you find it interesting that he can exercise some self-control while all the family is watching, and yet he can't muster up any fortitude at home?"
Sylvia heard Henry shift in his chair to take Elizabeth's cup. "Maybe you've had too much already. You're not used to this stuff."
"Henry, that's truly not necessary. I only had a sip -- "
Infuriated, Sylvia spun around to glare at him. "My daddy made that punch and it's very good. You're just mad because I brought it to her instead of you. You have to spoil everything!"
Henry regarded her for a moment, expressionless, his hands frozen around Elizabeth's as she clutched the cup. A thin wisp of steam rose between them. "Never mind," said Henry, dropping his hands to his lap. "If you want to drink it, drink it."
"No, no, that's fine." Elizabeth passed him the cup so quickly he almost spilled it. "I'm not thirsty after all."
Henry clearly didn't believe her, but he set the cup aside. "Do you want to go for a walk?"
"I promised Sylvia I would dance with her."
Sylvia was too overcome with relief that Elizabeth had not forgotten her promise to pay any attention to Henry's reply. When he rose and walked away, she promptly scooted his chair closer to Elizabeth's and sat down upon it. Absently, Elizabeth took her hand and watched the dancers in silence. Sylvia pretended not to notice that her cousin was troubled. Elizabeth was here, she was going to give Sylvia her turn, and Sylvia was not going to probe her with questions that might make her too unhappy or distracted to dance.
At last the song ended, and after a momentary pause another lively tune began. Elizabeth smiled at her and said, "Are you ready to cut a rug?"
Sylvia nodded and took her hand. Elizabeth led her to the dance floor and counted out the first few beats, then threw herself into a jaunty Charleston. Sylvia struggled to keep up at first, distracted by the music that drowned out Elizabeth's counting and the many eyes upon them, but she stoked her courage and persevered. She felt a thrill of delight when she spotted Claudia watching them, mouth open in astonishment. Henry's disgruntled frown filled her with satisfaction, and she kicked higher and smiled broader just to spite him. Most of the guests had put aside their own dancing to gather in a circle around the two cousins as they danced side by side. Sylvia mirrored her graceful cousin's spirited steps as closely as she could, praying her family and the guests wouldn't notice her mistakes.
All too soon the song ended. Breathless and laughing, Elizabeth took Sylvia's hand and led her in a playful, sweeping bow. She blew kisses to the crowd as she guided Sylvia from the dance floor while the musicians struck up a slow foxtrot and the couples resumed dancing. To Sylvia's chagrin, Elizabeth made her way directly to the far side of the room, where Henry waited beside one of the tall windows overlooking the elm grove and the creek, invisible in the darkness. He had eyes only for Elizabeth as they approached.
"You've been practicing," he remarked, smiling at her with fond amusement.
"I have to do something to keep myself busy when I'm bored and lonely back home in Harrisburg and you're tending the farm up here. Did you think I sat home every night pining for you?"
"I had hoped so." He slid his arm around Elizabeth's waist and pulled her close. Sylvia tried to keep hold of Elizabeth's hand, but her cousin's slender fingers slipped from her grasp. Elizabeth laughed and kissed Henry's cheek. He murmured something in her ear, and Sylvia was struck by the certainty that she had been entirely forgotten.
Unnoticed, she slipped away from the couple and searched out her mother. Mama's face lit up at the sight of her. "I had no idea you were such a fine dancer," she said, pulling Sylvia into a hug.
"Elizabeth taught me." And now that they had shown everyone what Bergstrom girls could do, Elizabeth had returned to Henry. Sylvia had done her best, but anyone could see that Henry was her cousin's favorite dance partner, no matter what she had declared as they practiced in the nursery.
Sylvia climbed onto her mother's lap and watched the dancing for a while, her eyelids drooping. When her mother offered to take her upstairs to bed, Sylvia roused herself and insisted that she meant to stay up until midnight, like everyone else. She went off to find Claudia, who demanded that Sylvia teach her the Charleston. Sylvia showed her the few steps she knew, but dancing with Claudia was not as much fun as performing with Elizabeth, and she soon lost interest. When she spotted Great-Aunt Lucinda carrying a tray of her delicious Pfannkuchen to the dessert table, she hurried over and took two of the delicious jelly-filled doughnuts. Licking sugar from her fingertips, she considered taking a plate to Elizabeth, but her lovely cousin was once again circling the dance floor in Henry's arms. He was not much of a dancer, Sylvia observed spitefully. He knew the steps well enough but he seemed to be going through the motions without a scrap of enjoyment. But Elizabeth was having a wonderful time, and Sylvia could not pretend otherwise.
She finished her dessert and went off to find a dance partner. She would show Elizabeth that she, too, could have just as much fun with someone else.
Her father was pleased by her invitation to dance, as was her grandpa after him. Claudia found her and they made up their own dance, holding hands and spinning around in a circle until they became so dizzy they fell down. When they had come too close to crashing into dancing aunts and uncles too many times, their mother begged them to find some other way to amuse themselves. At that moment the musicians took a break, and Great-Aunt Lucinda called everyone to the fireside for Bleigiessen. "See what the New Year will bring you," she joked. "Unless you'd rather not know."
Only Grandma, who found fortune-telling unsettling, declined. "I'd rather have another jelly doughnut than a prediction of bad news," she said, settling into a chair near the dessert table, waving off the others' teasing protests that she should not assume that the news would be bad.
Sylvia, who had seen lead pouring on other New Year's Eves, knew that the game would almost certainly promise good fortune to everyone, since the funny shapes were rarely so obvious that the observers could reach only one conclusion. She darted through the crowd and found a seat on the floor close to the fireside. Great-Aunt Lucinda went first, melting a small piece of lead in an old spoon held above the flames. When it had turned to liquid, she poured it into a bowl of water, and everyone bent closer to see what shape the lead would take.
"It looks like a pretzel," Great-Aunt Lydia declared. "You're going to become a baker."
Everyone laughed. "I'm already a baker," said Great-Aunt Lucinda, passing the spoon to a neighbor. Everyone who had ever tried her delicious cookies or apple strudel chimed in their agreement.
One by one family and friends held the spoon over the fire, poured the melted lead into the water, and interpreted the shapes the metal took as it rapidly cooled. Those gathered around broke into cheers and applause when stars or fish promised good luck, when triangles promised financial improvement, or bells heralded good news. They burst into laughter when one elderly widow's lead formed an unmistakable egg shape, announcing the imminent birth of a child. "It must mean a grandchild," she speculated, but that did not stop her friends from teasing her, claiming that if she had tried Bleigiessen the previous New Year's Eve, the lead surely would have taken the shape of a mouse, symbolic of a secret love.
When Sylvia's father took a turn, an anchor shape showed that he would find assistance in an emergency. The crowd mulled this over while Aunt Millie took the spoon, for while it was good to know that he would have help in a time of need, it would be better to avoid the emergency altogether. "This Bleigiessen isn't very helpful after all," said Aunt Millie as the lead shavings turned to liquid over the fire. "It tells you just enough to worry you, and not enough to steer you clear of trouble." With that, she poured the lead into the bowl of water and exclaimed with delight when the lead sank and hardened into a lopsided cylinder she insisted was a cake.
"That doesn't look like any cake I'd want to taste," said Great-Aunt Lucinda.
"We can't all be bakers, like you," Aunt Millie retorted. "We all know that a cake means a celebration is coming, and of course that must refer to the wedding." With that, she handed the spoon to her future son-in-law.
Sylvia inched forward, holding her breath as Henry melted the lead then shrugged noncommittally as he poured it upon the water. The liquid metal thinned and elongated as it sank to the bottom of the bowl, and a gasp went up from the onlookers as two interlocking rings appeared. Sylvia waited, willing the rings to break, for that meant separation -- and perhaps, perhaps, an end to the engagement. She waited, but the rings remained stubbornly joined.
"I've never seen rings form like that," Great-Aunt Lydia breathed. "A single ring alone signifies a wedding. Rings joined in this fashion surely indicate that you two will have a happy, enduring marriage. Congratulations, young man."
Henry's skepticism promptly vanished, and he flashed a grin to his future bride, who beamed and reached for his hand. Sylvia muffled a groan of disgust and snatched up the spoon from the hearth. She hoped for a ball to announce that good luck would roll her way, but instead the figure in the bowl resembled Grandma's eyeglasses. Sylvia scowled as her family debated which of the two possible interpretations to choose, whether she would one day be very wise or very old, and decided that old age was the more likely of the two. "It could be both," she protested, handing the spoon to her sister. "Why not both?" And why did her family -- with the exception of her mother and Great-Aunt Lucinda -- find it so difficult to believe that Sylvia could one day be wise?
Claudia went next, biting her lip hopefully as she peered into the bowl of water. "What is it?" she asked. "A tree? An arrow? What does it mean?"
"Looks like an ax to me," offered a neighbor.
When Claudia turned to Great-Aunt Lucinda for confirmation, the older woman reluctantly nodded. "It does resemble a hatchet."
"You saw one of those yourself, when we were girls," cried Great-Aunt Lydia. "Oh, but that can't be right. For you, perhaps, but not for pretty little Claudia."
"Thank you, sister dear," said Great-Aunt Lucinda dryly, and when the guests pressed her for an explanation, she held up her hands to quiet them. "Now, now, it's supposed to mean that you'll find disappointment in love, but take heart, Claudia. The fortune is only meant to tell you what the year ahead may bring, not what might happen when you're a grown woman. I don't think you need to worry about being unlucky in love at your age."
Claudia held back tears. "But what if it's not just for the year ahead? What if it's for my whole life?" A few well-meaning women reached out to comfort her, but she shook off their reassurances. "Sylvia won't reach old age in a single year, but that's what her fortune says."
"Many of these symbols have more than one meaning," Aunt Millie reminded her. "Your hatchet must mean something else."
"Maybe you're going to become a lumberjack," Sylvia suggested.
Claudia glared at her as the adults rocked with laughter. "Make jokes if you want. I don't think this game is fun anymore." She flounced off to join Grandma by the dessert table.
"After that, I'm almost afraid to take a turn," said Elizabeth, reaching for the spoon Claudia had flung down on the hearth. With a quick smile for Henry, she melted a few of the remaining lead shavings and let them fall from the spoon into the water. At first the lead gathered itself up into a ball -- "Good luck will roll your way," an onlooker said -- but then a dimple appeared along one side, and the opposite edge seemed to flatten.
"A heart," Henry's mother announced, beaming at her future daughter-in-law. "Elizabeth has found true love."
As Elizabeth's face glowed from happiness in the firelight, Sylvia boiled over with impatience. "That's not a heart," she declared. "A heart has a pointed tip. That looks like...like a piece of fruit, that's all."
Elizabeth gazed into the bowl, her smile slowly fading. Then she looked up and gave Sylvia a wistful smile. "I suppose you're right." She turned away to gaze into the bowl. "The question is, what sort of fruit, and what does it mean?"
"It looks like an apricot to me," said Great-Aunt Lucinda. "See the slightly elongated shape, and the indentation along the edge? That part could be the stem -- "
"It's a heart," said Henry's mother, but less convincingly.
"Maybe it's an orange," said Henry, making his way to the fireside. He offered Elizabeth his hand and helped her to her feet. "An orange ripening on a tree in a grove on a ranch in sunny southern California."
"It's an apple," Sylvia shot back. "It looks exactly like one of the apples we picked from our own trees last autumn."
"Whatever variety of fruit it may be," Sylvia's mother broke in gently, "I think we can all agree on the meaning. For Elizabeth, the year ahead is certain to be sweet and good and flavorful."
All of the adults chimed in their agreement, but Sylvia scowled, pretending not to notice her mother's warning look. The shape was an apple and it meant that Elizabeth ought to stay close to Elm Creek Manor, where she could enjoy the harvest year after year.
Only a few lead shavings remained when Sylvia's mother came forward to try her hand. A few guests who had wandered away from the game returned to the fireside to see what the future held for their beloved hostess. Sylvia saw neighbors exchange glances and overheard their whispers, and her heart swelled with pride. Everyone loved Mama, and everyone wanted her to receive the best fortune of the evening. Sylvia hoped that the lead would take the shape of a cow, which represented healing, and she resolved to call the lump of lead a cow if it even remotely resembled any four-legged animal. If Elizabeth and Henry's mother could interpret the figures liberally to suit themselves, so could she.
Sylvia's mother hesitated before dribbling the melted lead into the bowl of water. A hush fell over the room. Sylvia's mother bent over the bowl, then sat back on her heels and took a deep, shuddering breath. Sylvia inched closer to see, and her stomach suddenly knotted in cold, sickening dread.
The metal had hardened in the shape of a cross. There could be no mistaking it. And crosses signified death.
Someone broke the silence with a low moan, but was quickly hushed. Sylvia's mother looked around at the faces of her friends and family and forced a smile. "Perhaps I should have followed Grandma's example after all," she said, her voice trembling.
"It's just a foolish game," said Great-Aunt Lucinda. "It's not real."
"What's wrong?" said Henry. "That looks like a sign of good fortune to me."
Sylvia balled her hands into fists and glared at him. "Don't you know what crosses mean?" He was so stupid, so stupid!
"That's not a cross." Henry bent over the bowl to scrutinize the figure within, and then straightened, shaking his head. "That second line's too thin and not straight enough. Anyone can see that's a threaded needle. That has to be a good sign for a family full of quilters."
"Of course. I see it now," said Great-Aunt Lucinda quickly. "Perhaps it means you're going to make many quilts this year, Eleanor."
"Or perhaps the meaning is more symbolic," said Elizabeth. "Needles are useful and necessary, just as you are to all of us. Needles can make a home warmer and more beautiful. Needles are used for...for mending."
Henry put his arm around Elizabeth's shoulders, but his eyes were on Sylvia's mother. "Looks like you'll be doing some mending in the year ahead, Mrs. Bergstrom."
An inflection he gave the word suggested healing rather than darning socks or repairing little girls' torn hems. Sylvia's mother trembled with another deep breath, but then she offered Henry a warm, grateful smile. "Of course. I see it now." She reached out a hand, and Henry and Elizabeth helped her to her feet. "I do hope this doesn't mean I have to rush off to my sewing basket until after the party."
A ripple of laughter went through the crowd, but Sylvia caught the undercurrent of sadness. Her mother must have heard it, too, for she turned a brilliant smile on her loved ones and gestured to the musicians to strike up another tune. As the first merry notes sounded, Sylvia's father was at Mama's side, inviting her to dance.
Sylvia no longer felt like dancing. She wished that she had come up with the new interpretation of the symbol her mother had seen in the water, wished that she had been the one to protect her mother from the bleak foretelling, the one to bask in the warmth of her mother's grateful smile. And yet she felt oddly grateful to Henry for speaking up when she and everyone else had been paralyzed with foreboding. As much as she disliked him, she was glad he had been there.
Now, if only he would go home.
Sylvia curled up in an armchair and watched the couples circle the dance floor like snowflakes in a storm -- her mother resting her cheek on her father's chest, Elizabeth gazing lovingly up at Henry. They danced on, not knowing what the year ahead held in store, but determined to face the best of times and the worst of times together.
Sylvia's mother did not die in the year to come, but her weak heart did not mend itself as they all prayed it miraculously would. She had always been the peacemaker of the family, so perhaps the mending the symbol foretold was the gentling of arguments and the soothing of hurt feelings within the family circle. Or perhaps the lead shape had carried a simpler, more literal meaning, for Sylvia's mother, like all the women of the family, sewed furiously that winter, making quilts, a trousseau, and a beautiful wedding gown for Elizabeth.
For Sylvia's beloved cousin did not come to her senses as Sylvia hoped, but married Henry and left Elm Creek Manor for a ranch in southern California. Whether Elizabeth had indeed found her true love, or only oranges and apricots, Sylvia never knew, for as the years passed, letters from Triumph Ranch appeared in their mailbox less frequently until they finally stopped coming.
Sylvia's mother saw four more New Years come and go, until she finally succumbed to death quietly at home, with her loved ones around her. Doctors had been predicting her death since childhood, but no amount of time would have been enough to prepare themselves for life without her. On that dark day, they thought only of their loss, and no one remembered the lead cross she had seen in the water.
If Claudia remembered the dire prediction she had received that New Year's Eve, she never spoke of it. As a pretty and popular young woman, she enjoyed the admiration of all the young men of the Elm Creek Valley and seemed, for a time, to have escaped the unhappy fate the lead figure in the water had foretold. Her disappointment in love came many years later, after the war, after her marriage to the man whose cowardice led to the deaths of Sylvia's husband and their younger brother. This was the great betrayal that had compelled Sylvia to abandon the family home, the breach no apology could heal.
As for the eyeglasses Sylvia had seen in the bowl of water, she did indeed achieve a ripe old age. Whether she had attained wisdom as well -- that was another thing altogether. She certainly had not attained it in time to reconcile with Claudia before her death. Whenever Sylvia reflected back upon that New Year's Eve, she could not help but wonder whether the hatchet had warned not only of Claudia's unhappy marriage but also of the severing of ties between two sisters.
If ever Sylvia needed wisdom, she needed it now. She sighed and ran a hand over the quilt top, pausing to study the changes she had made to three of the Mother's Favorite blocks. For one, she had substituted a Hatchet block to remind her of the fortune Claudia had cast that long-ago winter night. A True Lover's Knot in the center of another block called to mind her parents, who had loved each other like no other man and woman Sylvia had ever known. Another block boasted an Orange Peel pattern, which Sylvia had sewn as a tribute to Elizabeth and Henry. She hoped they had been blessed with true love and all the sweetness life had to offer. How she wished she had not been so selfish, so jealous of their blossoming affection. If only she had understood that in loving Henry, Elizabeth had not depleted her heart's store of love. There had always been enough left over for her favorite little cousin. Had Sylvia not tried to keep Elizabeth's love all for herself, perhaps Elizabeth would have stayed in touch with the family. Perhaps Sylvia would know what had become of her, and why her letters from Triumph Ranch had stopped coming.
Sylvia and Andrew drove on, leaving the rolling, forested hills of Pennsylvania behind them. Sylvia had always considered herself a reasonable person, sensible and not given to superstitious flights of fancy, and yet she could not help wondering if Henry had a hand in her current predicament. She could not miss the similarities between his situation and that which she now faced, and she suspected he would be amused, if he were still alive, to witness her current predicament. Now, at long last, she understood how he had felt, how Elizabeth had felt, when confronted with Sylvia's foolish objections to their wedding. Now, too late for it to do any good, she understood how it must have pained Elizabeth that Sylvia had withheld her blessing.
On that New Year's Eve so long ago, a more reasonable child might have chosen to mend her ways and make a new start with Henry, as befitting the New Year. Not Sylvia. A few days into the New Year, she resumed her silly pranks with renewed determination 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 Great-Aunt Lucinda's. She stole the keys to Elizabeth's red steamer trunk and flung them into Elm Creek so that her cousin 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. She even came right out and told Henry that she and everyone else in the family hated him, but Henry did not believe her, and he did not go away until he took Elizabeth with him to California.
Just as Andrew's children misjudged Sylvia, so had she misjudged Henry. She had seen him through the filter of a young girl's jealousy and had never considered that he might cherish Elizabeth and bring her joy. On that New Year's Eve, when he had turned foreboding into hope by imagining another future for her mother, Sylvia had been offered a glimpse of the man he truly was, a man of kindness, reassurance, and generosity of spirit. If only she'd had the sense to be grateful that her beloved cousin had found such a partner.
Could she hope for more from Andrew's children than she had been willing to give? If Andrew's children never accepted their marriage, wasn't it precisely what she deserved, a just punishment for her own selfishness so long ago?
Perhaps. She could not deny it. But Andrew had done nothing wrong. He deserved better even if Sylvia did not.
Two days in New York awaited them, two days to savor the Christmas season in the city, alight with anticipation of the New Year. Sylvia intended to enjoy their honeymoon, but she would also make time to complete her quilt before they continued east to Amy's home in Hartford, Connecticut.
She would find out soon if Amy possessed the insight that had eluded Sylvia as a child.
Copyright © 2007 by Jennifer Chiaverini
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Another super elm creek book-couldn't put ot down i love them all
This is an excellent read as are all the other books I have read by this author.
Over Christmas elderly couple Sylvia Compson and Andrew Cooper marry in front of friends at the Elm Creek Manor. His two children and grandchildren do not attend because they were to busy to spend the holidays with him though they did not know about the wedding. Andrew believes they did not come because his son Bob and his daughter Amy objected to his engagement to Sylvia. Their mom died several years ago from cancer. The couple decides to drive from Pennsylvania, stop in New York, and finally visit Amy, her spouse and their three children in Connecticut where they will inform her that they married.--------------- Sylvia is working on a special quilt, a New Year¿s Reflection that she plans to give Amy. She hopes her spouse and his daughter reconcile as she failed to with her older sister Claudia when she left Elm Creek angrily fifty years ago. Now it is too late as Claudia is dead. She prays that Amy is smarter than she was. On the journey Sylvia continues to reflect on her past and her mistakes knowing New York is a brief interlude with Hartford being either a battlefield or a reconciliation.----------------- The heroine is an interesting character who uses lessons learned from mistakes she made in life to reach out to the adult daughter of her new husband. Thus answers are provided to most of the threads from the previous tales. Although the anticipated antagonism from his daughter is minor and anticlimactic, fans of the Elm Creek Quilt series will appreciate the latest quilt patches (past and present).------------------- Harriet Klausner