January 7, 2002
Dear Friends of Elm Creek Quilts,
Wedding bells rang at Elm Creek Manor much earlier than any of the Elm Creek Quilters could have predicted! While Sylvia Compson's friends were helpfully -- we thought -- planning her wedding to Andrew Cooper, Sylvia and Andrew made plans of their own. Friends and family gathered at Elm Creek Manor to celebrate Christmas Eve and found ourselves unsuspecting guests at the union of two very dear friends.
The bride was beautiful, the groom charming, the ceremony moving, and the celebration joyful (although admittedly a few of us spent most of the reception recovering from shock). It was a perfect wedding save one glaring omission: Sylvia's bridal quilt. We had not yet sewed a single stitch!
Diane says Sylvia deserves to go without, but the rest of us know that that would be a cruel punishment for someone who has brought quilting into the lives of thousands of aspiring quilters. That's why we're asking all of Sylvia's friends, family, former students, and admirers to help us create a bridal quilt worthy of everyone's favorite Master Quilter.
If you would like to participate in this very special project, please make a 6-inch pieced or appliquéd quilt block using green, rose, blue, gold, and/or cream 100% cotton fabrics. Choose any pattern that represents how Sylvia has influenced you as an artist, teacher, or friend.
Please mail your blocks so they arrive at Elm Creek Manor no later than April 1. If you have any questions, contact Sarah McClure or Summer Sullivan at Elm Creek Manor. Thanks so much for your help, and remember, this is a surprise! Let's show Sylvia we can keep a secret as well as she can.
Yours in Quarter-Inch Seams,
The Elm Creek Quilters
"Did Diane really say that?" asked Summer as she read over the draft.
"No," admitted Sarah, "but it sounds like something she would say, and I thought it was good for a laugh. Should I delete it?"
"No, leave it in. Just don't send her a copy."
Sarah and Summer exchanged a grin, imagining Diane's reaction. Diane had been the last of the Elm Creek Quilters to admit that the Christmas Eve surprise wedding had been truly wonderful -- and that was not until a week later, and only grudgingly. For all they knew, maybe Diane had indeed declared that Sylvia deserved to go without a bridal quilt for not sharing her secret with her closest friends.
"Don't you think Sylvia will get suspicious when dozens of blocks start piling up in the mailbox?" asked Summer.
"I'll ask Bonnie if we can have the blocks sent to Grandma's Attic," said Sarah. Bonnie would probably be able to find room in her quilt shop to store the blocks, too, rather than leave them lying about Elm Creek Manor where Sylvia might discover them.
A phone call to Bonnie and a few revisions later, Sarah saved the final version of her letter and began printing out copies for every former camper, every quilt guild that had invited Sylvia to speak, and everyone in Sylvia's address book, hastily borrowed for the cause. She needed to refill the paper tray twice and replace the toner cartridge before the last letter emerged from the printer. Summer seemed to think they would receive dozens of blocks, but Sarah was less certain. Quilters were generous, helpful people, but they also tended to be quite busy. For all their good intentions, most might not be able to contribute a block by the deadline.
With all those hundreds of requests, surely they would receive the 140 blocks Bonnie had calculated they would need for a queen-size comforter. As Sarah affixed stamps to the envelopes, listening carefully for Sylvia's footsteps in the hall outside the library, she reflected that they might be fortunate to settle for a ninety-six-block lap quilt.
The bridal quilt was Sarah's idea, but the other Elm Creek Quilters were just as enthusiastic about the project -- even Diane, who now only rarely complained about having to return the "perfect summer dress" she had purchased for the anticipated June wedding. Sylvia was the heart and soul of Elm Creek Quilt Camp, the business the eight friends had founded, jointly owned, and operated each year from spring to autumn, and not only because Elm Creek Manor was her ancestral home. Sylvia's passion for the artistic, historical, and social aspects of quilting so permeated the quilting retreat that the campers felt her influence in every class, every lecture, and every late-night chat with new friends that took place within the manor's gray stone walls. She had earned the respect, admiration, and affection of every quilter who had passed through the doors of Elm Creek Manor, yet she alone seemed unaware of this. Whenever Sarah tried to explain, as she did on each anniversary of the founding of Elm Creek Quilts, Sylvia cut her off and dismissed her praise as "preposterous." This bridal quilt would finally tell Sylvia what she would not allow Sarah to say.
To Sarah's delight, the first quilt block arrived only a week after the letters went out. The next day, Bonnie phoned with news that two more blocks had come in the morning mail, and after that, packages came so frequently that Bonnie stopped calling to report them. When she offered to bring them to their upcoming business meeting, Sarah couldn't resist. She and Bonnie told all the Elm Creek Quilters except Sylvia to meet in the kitchen thirty minutes early. Sarah figured that would give them plenty of time to examine the blocks, read the accompanying letters, and return the packages to Bonnie's car before Sylvia expected them in the formal parlor.
That Thursday evening, Bonnie arrived first, hustling through the back door and into the kitchen with a Grandma's Attic shopping bag in her arms. "Maybe this was a mistake," she said as Sarah eagerly took the bag and set it on the long wooden table in the center of the room. Bonnie shrugged off her coat and sat down on one of the benches. "All Sylvia has to do is look out the window at the parking lot and she'll know we're here."
"Sylvia's room faces the front of the manor," Sarah reminded her, emptying the bag onto the table. "It's twenty degrees outside, so the windows are shut and the furnace is running. She won't hear the cars pull up."
Bonnie raked her fingers through her close-cropped dark hair and glanced at the doorway. "Even so, we should keep our voices down."
"We're here," Diane sang, strolling into the kitchen, her blond curls bouncing. "Do we have to wait for everyone or can we see the blocks now?"
"Diane, hush, dear," warned white-haired Agnes, following close behind. Her blue eyes were exasperated behind pink-tinted glasses. "Stealth, remember?"
"She's about as stealthy as a thirsty elephant at the only waterhole on the savanna," remarked Gwen, peering in over Diane's shoulder. "You're also blocking the doorway."
"Well, excuse me, professor," Diane shot back, but she took a seat beside Sarah and reached for the envelope on top of the pile.
"Is Summer coming?" Sarah asked Gwen as she helped Agnes with her coat. "I sent her an email, but she didn't write back."
"Who knows what my daughter's up to anymore?" said Gwen. "I've had more meaningful conversations with her answering machine than with her lately."
"Summer has already seen most of the blocks at the quilt shop," said Bonnie. "But I'm sure she'll be here for the meeting."
"Summer never misses them," added Judy as she hurried into the kitchen, removing her gloves. "Unlike some of us. I honestly didn't think I'd make it tonight. When did juggling the schedules of two parents and an eight-year-old become so complicated?"
"When was it not?" asked Bonnie.
Sarah glanced at her watch and opened an envelope. "Let's keep an eye on the time, everyone."
"And keep one ear pointed toward the door," added Judy.
They agreed in whispers and soon were engrossed in passing the blocks around the table, praising them in hushed voices, silently reading the letters their makers had sent. Little Giant, Mother's Favorite, Three Cheers, Trip Around the World -- the blocks were as imaginative and as varied as the women who had made them; while Sarah usually couldn't decipher the hidden meaning at first glance, the letters never failed to explain what the blocks represented. Sarah's favorite was a Spinning Hourglass block, which the maker wrote was inspired by a conversation she and Sylvia had participated in over dinner one evening at camp. One of the women at the table had complained that she never had time to quilt at home and had to cram an entire year's worth of quilting into the one week each summer she spent at Elm Creek Manor. "We make time for the things that are important to us," Sylvia had remarked, and she listed several activities people typically participated in out of habit rather than necessity or enjoyment.
The writer said that Sylvia's words resonated with her and when she returned home, she scrutinized her routine to see where she could make better use of her days. After cutting out mindless television watching and delegating some household chores to her husband and teenage sons, she found several hours each week that she could devote to her own interests, including quilting. "Sylvia showed me that although we never have enough time for all the things we want to do," she concluded, "if we simplify our busy lives, we can keep them from spinning out of our control."
Sarah tucked the block and letter back into the envelope, ruefully running through her mental checklist of daily activities and wondering which she could sacrifice.
"Sarah?" called a distant voice. "Where is everyone?"
They scrambled up from the benches. "Quick," Gwen hissed, but the others were already returning the quilt blocks and letters to their envelopes and tossing them into the bag.
"Someone stall her," whispered Sarah frantically just as someone thrust the bag into her arms.
"Sarah?" Sylvia's voice came louder now, her footfalls swiftly approaching. "I don't have time for hide-and-seek."
Sarah flung open the pantry. She threw the bag inside and slammed the door just as Sylvia entered the kitchen.
"Sarah -- " Sylvia stopped short in the doorway and eyed the gathering. "Well, for goodness' sakes. Why are you here so early?" She fixed her gaze on Sarah. "And why are you clinging to that door for dear life?"
"Because -- " Sarah opened the door and retrieved the first item her hand touched. "They came early to help me make brownies. I was just getting the mix. Do you know if we have eggs? I was going to stop at the store, but -- "
"You need six people to make brownies?"
"Sarah's never been much of a cook," offered Diane.
"Nonsense," said Sylvia, and gestured to the cellophane-wrapped plate on the counter. "She made lemon squares this morning."
"Should we get started?" asked Judy, reaching for an apron hanging on a peg beside the pantry door.
"Don't be ridiculous," said Sylvia, glancing at the clock. "We have a lot to cover tonight. We shouldn't waste time preparing extraneous desserts."
"Chocolate is never extraneous," said Gwen, but the others quickly agreed with Sylvia, eager to get her out of the kitchen.
They gathered in the formal parlor, where the original west wing of Elm Creek Manor intersected the south wing, added when Sylvia's father was a boy. The antique Victorian furnishings might have seemed stuffy if they were not so comfortably worn. Sylvia had once mentioned that her paternal grandmother had brought the overstuffed sofas, embroidered armchairs, beaded lamps, and ornate cabinets to Elm Creek Manor upon her marriage to David Bergstrom. No one else in the family had cared for the young bride's tastes, so they had arranged the furniture in a spare room and proclaimed it too fine for everyday use. Thus the newest member of the family had not felt slighted, and the Bergstroms were able to keep the west sitting room, their preferred place for quilting and visiting, exactly as it was. In more recent decades, the Bergstroms had grown more fond of the room, but even now the only nod to modernity was a large television in the corner, concealed by a Grandmother's Fan quilt whenever it was not in use.
Sarah began the meeting with an update on registration for the coming season. Enrollment was up fifteen percent, and there were so many requests for Gwen's Photo Transfer workshop that they had decided to add a second weekly session. "If you're up for it," added Sarah, glancing at Gwen.
Gwen shrugged. "Why not? Once the spring semester ends, I'll have plenty of time."
"Bonnie, I also thought we should add a few extra shuttles into town so campers can shop," Sarah continued. "Since they'll want to visit Grandma's Attic, we'll arrange them for when you can be fully staffed, okay? I wouldn't want one person to get swamped."
"Oh. Great." Bonnie hesitated. "Do you need to know the best times of the day now? Because I'm not really sure -- "
"Just get back to me whenever you know." Sarah gave Bonnie an encouraging smile. She knew the quilt shop owner appreciated the extra business Elm Creek Quilt Camp sent her way, but she always seemed embarrassed by it, as if she thought she was taking advantage of their friendship. "You'll probably want your camp course schedule first."
Bonnie nodded, so Sarah glanced at her notes. "Oh. One more thing. This goes for everyone. Please remember to charge anything you use in your classes to supplies, not overhead. If we ever get audited -- "
"I'm here," said Summer, rushing in red-cheeked from the cold and struggling out of her coat. "I'm sorry I'm late."
"Relax," said Diane. "This isn't the first time."
"Yes, but your tardiness has been increasing lately," mused Sylvia. "I can't imagine what has been keeping you so busy."
Summer draped her coat over the back of a chair and sat down. "What did I miss?"
"Sorry, Sylvia," said Judy with a laugh. "I don't think Summer wants to discuss her boyfriend."
Everyone except Summer laughed, but she managed a wry smile. "Fine. I was having supper with Jeremy. Satisfied?"
"You guys spend so much time together you might as well live together," said Diane.
"Don't suggest such a thing," protested Agnes. She patted Summer's hand. "She meant after you get married, dear."
Summer blanched, and Gwen said, "Married? Are you crazy? Don't go putting thoughts of marriage in my daughter's head. Or of living together. My daughter has more sense than that."
"As a newlywed myself, I object to the implications of that remark," retorted Sylvia. "Sometimes getting married makes perfect sense."
Agnes nodded, but Bonnie said, "Sometimes marriage makes no sense at all."
"Can we please get back to business?" begged Summer, throwing Sarah a pleading look.
Sarah promptly returned to her agenda despite grumbles from Diane, who apparently found teasing Summer far more interesting.
Midway through the meeting, Sylvia offered to return to the kitchen for refreshments, but Bonnie leapt to her feet and announced that it was her turn. She returned with the lemon squares, coffee, and a look of relief so plain that Sarah knew the quilt blocks were safely hidden away in her car.
That night, as Sarah and her husband prepared for bed, she told him about the afternoon's mishap. Matt laughed and said, "Why didn't you just go to Grandma's Attic and look at the blocks there?"
"Because every time I say I'm going downtown, Sylvia asks to come with me. I can't very well ask her to stay in the van while I go into the quilt shop."
"No, I guess not," Matt acknowledged. "And I guess delaying your trip downtown until you could go alone was out of the question?"
Sarah drew back the quilt and climbed into bed. "Absolutely."
Matt grinned and shook his head as he joined her. "Sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but there's no way you're going to keep this quilt a secret very long."
"What do you mean?"
"You've never been good at keeping secrets."
"That's not true," Sarah protested, nudging him. "My friends trust me implicitly. I could tell you stories -- but of course I won't."
"Not other people's secrets. Your own. You have this overwhelming need to confess."
"I do not."
"I bet Sylvia will know about this bridal quilt before the first day of camp."
"And I know for a fact she won't." Sarah propped herself up on her elbows and regarded him. "Okay, if you're so sure, let's do it."
"Make a bet. I say that Sylvia won't know about the quilt until we give her the pieced top. You can say whatever dumb thing you like, because you're going to lose."
"I'm not going to lose," said Matt firmly. "Okay. You have a bet. What am I going to win?"
"Nothing, but I'm going to win breakfast in bed for a week. Prepared by your own hands, so don't pass the work off on the cook."
pard"It won't be a problem, because I'm going to win five new apple trees for my orchard."
"Five? Then I get two weeks of breakfast, with the newspaper and a foot massage."
"Done." Matt held out his hand. "Shake on it?"
Sarah smiled, took his hand, and pulled him close. "I'd much rather kiss."
For the next two weeks, Sarah resisted the temptation to invite Bonnie to bring the most recently arrived blocks to Elm Creek Manor, resigning herself to hasty descriptions over the phone and Bonnie's assurances that if this pace continued, they would have all the blocks they needed well in advance of the deadline. Nearly three weeks passed before Sarah finally managed to sneak away to Grandma's Attic after dropping off Sylvia at her hairdresser.
Sarah drove the white Elm Creek Quilts minivan onto Main Street, which marked the border between downtown Waterford and the Waterford College campus. She tried to park in the alley behind Grandma's Attic, but an unfamiliar car already occupied the space reserved for Bonnie's employees. Because Bonnie's only remaining employees were Diane and Summer, she invited the Elm Creek Quilters to use the extra space, since downtown parking was scarce. But none of the Elm Creek Quilters owned the gleaming luxury sedan parked beside Bonnie's twenty-year-old compact. In fact, only a few of them could have afforded the payments.
Apparently a customer had discovered the secret parking space. Sarah hoped the driver liked to spend as much on fabric as she did on transportation. Bonnie never complained, but Sarah suspected the competition from the large chain fabric store on the outskirts of town had been siphoning off her revenues more than usual. Grandma's Attic had sometimes dipped dangerously into the red, but even then, Bonnie had managed to keep any hint of trouble far from her customers' view. Lately, however, Sarah noticed she had begun rearranging her shelves to conceal gaps in her inventory rather than restocking them.
Sarah found another spot not far away on Second Street and hurried down the hill to Main, turning up her collar and thrusting her hands in her pockets since she had forgotten her scarf and gloves. In the front shop window, beneath the familiar red sign with the words GRANDMA'S ATTIC printed in gold, hung several sample quilts Bonnie and Diane had made as demonstration projects for their classes at quilt camp. The front bell jingled when Sarah entered, but a glance at the cutting table in the center of the room and a quick survey of the aisles told her Bonnie was not in the main store area. "Bonnie?" Sarah called over the folk music playing in the background, just as she glimpsed her friend through the window of the back office. Bonnie was speaking earnestly -- or heatedly -- with a man in a well-tailored coat of rich black wool, who at that moment turned his back on her and strode briskly from the office. Something about his smug, self-satisfied grin plucked at Sarah's memory and, as he passed her and nodded on his way to the door, recognition struck her with the shock of cold water. She spun around and watched the door swing shut behind him, then turned back to Bonnie, who had followed him from the office.
"Wasn't that Gregory Krolich?" asked Sarah. Bonnie nodded and sat down on a stool behind the cutting table. "I knew it. The real estate business must be treating him well. He's driving an even more expensive car than the last time I saw him."
"You know him?"
"Barely. I haven't seen him in years, not since I first moved to Waterford. He wanted to buy Elm Creek Manor and raze it so he could build a few hundred student apartments on the property."
"Obviously he didn't," said Bonnie. "So he's just a lot of threats and bluster in a nice suit?"
Sarah shook her head. "On the contrary, I'm sure he would have gone through with it if Sylvia hadn't found out about his plan. She refused to sell to him once she learned the truth."
"Oh." Bonnie studied the cutting table for a moment. "So. Do you want to see the blocks?"
"Of course," said Sarah, removing her coat. "I have about twenty minutes before I need to pick up Sylvia."
Bonnie disappeared into the storage room and returned with a large cardboard box, which she said contained thirty-four blocks. She seemed so pleased that Sarah hid her dismay. A month into the project, and they had received only a small fraction of the blocks they needed. As Bonnie separated the newest packages from the ones Sarah had already seen, Sarah reminded herself that they were averaging one new block a day, and that contributors typically provided their blocks either right away or at the very last minute. Surely in the last week before the deadline, Grandma's Attic would be inundated with blocks. If not, Sarah would work overtime at her sewing machine to make up the difference.
"Look at this," Sarah marveled as she opened the first envelope and found an exquisite Bridal Wreath block. "I will never be able to appliqué this well."
"Only because you won't practice."
Sarah returned the block to its envelope and opened a second. "Queen Charlotte's Crown? It's lovely, but what does it have to do with Sylvia?"
Bonnie watched as Sarah put the block away and reached for another. "Why don't you read the letter and find out?"
"Can't. Sylvia expects me back at twenty past, and if I'm late, she's sure to ask questions." Sarah admired a Steps to the Altar block. "She'll know if I'm lying, too."
"Well, you can't leave without reading this one." Bonnie handed her a package somewhat thicker than the others. "You know the quilters who sent it."
Intrigued, Sarah took the thick padded envelope and withdrew two blocks, a Grandmother's Pride and a Mother's Delight. "I'm guessing these two are related," she said, unfolding the letter.
February 6, 2002
Dear Elm Creek Quilters,
Thank you so much for inviting us to participate in this gift for Sylvia. We know it will be a spectacular quilt and look forward to seeing it when we return to camp for our annual reunion of the Cross-Country Quilters.
Deciding to participate was easy, but choosing appropriate blocks proved far more difficult. Fortunately, we see each other frequently, so we have been able to share our thoughts. Sylvia has inspired us with her courageous attitude toward life, her insistence upon excellence, her steadfast dedication to her craft, and in so many other ways that we're sure it's evident why no single block could express what we feel for her. So instead we decided to focus on how Sylvia most directly influenced our lives simply by creating Elm Creek Quilt Camp.
Vinnie, as you recall, was one of the first campers of Elm Creek Quilt Camp's inaugural season. Recently widowed, she wanted to attend camp during the week of her birthday rather than try to celebrate in the home she had so recently shared with her husband. At quilt camp she found friendship and fun, and discovered in Sylvia a fellow widow, but one with a far more tragic past. Sylvia's story of how she had lost her husband in World War II reminded Vinnie that she should not dwell upon what she had lost, but cherish and be thankful for the many decades she and her husband had spent together.
A few years later, Megan first attended quilt camp and, although she did not then realize it, meeting Vinnie would prove to be one of the most important moments of her life -- and not only because Vinnie is as remarkable and inspirational as Sylvia herself. Vinnie was eager to find a sweetheart for her favorite grandson, Adam, and with a little meddling that Megan failed to appreciate at the time, she finally succeeded in arranging for the two to meet. The couple had the usual ups and downs (and a few that were not at all usual) on the path to love, but six months ago, Adam and Megan were married in St. James of the Valley Church in Cincinnati, with Megan's son, Rob, as best man. Adam, Megan, and Rob are all thrilled that in July a new baby will join their family. Rob says we should name the baby Sylvia if she is a girl and Elmer if he is a boy, because this child never would have come into the world if not for Elm Creek Quilt Camp.
How can one or even two quilt blocks adequately represent what Sylvia has done for our family? We admit no single pattern could, but we think Grandmother's Pride and Mother's Delight come close.
Please let us know if we can do anything more to help complete Sylvia's bridal quilt. If you need additional blocks, Vinnie has six all ready to put in the mail to you!
Love to you all,
Vinnie Burkholder and Megan (Donohue) Wagner
At the bottom of the typed page was a postscript added in spidery handwriting: "I'm sure you can tell Megan wrote this letter and kindly allowed me to add my name to it. It doesn't sound like me at all! I never would have bragged I was as remarkable and inspirational as Sylvia, not that anyone would have believed it anyway! I hope the baby is a girl, not just because I don't care for the name Elmer but because I've already made her a pink-and-white Ohio Star quilt. Hugs and Kisses from Vinnie."
"Megan and Vinnie's grandson got married!" exclaimed Sarah. "Sylvia will be thrilled."
"Don't tell her yet," said Bonnie, taking the blocks and the letter. "You'll have to explain how you know, and you're a terrible liar."
"I suppose you're going to tell me I can't keep secrets, either."
Bonnie winced. "No offense. I trust you with my secrets -- most of them -- but when it comes to your own -- "
"You can stop there. I've heard it before, from Matt."
"Frankly, it's not the worst thing in the world to be a terrible liar. At least everyone knows when I'm telling the truth."
"Even so, you'd better think of a convincing story pretty fast," advised Bonnie, nodding to the clock.
It was already a quarter past eleven. Sarah glanced about in dismay and put her hand on the nearest bolt of fabric. "Cut me a yard of this, would you?"
Bonnie rang up the charges quickly, and within two minutes Sarah was hurrying back to the minivan. As she rehearsed her cover story on the way to the salon, she realized Sylvia would never believe she had spent the entire time in the quilt shop only to emerge with a single yard of fabric. She took a sharp left at the town square and parked in front of the Daily Grind. Sylvia might more readily accept that Sarah had lost track of time in a coffee shop.
The early lunch crowd was just beginning to gather as Sarah joined the line. She bought herself a large latte and ordered a hot cocoa with whipped cream to appease Sylvia. As she stirred sugar and vanilla into her steaming cup, she glanced up and saw a familiar figure at a corner table. She didn't have time to chat, but just as she turned to go, Judy caught her eye and froze.
Sarah smiled and waved, but Judy appeared so discomfited that Sarah realized her friend must have noticed her attempt to avoid her and wondered at the cause. A cup in each hand, she made her way to the table Judy was sharing with a shaggy-haired man in a business suit.
"Judy, hi," she said, smiling at Judy and her companion in turn. "I thought I'd get my caffeine fix while Sylvia's getting her hair done."
"You must have had a late night," said Judy, noting the two cups.
"Oh, no, this one's a peace offering for Sylvia. I'm late."
"Sorry you can't join us," said the man with a smile.
With a start, Judy quickly introduced him as a colleague visiting from the University of Pennsylvania. Sarah set down her coffee long enough to shake his hand, then made a hasty exit. She would be even later now, but at least she had a truthful and, better yet, believable excuse.
To Sarah's surprise, when she arrived, Sylvia wasn't waiting by the front door in her coat and hat. Sarah found her in the back of the salon with her hands beneath a nail dryer. "Sarah, dear," Sylvia greeted her. "You were so late they talked me into a manicure."
Sarah apologized and offered her the hot cocoa, which Sylvia couldn't pick up at the moment anyway. Sarah rambled through an account of Grandma's Attic and the Daily Grind, which was mercifully cut short by the timer on the nail dryer. "Do you know I never get my nails done?" said Sylvia, admiring her hands. "Quilting is so hard on them that I usually don't bother, but the young lady was so persuasive. You showed up just in time or they would have convinced me to let them do my toes, too."
Sylvia paid the manicurist and gave her a healthy tip, then happily took her cocoa. She lifted the lid and inhaled the fragrance of the still-steaming chocolate. "If this is real whipped cream, don't you dare tell Andrew."
"It's the real thing and I wouldn't breathe a word."
Sylvia laughed and tucked her arm through Sarah's and, to Sarah's deep satisfaction, nothing in her manner suggested she doubted Sarah's ability to keep their little secret. It wasn't until they were halfway home that Sarah realized she had forgotten to ask Bonnie what Greg Krolich had been doing in Grandma's Attic. She resolved to phone Bonnie that evening and inquire, but at supper, Matt quickly made her forget all about the unexpected encounter.
"You look great, Sylvia," he began as he passed the bread basket to Andrew. "Did you do something different with your hair?"
Sylvia touched her hair, pleased. "Why, thank you for noticing, Matthew. My stylist talked me into some highlights."
"Take a look at those nails," said Andrew. Sylvia obliged by regally extending a hand. "My bride's gotten herself all dolled up, and I keep scratching my head wondering what special occasion I forgot."
Sylvia laughed. "The only special occasion is that Sarah was late picking me up."
Matt turned to Sarah, his eyes wide with false innocence. "Sarah, late? Usually she's the one keeping us all on schedule. What kept you?"
"Nothing, sweetheart." Sarah gave him a look of warning. "I stopped for some coffee -- "
"And fabric," added Sylvia. "You can't forget that, although why you left with such a small purchase I honestly don't know. Bonnie could use the business."
"That is strange," exclaimed Matt. "What were you doing at Grandma's Attic all that time if you weren't shopping?"
"You know how it is. I got started talking with Bonnie, and then, well, I looked up at the clock and I barely had enough time to get coffee before Sylvia expected me." Sarah set down her fork and glared at Matt. "If it bothers you so much, I'll go back tomorrow and spend all the money for your Valentine's Day present on fabric for myself."
Matt could barely hide his grin. "You don't have to go that far."
"Sarah, dear, relax," said Sylvia, astounded. "Goodness. Everyone's allowed to be late once in a while. He's only teasing you. There was no harm done."
"You're right." She smiled sweetly at Matt so that he would be sure to know the real harm was yet to come. "I'm sorry, honey."
Sylvia seemed satisfied, but Matt could only manage a weak grin.
She cornered him by the kitchen sink after Sylvia and Andrew retired to the parlor to watch the news. "All right," she said, snapping a dish towel at him. "We're adding a codicil to our wager. If Sylvia finds out about the quilt because of you, it doesn't count."
"I'm not going to tell her," he protested.
"That's not good enough. If you force the truth out of me in front of her, or trick any of our friends into revealing the secret, or accidentally on purpose leave one of the quilt blocks on her chair, I win the bet." She extended her hand. "Shake on it."
He took her hand gingerly. "No kiss?"
"Not this time."
"Does this mean you're not getting me a Valentine's present?"
"Oh, no. You'll get exactly the present you deserve."
Two days later, a still-contrite Matt brought Sarah breakfast in bed, and he gave her a thorough foot massage while she read the paper. Only afterward did he mention that he was trying to make up for all the breakfasts in bed she would not receive once he won the bet. Sarah didn't take offense. Instead she made him a Dutch apple pie to compensate for the apple trees she had no intention of buying him.
The first day of the new season of quilt camp was rapidly approaching, and Sarah's days were filled with the minutiae of the business: processing registration forms, scheduling classes, ordering supplies, mailing out welcome packets, assigning rooms and sometimes roommates. Amid the chaos, Sarah wondered how the campers could not fail to notice how she scrambled to make everything run smoothly. Summer assisted her by planning evening entertainment programs and inviting guest speakers, and together they wrestled with the problems of last-minute course adjustments. Already it seemed apparent that Gwen's Hand-Dyeing and Agnes's Baltimore Album courses would not be filled throughout March, while Diane's class for beginners and Judy's seminar in computer design were in heavy demand. It was no small feat to adjust the schedule in a way that would please everyone.
When Sarah and Summer decided they had done the best they could, Summer phoned the instructors involved to see if they would agree to the changes. In the meantime, Sarah went through invoices and contacted the distributors who -- for reasons they could not explain -- had still not delivered supplies Sarah had ordered months before. Summer hung up the phone in defeat long before Sarah had sorted out her own problems. "What is wrong with everyone this year?" asked Summer, dropping into a chair in front of the library fireplace, which still held a few logs in cynical mistrust of the calendar. "Agnes was home, of course; you can always count on Agnes. But Diane, Judy, and my mom are incommunicado. My mom won't even pick up her cell phone."
"She's probably in class."
"Not all day. She ought to be in her office by now." Summer let her head fall back against the cushions. "People could try to be a little more accessible at this time of year."
"Diane's so stressed out about Todd's college acceptances that she's probably too jittery to sit by the phone. Judy's either at work or with Emily, and you know better than anyone how busy your mom is."
Summer snorted in grudging acceptance.
"Besides, if anyone's inaccessible, it's you," remarked Sarah. "You rarely answer your email anymore and never answer your phone. All anyone can ever get is your machine. By the way, I think it might be broken. There's no outgoing message anymore, just a beep."
"Oh. Thanks. I'll look into it."
"You should. Last week I called three times in a row just to make sure I had the right number." Sarah leafed through a pile of registration forms and sighed. "How does Agnes feel about canceling her appliqué class?"
"She'd rather not. She doesn't care if there are only four students. If they want to learn to appliqué, she's willing to teach them."
"I guess we should keep it on the schedule, then." Better that than writing apologetic letters to the four campers and trying to squeeze them into their second-choice classes.
"Did you know Agnes started piecing the top for Sylvia's bridal quilt?"
Sarah set down the forms, instantly attentive. "No. Does that mean we have enough blocks?"
"Not quite. She's adding an elaborate pieced border to compensate."
Sarah smiled ruefully. "I had hoped to receive a better response."
"We still might. There's a whole month before the deadline. Agnes just wanted to work ahead since camp starts in almost three weeks." Summer studied the unlit fireplace. "Have you decided what block you're going to make?"
"I have no idea." Sarah had been so preoccupied with the other blocks that she had never given her own a thought. She had not even checked her fabric stash to see if she had the right colors. "What pattern did you choose?"
"I was hoping to steal some ideas from you." Summer rose and stretched. "Back to work. Maybe my mom's in her office by now."
Sarah nodded, lost in thought.
What block could possibly convey all that Sylvia meant to her?
Either Summer was unable to reach her mother or she forgot that she was supposed to contact Sarah with Gwen's response, because Sarah did not hear from either woman until their business meeting the following Thursday evening. In the past Gwen had protested any cuts in her teaching schedule, insisting that holding a class with only one student was far preferable to disappointing the one camper who had registered. Sarah and Gwen had gone through the same debate so often that this time Sarah came prepared with documented evidence proving that one-student classes, while good enough in theory, could be a financial disaster. But when she took Gwen aside before the meeting and recommended that they cancel her dyeing workshops for the first two weeks of camp, Gwen merely shrugged. She added something vague about possibly directing a seminar on the sociopolitical implications of quilt contests instead, but she drifted off to the parlor before waiting for Sarah's response.
Throughout the meeting, Sarah gradually realized that Gwen was not the only one who seemed inordinately distracted. Bonnie looked tired and pale, as if she had not slept in days. Agnes, too, must have noticed, for she watched Bonnie all evening with a look of carefully muted concern. Summer paid more attention to her watch than to Sarah's updates about enrollment, and twice Judy left the room to take calls on her cell phone. Their behavior was puzzling, but Diane's was downright irritating; she stormed in twenty minutes late muttering about admissions counselors and tuition payments, then spent the rest of the meeting tapping her pen against her notebook and scowling.
Finally Sarah had had enough. "While we're on the subject of guest lecturers, Jane Smith has agreed to speak to our campers in August. That's perfect timing because, as you know, Jane is the world-famous Naked Quilter, and she requires that all of her lectures be conducted entirely in the nude. Students included. I decided we should make all of Elm Creek Quilt Camp go naked for the whole week so her students don't feel self-conscious. Matt, Andrew, and the rest of the male staff should wear fig leaves so our more sensitive campers aren't offended."
Everyone but Sylvia nodded absently. "Are you out of your mind?" Sylvia gasped.
"What?" said Summer. "What did she say?"
"If any of you had been listening, you would know." Sarah took a deep breath and made herself count to ten. "Look. I realize you're all busy and that you have lives and jobs outside of camp. But it seems to me that you're beginning to take Elm Creek Quilts for granted. I realize we've been very successful very quickly, but contrary to appearances, this camp does not run itself. I can't do it without you, so please, while you're here, really be here, okay?"
Abashed, the Elm Creek Quilters nodded and murmured apologies.
"Jane Smith, the Naked Quilter, indeed," said Sylvia. "I suppose there is no such person. Pity. That certainly would have been an interesting week."
"Jane Smith the who?" said Diane.
"No one." Sylvia shrugged. "Serves you right for not listening."
As far as Sarah could tell, they hung on her every word for the rest of the meeting.
Whenever Sarah could find a spare moment from the frenzy of camp preparations, she pored through Sylvia's library of quilt-pattern books trying to find the perfect block. With no time to idly admire the illustrations, she began with the index and read through the names, trying to find one that was suitable. A block called Homecoming evoked Sylvia's return to Elm Creek Manor after a fifty-year absence and also the launch of Elm Creek Quilts, but one glance at the pattern told Sarah it would be too difficult. Many blocks incorporated the word Friendship into their names, but while Sarah liked several of the designs, she suspected everyone else would be looking for some sort of "Friendship" block, too, and she wanted her choice to be more distinctive. With only one week before the first day of camp, Sarah finally settled on Sarah's Favorite, for Sylvia was certainly Sarah's favorite quilter and ran a very close second with Matt for her all-around favorite person. The approaching deadline nagged her, but as the organizer of the project, she figured she could extend the deadline if circumstances warranted. Readying Elm Creek Manor for its first guests of the season certainly qualified.
Sarah found a perfect rose-colored floral print in her stash and stopped by Grandma's Attic to pick up a few coordinating fat quarters in blue and leaf green. She cut the squares and triangles that same day and sewed the pieces together late at night, after Sylvia retired.
"Nice," Matt remarked a few evenings later, when she had nearly finished. He had come to the sitting room adjoining their bedroom, Sarah's de facto sewing room, to see when she planned to come to bed.
Sarah thanked him and sighed as he began rubbing her shoulders. She hoped her block would be good enough. It was well made -- she'd had an exacting teacher -- but most of the blocks sent to Grandma's Attic were far more elaborate.
"You know," she mused, "I think I might want shoulder rubs on alternate days rather than foot massages for the entire two weeks."
"I still have two more days to win this bet."
Sarah laughed. "I admire your confidence, misplaced though
"You have to admit you skewed the odds in your favor with your codicil."
"And you have to admit that dropping hints to Sylvia would have been unfair."
"Explicitly telling her about the quilt would have been cheating," Matt acknowledged. "But hints would have been fair. Tricking you into revealing the secret would have been the best of all."
Sarah turned in her chair and regarded him. "Why are you so eager for Sylvia to find out about our surprise?"
"I'm not. I just want those apple trees." Matt paused. "Want to play double or nothing?"
"When I'm this close to winning? No, thanks."
"You'd turn down four weeks of breakfast in bed? You must be closer to spilling the truth than I thought."
"Hardly. What are your terms?"
"Double or nothing, Sylvia will find out about the quilt before it's finished."
"Finished as in all the blocks sewn together or as in quilted and bound?" They were planning to set up the pieced top in Sylvia's quilt frame on the ballroom dais so campers could contribute stitches throughout the spring and summer. Sarah had planned to present the pieced top to Sylvia before then, for they would be unable to conceal it and still allow the campers to work on it.
She hid her glee when Matt said, "I want to pick out my trees soon, so let's say until all the blocks are sewn into a top. But I want more leeway with this codicil."
"Sylvia can't learn about the quilt from you," Sarah warned.
"But anything else is fair game."
For four weeks of breakfast in bed, why not? Since Agnes had already begun to assemble the top, surely Sarah would only need to keep the quilt secret until mid-April, at the latest. "You have a deal." She extended her hand, but the words had barely left her lips before Matt bent down and kissed them.
A week of late nights and early mornings followed. Sarah finished her block on the last evening before quilt camp and spent most of that night lying awake, running over last-minute details in her mind. She fell asleep sometime after three and stumbled down to the kitchen the next morning, bleary-eyed and yawning, to find Sylvia, Andrew, and Matt already seated at the kitchen table. As Sarah took her seat beside Matt, the cook, recently returned from his annual monthlong vacation, placed steaming plates of blueberry pancakes before them.
"Sarah, dear, you look exhausted," said Sylvia.
"She should," said Matt. "She stayed up half the night quilting."
"I did not."
"Sarah," scolded Sylvia gently. "You should have gotten more rest. Today's a busy day."
"That's what I told her, but she kept at it," said Matt.
"What on earth was so important that you had to finish last night?" asked Sylvia. "It couldn't have been a class sample. You aren't teaching this week."
Sarah took a hasty bite of pancake. "These are delicious," she called to the cook.
"Oh, Sylvia, don't believe a word Matt says. I was done sewing by ten-thirty and in bed by eleven. You know how it is when you see a new quilt pattern and just have to try it out right away."
"Hmph." Sylvia looked dubious. "Well, do I get to see this amazing quilt block?"
Matt shot Sarah a look of triumph, but she did her best to sound unconcerned. "Sure. Later. If I remember." It was the first day of quilt camp. She would have abundant excuses to forget.
Satisfied, Sylvia let her off with a warning that she should make sure to go to bed early that night. Sarah laughed, knowing how impossible that would be, but assured Sylvia she would try. As the conversation turned to other matters, Sarah raised her eyebrows at Matt, smug. He lifted his coffee mug to her to acknowledge his defeat, but she suspected he considered it a temporary setback. Matt wanted those apple trees, and he intended to fight dirty.
At twelve o'clock, the first sixty quilters of the new camp season began to arrive. The Elm Creek Quilters had gathered well before then to arrange registration tables in the grand front foyer and to go through the guest rooms to be certain no detail had been overlooked. Agnes and Diane arranged fresh flowers from the cutting garden on each bedside table to assure every guest received a proper welcome, while Judy and Gwen checked with the cook to be sure all was ready for the Welcome Banquet. Bonnie and Summer gave the classrooms one last inspection, as Sylvia helped Sarah set out forms and organize room keys. Matt and Andrew stood ready to assist arriving guests with their luggage, while the rest of the staff bustled about, filled as they all were with the expectation and excitement that heralded each new season of Elm Creek Quilt Camp. As far as Sarah could discern, the distraction that had afflicted her friends earlier that month had completely disappeared.
A few minor problems surfaced during registration: Two friends who had wanted to room together had been paired with total strangers, and a woman who had registered for the following week had shown up early, totally unaware of her mistake. Sarah and Sylvia resolved these minor crises before anyone had time to become too anxious, and once again Sarah marveled at their illusion of flawless service. No wonder people assumed the camp ran itself!
The Welcome Banquet was the best one yet, and the Candlelight ceremony at sunset on the cornerstone patio was like a warm embrace, drawing campers and faculty alike into a close circle of friendship. After the last guests retired for the night -- or, more likely, gathered in neighbors' rooms to renew old friendships and initiate new ones -- Sarah returned to her library office to go over a few last-minute details for the classes that would begin the following morning. She could not keep the smile off her face as she listened to footfalls going from room to room and laughter muffled behind closed doors. Elm Creek Manor had become her home and she loved it in any season, but it truly came to life when it was filled with quilters.
Sarah did not get to bed as early as she had promised Sylvia, but Matt was even a few minutes later. As the manor's caretaker, his workload increased exponentially when the estate was full of visitors. He seemed so content, though, that Sarah knew he had come to enjoy his role in the company as much as she did hers.
Still, as they lay down beneath the sampler quilt she had made for him as an anniversary gift so many years before, she could not resist teasing him. "I sure hope camp runs as smoothly as Sylvia's bridal quilt project," she said, exaggerating a yawn. "Agnes finished her pieced border, and is just waiting for the last blocks to arrive so she can sew it all together."
Matt feigned sleep, punctuating Sarah's remark with a snore.
Sarah's alarm woke her at half past six, and by seven she was descending the carved oak staircase and hurrying to the kitchen. The cook and his two assistants had breakfast well in hand -- and seemed surprised and even hurt that Sarah had felt it necessary to check -- so she returned to the banquet hall to join Matt. Sylvia and Andrew, both early risers, had already finished eating and were nursing cups of coffee and chatting with a group of campers. Matt had joined them, so Sarah hurried through the buffet and took the seat he had saved for her. So many enthusiastic campers came by to greet her that Sarah had barely managed to take a few quick gulps of coffee before she was summoned to the phone.
She grabbed half a bagel and munched on it as she hurried to the nearest private phone, in the formal parlor. Judy was on the line, breathless. "Sarah, I'm so sorry to do this -- "
"I have to go out of town, so I can't teach my classes today or tomorrow. I might be able to make it back by Wednesday, but I won't know until later today. I'm sorry I can't at least teach my ten o'clock today, but I have to leave for Philadelphia by nine -- "
"Is your mom all right?"
"Yes, yes, she's fine. It's for work. I have to meet with some professors at Penn."
"But it's spring break." They always scheduled the first week of camp to coincide with spring break, to lighten the burden on Judy and Gwen.
"It's Waterford College's spring break, not Penn's. I'm so sorry for the short notice. I just found out five minutes ago. Apparently they sent a letter, but I never received it."
"That's all right," said Sarah bleakly. "These things happen. We'll find someone to cover for you."
"Thank you, Sarah. Thank you. I swear I'll make it up to you. Look, I have sample quilts for display and handouts and lesson plans. I'll drop them off on my way."
"That would be great." It was as far from great as Sarah could imagine, but what else could she say?
Judy thanked her profusely and hung up. Sarah tossed her bagel in the trash and raced upstairs to the library. Ordinarily she could recite the teaching schedule from memory, but at the moment, she couldn't think of a single available instructor. She rifled through her files, found the weekly class schedule, and let out a moan. Judy's morning workshop was Bindings and Borders, and only Diane was free from ten o'clock until noon. Judy's class taught participants how to draft original pieced borders and how to finish the quilted tops in unusual fashions -- scalloped edges, spiral bindings, contrasting piping, prairie points. While Diane might be able to handle the drafting-borders segment of the class, she had never attempted the unusual bindings. For that matter, neither had Sarah.
She sank into the high-backed leather chair and spread the papers out on the desk. Judy's afternoon class was a weeklong program in computer-aided design. Summer knew how to use that software -- Sarah shuffled some pages -- and she was free from four until five every day that week except Wednesday, when she worked a longer shift at Grandma's Attic. Agnes had that afternoon off, as did Bonnie and Gwen. Gwen. Perfect.
The door opened and Sylvia entered. "I thought I'd find you here." She crossed the room and set a steaming cup of coffee on a coaster on the desktop. "When you didn't come back to breakfast, I made some inquiries and discovered you had been spotted racing upstairs, a look of sheer panic on your face."
Sarah filled Sylvia in on Judy's abrupt cancellations and her attempts to adjust the schedule. "The afternoon class should be fine, as long as Summer and Gwen agree. As for this morning -- " She folded her arms on the desk and buried her face in them. "I don't see how to resolve this."
"It's simple, really," said Sylvia, patting Sarah's shoulder. "I'll teach it. I've made all of those bindings and borders more times than I could count."
"You? But you have..." Sarah sat up and shifted around some papers. "You have your Hand-Quilting class from ten to eleven. Do you mean change the seminar from eleven until one? Because we can't. We need the classroom, and the students will need time for lunch."
"No, dear, that's not what I mean. I'll take over Judy's seminar. You'll teach my Hand-Quilting class."
"Why not? You're a fine hand-quilter."
"But I've never taught that class before." She had only taught Beginning Piecing and Quick Piecing, and she always planned the classroom time down to the minute and would rehearse for weeks in advance. "There must be someone else."
"I'm sure Andrew would do it if we asked, but since he's never quilted before, I'm confident the students would much prefer you."
Sarah tried to laugh, but it came out as a whimper. "Maybe we should cancel."
"Out of the question. There are twelve eager campers waiting to learn hand-quilting, and we can't disappoint them. You'll do just fine. Just go in there and teach them everything I taught you. What could be easier?"
Canceling the class, for one, but Sarah took one look at Sylvia's raised eyebrows and folded arms and decided against saying so. Sylvia would never admit that Sarah might not be up to the task, perhaps because she honestly believed Sarah capable of it. Worse than disappointing the twelve students would be disappointing Sylvia by not even trying.
"After I call Summer and Gwen, I'll run downstairs and bring back some breakfast," said Sarah, resigned. "I'll start preparing while I eat."
"You go ahead and get ready," said Sylvia. "I'll fix you a plate myself."
Sylvia did more than that; before leaving for her own nine o'clock lecture, she helped Sarah outline the topics she should cover the first morning and gather the appropriate supplies. Sarah went over her notes until the very moment class began, and although the students seemed disappointed by Sylvia's absence, the lesson went better than Sarah had expected.
She spent most of the rest of the day in the office catching up on all the work set aside that morning. She joined the faculty and guests for supper, and later that evening assisted Summer with the evening program, a slide show of antique quilts from the Waterford Historical Society's Quilt Documentation Project. She was too exhausted to join the rest of the Elm Creek Quilters for a celebratory cup of hot chocolate afterward, as was their tradition. She might have joined them if she could have her cocoa laced with rum, but as it was, sleep seemed the preferable option.
In comparison, the next day went remarkably well, with a broken slide projector and an overscheduled Machine Quilting workshop the worst crises she had to solve. She joined in the evening program, Games Night, with her old enthusiasm, and by Wednesday morning, the familiar excitement and anticipation of the first week of camp had returned. She went to the office cheerfully, the stress of Judy's last-minute cancellation faded, her confidence in her ability to manage Elm Creek Quilt Camp restored.
It was nearly eleven o'clock, and Sarah was considering returning to the kitchen for another cup of coffee when she heard someone running in the hallway. The library door opened suddenly and Matt rushed into the room. "Honey," he called. "There's a problem."
Sarah was already on her feet. "What happened?"
"Summer sent me to tell you Bonnie never showed for her ten o'clock workshop. Her students waited for twenty minutes before leaving. Those that weren't too angry just joined other classes, but the others..." He shrugged.
Sarah sank into her seat. She had been within arm's reach of the phone since breakfast and had checked the voicemail only fifteen minutes before. Bonnie had not called.
She glanced at the clock. There was still an hour left in the workshop. If Matt helped her gather the students, Sarah could teach the class. She could extend it past noon so they received the full two hours they had paid for, if the students didn't have scheduling conflicts, if the classroom space was available...
She scrambled for the schedule. Bonnie's workshop was on sewing tailored quilted jackets. Sarah could barely hem a pair of pants.
"We'll refund their money," said Sarah. She closed her eyes and rested her head against the soft leather chair.
Wherever Bonnie was, she had better have a very good excuse.
Copyright © 2004 by Jennifer Chiaverini
An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
The Master Quilter
An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
Such little white lies seem harmless enough, especially in the service of future happiness. Yet Elm Creek Manor, and the quilting retreat established there by the Elm Creek Quilters, thrives on the strength of women sharing their creativity, their challenges, and their dreams. Somehow, in the race to commemorate in Sylvia's bridal quilt all that they hold dear about her wisdom, skill, and devotion, they forget to give honesty its pride of place.
As the quilt blocks accumulate, the Elm Creek Quilters celebrate the joy of new beginnings and the ongoing success of their business -- until forces conspire to threaten their happiness and prosperity. Two among them falter in their personal relationships, yet they are too proud to share their pain. The financial problems of another leave the quilt project vulnerable to a malicious act that may prevent its completion. And as two others weigh the comfort of the present against dreams of a future far from Elm Creek Manor, closely guarded secrets strain the bonds of friendship with those who may be left behind.
The Dallas Morning News has praised the Elm Creek Quilts series as "classics of their kind," and The Master Quilter is Chiaverini's latest gift to readers.