Authors: Susan Wiggs
Also by SUSAN WIGGS
HOME BEFORE DARK
THE OCEAN BETWEEN US
SUMMER BY THE SEA
TABLE FOR FIVE
The Lakeshore Chronicles
SUMMER AT WILLOW LAKE
THE WINTER LODGE
SNOWFALL AT WILLOW LAKE
THE SUMMER HIDEAWAY
MARRYING DAISY BELLAMY
The Tudor Rose Trilogy
AT THE KING’S COMMAND
THE MAIDEN’S HAND
AT THE QUEEN’S SUMMONS
Chicago Fire Trilogy
THE CHARM SCHOOL
THE HORSEMASTER’S DAUGHTER
HALFWAY TO HEAVEN
A SUMMER AFFAIR
To my curly-headed daughter, Elizabeth—
you are my sunshine.
Odometer Reading 121,047
Wanted: a needle swift enough to sew this poem into a blanket.
—Charles Simic, Serbian-American poet
How do you say goodbye to a piece of your heart? If you’re a quilter, you have a time-honored way to express yourself.
A quilt is an object of peculiar intimacy. By virtue of the way it is created, every inch of the fabric is touched. Each scrap absorbs the quilter’s scent and the invisible oils of her skin, the smell of her household and, thanks to the constant pinning and stitching, her blood in the tiniest of quantities. And tears, though she might be loath to admit it.
My adult life has been a patchwork of projects, most of which were fleeting fancies of overreaching vision. I tend to seize on things, only to abandon them due to a lack of time, talent or inclination.
There are a few things I’m truly good at—
riding a bike, balancing a checkbook, orienteering, making balloon animals…and quilting.
I’m good at pulling together little bits and pieces of disparate objects. The process suits me. Each square captures my attention like a new landscape. Everything about quilting suits me, an occupation for hands and heart and imagination.
Other things didn’t work out so well—Szechuan cooking, topiary gardening, video games and philately come to mind.
My main project, my ultimate work-in-progress, is Molly, of course. And today she’s going away to college, clear across the country. Correction—I’m taking her away, delivering her like an insured parcel to a new life.
Hence the quilt. What better memento to give my daughter than a handmade quilt to keep in her dorm room, a comforter stitched with all the memories of her childhood? It’ll be a tangible reminder of who she is, where she comes from…and maybe, if I’m lucky, it will offer a glimpse of her dreams.
All my quilting supplies come from a shop in town called Pins & Needles. The place occupies a vintage building on the main street. It’s been in
continuous operation for more than five decades. As a child, I passed its redbrick and figured concrete storefront on my way to school each day, and I still remember the kaleidoscope of fabrics in the window, flyers announcing classes and raffles, the rainbow array of rich-colored thread, the treasure trove of glittering notions. My first job as a teenager was at the shop, cutting fabric and ringing up purchases.
When Molly started school, I worked there part time, as much for the extra money as for the company of women who frequented Pins & Needles. Fall is wonderful at the fabric shop, a nesting time, when people are making Halloween costumes, Thanksgiving centerpieces and Christmas decorations. People are never in a hurry in a fabric shop. They browse. They talk about their projects, giving you a glimpse of their lives.
The shop is a natural gathering place for women. The people I’ve met there through the years have become my friends. Customers and staff members stand around the cutting tables to discuss projects, give demonstrations and workshops, offer advice on everything from quilting techniques to child rearing to marriage. The ladies there all know about
my idea to make a quilt as a going-away gift for Molly. Some of them even created pieces for me to add, embroidered with messages of “Good Luck” and “Congratulations.”
You can always tell what’s going on in a woman’s life based on the quilt she’s working on. The new-baby quilts are always light and soft, the wedding quilts pure and clean, filled with tradition, as though a beautiful design might be an inoculation against future strife. House warming quilts tend to be artistic, suitable for hanging on an undecorated wall. The most lovingly created quilts of all are the memory quilts, often created as a group project to commemorate a significant event, help with healing or to celebrate a life.
I’ve always thought a quilt held together with a woman’s tears to be the strongest of all.
Nonquilters have a hard time getting their heads around the time and trouble of a project like this. My friend Cherisse, who has three kids, said, “Linda, honey, I’m just glad to get them out of the house—up and running, with no criminal record.” Another friend confessed, “My daughter would only ruin it. She’s so careless with her things.” My neighbor Erin, who started law school when her
son entered first grade, now works long hours and makes a ton of money. “I wish I had the time,” she said wistfully when I showed her my project.
What I’ve found is that you make time for the things that matter to you. Everyone
the time. It’s just a question of deciding what to do with that time. For some people, it’s providing for their family. For others, it’s finding that precarious balance between taking care of business and the soul-work of being there for husband, children, friends and neighbors.
I’m supposed to be making the last-minute preparations before our departure on the epic road trip, but instead I find myself dithering over the quilt, contemplating sashing and borders and whether my color palette is strong and balanced. Although the top is pieced, the backing and batting in place, there is still much work to be done. Embellishments to add. It might not be proper quilting technique, but quilting is an art, not a science. My crafter’s bag is filled with snippets of fabric culled from old, familiar clothes, fabric toys and textiles that have been outgrown, but were too dear or too damaged to take to the Goodwill bin. I’m a big believer in charity bins. Just because a garment is no
longer suitable doesn’t mean it couldn’t be right for someone else. On the other hand, some things are not meant to be parted with.
I sift through the myriad moments of Molly’s childhood, which I keep close to my heart, like flowers from a prized bouquet, carefully pressed between sheets of blotter paper. I fold the quilt and put it in the bag with all the bright bits and mementos—a tiny swatch of a babydoll’s nightie, an official-looking Girl Scout badge, a precious button that is the only survivor of her first Christmas dress…. So many memories lie mute within this long-handled bag, waiting for me to use them as the final embellishments on this work of art.
I’ll never finish in time.
You can do this. I try to give myself a pep talk, but the words fall through my mind and trickle away. This is unexpected, this inability to focus. A panic I haven’t been expecting rises up in me, grabbing invisibly at my chest. Breathe, I tell myself. Breathe.
The house already feels different; a heaviness hangs in the drapes over the old chintz sofa. Sounds echo on the wooden floors—a suitcase being rolled
to the front porch, a set of keys dropped on the hall table. An air of change hovers over everything.
Dan has driven to the Chevron station to fill the Suburban’s tank. He’s not coming; this long drive with out him will be a first for our family. Until now, every road trip has involved all three of us— Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Big Sur, speeding along endless highways with the music turned up loud. We did everything as a family. I can’t even remember what Dan and I used to do before Molly. Those days seem like a life that happened to someone else. We were a couple, but Molly made us a family.
This time, Dan will stay home with Hoover, who is getting on in years and doesn’t do well at the kennel anymore.
It’s better this way. Dan was never fond of saying goodbye. Not that anybody enjoys it, but in our family, I’m always the stoic, the one who makes the emotional work look easy—on the outside, anyway. My solo drive back home will be another first for me. I hope I’ll use the time well, getting to know myself again, maybe. Scary thought—what if I get to know myself and I’m someone I don’t want to be?
Now, as the heaviness of the impending departure
presses down on me, I wonder if we should have planned things differently. Perhaps the three of us should have made this journey together, treating it as a family vacation, like a trip to Disney World or the Grand Canyon.
On the other hand, that’s a bad idea. There can be no fooling ourselves into thinking this is something other than what it is—the willful ejection of Molly from our nest. It’s too late for second thoughts, anyway. She has to be moved into her dorm in time for freshman orientation. It’s been marked on the kitchen calendar for weeks—the expiration date on her childhood.
At the other end of the downstairs, a chord sounds on the piano. Molly tends to sit down and play when she has a lot on her mind. Maybe it’s her way of sorting things out.
I’m grateful for the years of lessons she took, even when we could barely afford them. I wanted my daughter to have things I never had, and music lessons are one of them. She’s turned into an expressive musician, transforming standard pieces into something heartfelt and mystical. Showy trills and glissandos sluice through the air, filling every empty space in the house. The piano will sit fallow
and silent when she’s away; neither Dan nor I play. He never had the time to learn; I never had the wherewithal or—I admit it—the patience. Ah, but Molly. She was fascinated with the instrument from the time she stretched up on toddler legs to reach the keys of the secondhand piano we bought at auction. She started lessons when she was only six.
All the hours of practice made up the sound track of her growing years. “Bill Grogan’s Goat” was an early favorite, leading to more challenging works, from “The Rainbow Connection” to “Für Elise,” Bartok and beyond. Almost every evening for the past twelve years, Molly practiced while Dan and I cleaned up after dinner. This was her way of avoiding dishwashing duty, and we considered it a fair division of labor—I rinse, he loads, she serenades. She managed to make it to age eighteen without learning to properly load a dishwasher, yet she can play Rachmaninoff.
In the middle of a dramatic pause between chords, a car horn sounds.
The bag with the quilt falls, momentarily forgotten, to the floor. That innocent
of the horn signals that summer has ended.
Molly stops playing, leaving a profound hollow
of silence in the house. Seconds later, I can still feel the throb of the notes in the stillness. I go to the landing at the turn of the stairs in time to see her jump up, leaving the piano bench askew.
She runs outside, the screen door snapping shut behind her like a mousetrap. Watching through the window on the landing, I brace myself for another storm of emotion. She has been saying goodbye to Travis all summer long. Today, the farewell will be final.
Here is a picture of Molly: Curly hair wadded into a messy ponytail. Athletic shorts balanced on her hip bones, a T-shirt with a dead rock star on it. A body toned by youth, volleyball and weekend swims at the lake. A face that shows every emotion, even when she doesn’t want it to.
Now she flings herself into her boyfriend’s arms as a sob breaks from her, mingling with the sound of morning birdsong. Oh, that yearning, the piercing kind only love-dazed teenagers can feel. Hands holding for the last time. Grief written in their posture as their bodies melt together. Travis’s arms encircle her with their ropy strength, and his long form bows protectively, walling her off from me.
This kid is both the best and worst kind of
boyfriend a mother wants for her daughter. The best, because he’s a safe driver and he respects her. The worst, because he incites a passion and loyalty in Molly that impairs her vision of the future.
Last spring, he won her heart like a carnival prize in a ring toss, and they’ve been inseparable ever since. He is impossibly, irresistibly good-looking, and there’s no denying that he’s been good to her. He makes no secret of the fact that he doesn’t want her to go away. He wants her to feel as if
is her next step, not college.
All summer I’ve been trying to tell her that the right guy wouldn’t stand in the way of her dreams. The right guy is going to look at her the way Dan once looked at me, as if he could see the whole world in my face. When Travis regards Molly, he’s seeing…not the whole world. His next weekend, maybe.
Hoover lifts his leg and pees on the tire of Travis’s Camaro, the guy’s pride and joy. Travis and Molly don’t notice.
I can’t hear their conversation, but I can see his mouth shape the words:
My heart echoes the sentiment. I want her to stay
close, too. The difference is, I know she needs to leave.
Molly speaks; I hope she’s telling him she has to go away, that this opportunity is too big to miss. She has won a scholarship to a world-class private university. She’s getting a chance at a life most people in our small western Wyoming town never dream of. Here in a part of the state that appears roadless and sparse on travel maps, life moves slowly. Our town is filled with good people, harsh weather and a sense that big dreams seem to come true only when you leave. The main industry here is a plant that makes prefab log homes.
I turn away from the window, giving Molly her private farewell. She is far more upset about leaving Travis than about leaving Dan and me, a fact that is hard to swallow.
Dan comes back from the service station. He visits with Travis briefly. I compare the two of them as they stand together talking. Dan is solidly built, his shoulders and arms sculpted by his years at the plant before he made supervisor. He looks as grounded and dependable as the pickup truck he drives. By contrast, Travis is tall and lithe with youth, his
slender body curving into a question mark as he gestures with pride at his cherry-red car.
The two of them shake hands; then Dan heads inside. Our eyes meet and skate away; we’re not ready to talk yet. In the kitchen, the two of us make a few final preparations—bundling road maps together, adding ice to the cooler of drinks.
Summer glares against the screen door, its hot scent a reminder that the day is already a few hours old. I think of a thousand other summer days, whiled away without a care for the slow passing of time. We built a tree house, went on bike rides, hung a rope swing over a swimming hole, made sno-cones, watched ants on the march. We lay face up in the grass and stared at clouds until our eyes watered. We fought about curfews, shopped for back-to-school supplies, sang along with songs on the radio. We laughed at nothing until our sides ached, and cried at movies with sad endings.
I sneak a glance at Dan. I can’t picture him crying at the movies with me. That was always Molly’s role, the exclusive domain of females. Without really planning to, she and I created rituals and traditions, and these things formed a powerful bond.