Authors: Jennifer Chiaverini
The Sugar Camp Quilt
The Master Quilter
The Quilter’s Legacy
The Runaway Quilt
The Cross-Country Quilters
The Quilter’s Apprentice
Elm Creek Quilts: Quilt Projects
Inspired by the Elm Creek Quilts Novels
Return to Elm Creek: More Quilt Projects
Inspired by the Elm Creek Quilts Novels
SIMON & SCHUSTER
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2005 by Jennifer Chiaverini
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Endpaper illustrations by Melanie Marder Parks
SIMON & SCHUSTER and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The Christmas quilt : an Elm Creek Quilts novel / Jennifer Chiaverini.
1. Compson, Sylvia (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Quiltmakers—Fiction. 3. Quilting—Fiction. 4. Quilts—Fiction. 5. Women—Fiction. I. Title.
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To my grandparents,
Virginia and Edward Riechman
"I give you simply the joy and hope of the season.”
YLVIA ’ S CHILDHOOD HOME
was so full of memories it was a wonder there was any room for furniture. As the December days grew colder and the nights longer, the bygone years seemed to encroach ever more insistently into the present—vexing Sylvia day and night with their persistence. She imagined spirits of Christmases past crowding the halls, arguing over favorite chairs by the fire, looking about Elm Creek Manor, and shaking their heads in dismay over how she had let the place go. She would earn a small fortune if she could charge them rent, but regrettably, the spirits offered only longing whispers and mournful sighs. Nothing would appease them save an old-fashioned Bergstrom family Christmas, with all the trappings of the holiday, every beloved tradition fulfilled to the letter.
If Sylvia addressed the spirits—which she would not do, she was seventy-six but not quite ready to speak aloud to an empty room, thank you very much—she would warn them that they were bound to be disappointed. As much as Sylvia missed the Christmas joys of her youth, the Bergstroms were gone, every last one of them save Sylvia herself, and their traditions had passed on with them. Besides, Sylvia had a plan whose success depended upon this being the dullest, least festive, and most yawn-inducing Christmas in the history of Elm Creek Manor.
Her young friend Sarah McClure laughed off Sylvia’s warnings of a dreary Christmas in their remote central Pennsylvania home. “Excitement is precisely what I’m trying to avoid,” explained Sarah as she sewed three quilted stockings to hang before the fireplace in the library. “Christmas at my mother’s house would be interesting, but for all the wrong reasons.”
Exasperated, Sylvia strengthened her resolve to bring about reconciliation between Sarah and her mother. After all, Sarah had promised to try. A year and a half earlier, Sylvia had returned to Elm Creek Manor after a fifty-year absence, the sole heir to the Bergstrom estate upon the death of her estranged sister, Claudia. She had intended to sell it, but with Sarah’s help, she made peace with her past and realized that she could never sell her beloved family home. The question remained, however, of how to restore life and happiness to the manor, which was much too large for one old woman living alone. Sarah had devised an ingenious solution, combining their love for quilting with their need for community by turning the Bergstrom estate into a summer retreat for quilters. As Sylvia and Sarah negotiated their business agreement, Sylvia, in repayment for all Sarah had done to help Sylvia reconcile with estranged loved ones, decided to add a clause that would encourage Sarah to mend fences in her own life.
“I don’t know what kind of conflict stands between you and your mother,” Sylvia had said, “but you must promise me you’ll talk to her and do your best to resolve it. Don’t be a stubborn fool like me and let grudges smolder and relationships die.”
The unexpected request had clearly caught Sarah by surprise. “I don’t think you know how difficult that will be.”
“I don’t pretend to know, but I can guess. I don’t expect miracles. All I ask is that you learn from my mistakes and try.”
Sarah had hesitated so long before making her reply that Sylvia had feared she would refuse and that their agreement to create Elm Creek Quilt Camp would fall through, but at last, Sarah agreed. Sylvia took her at her word and both women devoted themselves to the creation of Elm Creek Quilts. They worked so hard that first year to realize their vision that Sylvia could excuse Sarah’s failure to make good on her promise. They were so busy, working fourteen-hour days or more with the help of Sarah’s husband, Matt, and their talented staff of quilting teachers, that Sarah had no time to visit her mother and resolve their differences. But then camp ended for the summer, and still Sarah did little more than call her mother for a brief chat every other week. When she announced her intention to spend the holidays at Elm Creek Manor, Sylvia realized that Sarah would put off fulfilling her promise forever if she could get away with it. Since voiding their agreement was out of the question—Elm Creek Quilts had enriched Sylvia’s life too much for her to throw it all away—she must see to it that her condition was fulfilled.
Sylvia figured there was no better time than Christmas to seek peace within a family, but Sarah could hardly reconcile with her mother from a hundred miles away. Somehow Sylvia would have to persuade Sarah that she would have a much merrier Christmas in her own childhood home, with a mother who loved her even if they did not always get along. Unfortunately, Sarah wasn’t buying. Instead of seeking a happier holiday elsewhere, she had become determined to force a Merry Christmas upon Sylvia whether she wanted one or not.
If Sylvia had her way, she would observe Christmas as she had every season since abandoning her family estate for a modest home in Sewickley, Pennsylvania—church services in the morning, a Christmas concert on the radio after, perhaps dinner later at the home of a persistent friend who refused to heed Sylvia’s firm assurances that she did not mind spending the holidays alone. It had always sufficed, and she had woken every December 26 relieved that she had made it through another Christmas without a fuss, without too many wistful reminiscences of holidays long past. But it had been much easier to ignore the whispers of memory from a distance. Now that she had returned home, she found herself longing to heed their call.
And if she didn’t know better, she might suspect that Sarah knew how close she was to giving in, so often did she tempt her to abandon her plans for an unremarkable Christmas.
“Sylvia?” Sarah called from the hallway, moments before she appeared in the doorway to the kitchen where Sylvia was preparing a cup of tea. “Are you busy?”
Sylvia stirred honey into her tea. “I was just about to settle down with a good book.”
“Then you have time to help me find the Christmas decorations.”
“I already told you where to look.” Sylvia carried her cup into the west sitting room, her favorite place to read or quilt.
Sunlight streamed in through the windows shut tight against the cold. Through the bare branches of the stately elms outside, she glimpsed the bright red of the barn on the other side of Elm Creek, which was a slash of gray-blue cutting through the white crust of snow.
“You told me the decorations are in the attic. If you can’t be more specific than that, it will be Easter before I find them.”
Sylvia shrugged, lifted her book from where it lay face-down on her chair, and seated herself. “Perhaps you shouldn’t bother then.”
“Honestly, Sylvia,” admonished Sarah. “It’s the morning of Christmas Eve. If we don’t decorate today, what’s the point?”
“You’re right. Why don’t we forgo decorations this year? We’ll have to take them down in a few days anyway. It hardly seems worth the effort.”
Sarah stared at her in disbelief. “I half expected you to wrap that up with a ‘Bah, humbug!’”
Sylvia slipped on her glasses, which hung from a fine silver chain around her neck. “I am neither a Scrooge nor a Grinch, thank you, but I have kept a quiet Christmas since before you were born. I warned you time and time again. If you wanted a more festive holiday, you and Matthew should have accepted your mother’s invitation. I imagine her decorations are lovely.”
Sarah frowned as she usually did whenever Sylvia brought up her mother. “My mother invited me, not Matt.”
“Is that so? I assumed your husband was included implicitly. Husbands usually are for this sort of thing.”
“You’ve never met my mother or you’d know better than to assume Matt’s included unless she mentions him by name. She still hopes our wedding was a bad dream and she’ll wake up one morning to find me engaged to my boyfriend from freshman year at Penn State.”
Sylvia was certain Sarah was exaggerating. Matthew was a fine young man, and Sylvia could not imagine how Sarah’s mother could possibly disapprove of their marriage as vehemently as Sarah claimed. “But what of your agreement to alternate visits between your side of the family and Matthew’s? Since you spent last Christmas with his father, your mother was quite reasonable to expect you would visit her this year.”
“We could have.” Sarah sat down in the chair opposite Sylvia’s. “Except that we wanted to have Christmas here, with you.”
“Christmas is a time for family.”
“You know you’re like family to us. Elm Creek Manor is our home now. We couldn’t bear to leave you in this big house all alone at Christmas time.”
Sylvia feigned indifference and turned a page, although she had not read a word of it. “Don’t lay the burden of your decision at my feet. I managed just fine last year.”
“If we had known we were leaving you here by yourself, we would have stayed. You told us you were going to invite Agnes for Christmas dinner.”
“My sister-in-law was out of town visiting one of her daughters.”
“Yes, which you’d known since Thanksgiving but neglected to mention. Would you please put down that book and talk to me?”
Sylvia closed the book, marking her page with a finger, and peered at Sarah over the rims of her glasses. “Very well, young lady. I’m listening.”
Sarah regarded her with fond exasperation. “You keep suggesting that if Matt and I wanted a festive Christmas, we should have gone somewhere else. I don’t understand why we can’t celebrate a Merry Christmas here, with you.”
Privately, Sylvia acknowledged that Sarah had good reason to be puzzled. After all, they had so much worth celebrating: Sylvia’s return to the family estate, the successful first year of Elm Creek Quilt Camp, new friends, and a future bright with possibilities. If anyone ought to be dancing about with a “Merry Christmas” on her lips, it should be Sylvia.
She should have known Sarah was too perceptive to be deceived by her simple ruse, but she wasn’t quite ready to give up.
“I’m too old to make such a fuss,” she said. “Christmas is for children.”
She could tell from Sarah’s expression that she had done little to dampen her young friend’s enthusiasm. “Then long live childhood,” Sarah declared. Sylvia sighed and opened her book again, but Sarah reached over and closed it. “You must have some Bergstrom family Christmas traditions you’d like to revive.”
It was true; the Bergstroms had passed down many lovely Christmas traditions through the generations. The week before Christmas, the best cooks in the family would labor in the kitchen, turning out the most delicious treats—cookies, gingerbread, and strudel from her great-grandfather’s sister’s secret recipe. Delicious aromas of spices and baking once filled Elm Creek Manor at Christmastime, mingling with the scents of pine and holly and cinnamon. Every member of the family helped trim the stairways and mantels with freshly cut boughs, but only the most recently married couple was allowed to select the family Christmas tree. Before the south wing of the manor was constructed, the Christmas tree was displayed in the front parlor, but in later years it occupied the ballroom. They adorned the tree with the accumulated treasures of three generations—ceramic figurines from Germany, sparkling crystal teardrops from New York City, carved wooden angels with woolen hair from Italy. The children’s favorite ornament was an eight-pointed glass star. Its red points with gold tips shone in the candlelight, casting flashes of brilliant color from floor to ceiling. On Christmas Eve, an adult would hide the star somewhere in the manor and send the children searching. The lucky child who found the star would win a prize, a small toy or bag of candy, and would be lifted high to place the star on the top of the tree. Twice Sylvia had found the star, but after her brother learned to walk, she always let him find it. Her sister had never found the star without the help of a kindly uncle whispering in her ear.
There was so much more, of course—memories crowded in of church services, music, stories, friends, and laughter. Yes, the Bergstroms had enjoyed many wonderful holiday traditions, but Sylvia did not think she could bear seeing them restored by well-meaning youngsters who could not truly understand their significance, especially if it meant that Sarah would postpone for yet another year a visit home for Christmas.
Undaunted by Sylvia’s silence, Sarah persisted. “You can’t be too old to sit back and enjoy Christmas decorations.”
Sylvia sighed. There seemed little point in preventing her.
“Of course not.”
Sarah took her hands. “Then keep me company in the attic while I look for the decorations. We have to put up a little tinsel and holly or Santa will think we’ve forgotten him.”
Sarah insisted Sylvia precede her up the narrow, creaking attic steps—the better to break her fall should she stumble, Sylvia supposed. She shivered in the chilly darkness as Sarah stepped around her toward the center of the space. With a tug on the pull cord, pale light from the single, bare bulb spilled down, illuminating a circle of floorboards. Stacks of trunks, cartons, and old furniture cast deep shadows in the corners beyond the reach of the light.
To Sylvia’s right lay the older west wing of the manor, the original home of the Bergstrom family, built in the middle of the nineteenth century by the first Bergstroms to immigrate to America from Germany. Directly before her stretched the south wing, added when her father was a boy. In the attic, the seams joining the original house and the addition were more evident than on the first three stories, the color of the walls subtly different, the floor not quite even. Little visible evidence betrayed that fact, as the belongings of four generations of her family covered nearly every square foot of floor space.
Sarah surveyed the attic with satisfaction, in all likelihood congratulating herself for finally persuading Sylvia upstairs. “Well? Where should we begin?”
Sylvia hadn’t the faintest idea. Since returning from her self-imposed exile, she had visited the attic as infrequently as possible. She had not sought out the boxes of Christmas trimmings in more than fifty years.
“Over this way, I suppose,” Sylvia told Sarah, gesturing toward what she guessed was the general location of two trunks, one green and one blue, and one sturdy carton. At first she stood aside and let Sarah do the work, but soon she began to feel foolish and impatient standing idle, so she joined in the search.