The Wedding Quilt
An Elm Creek Quilts Novel
The New York Times bestseller celebrates one of America’s most romantic and enduring traditions
As her daughter’s wedding day approaches, Sarah McClure reflects upon Elm Creek brides past and present—the traditions they honored, the legacies they bequeathed, the wedding quilts that contain their stories in every stitch.
Unexpectedly, Caroline confides, “I wish I had a wedding quilt, one I made myself.” Sarah yearns to grant her fervent wish, but even the most talented novice would be daunted by the task of stitching, mere days before the wedding, a worthy symbol of the couple's bonds of love, commitment, trust, and hope for the future. Turning to her cherished friends, the Elm Creek Quilters, Sarah asks them to pool their creative gifts. As the women stitch, their memories render a vivid pastiche of family, friendship, and love in all its varieties.
The tinkling of silverware on china and the murmur of conversation filled the elegant theater of Union Hall, where Sarah sat on the stage at the head table, discreetly reviewing her speech on the computer pad resting on her lap. More than one hundred members of the Waterford Historical Society and their guests had gathered to enjoy a delicious luncheon of cranberry- stuffed chicken breast, sautéed green and wax beans, and whipped butternut squash to celebrate the dedication of the Agnes Bergstrom Emberly Quilt Gallery. The food smelled wonderful, but Sarah had taken only a few bites. She had been invited to deliver the keynote address for the event, and even though she had given hundreds of speeches and lectures throughout her career as an Elm Creek Quilter, her appetite still fled before each and every engagement. “You should eat something,” said James quietly, seated at her right. He smiled encouragingly, and she had to smile back. He was such a handsome young man. He’d had his hair cut earlier that day in preparation for the wedding, his reddish- brown locks trimmed so short that they nearly stood straight up. Out of respect for the occasion he wore a blazer over his plain white T-shirt, which hugged his slender but muscular frame, and his indigo blue jeans were rolled into wide cuffs at the ankle. He and his friends seemed to believe they had invented the style and met their elders’ comparisons to the fashions of the 1950s with bemused, indulgent silence.
“I’ll ask them to wrap mine to go,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can nibble some dessert while I’m signing books.”
“I wouldn’t count on it. I doubt you’ll have time to set down your pen.”
Considering the number of guests in attendance, she had to admit he had a point. She let her gaze travel from table to table, and occasionally someone looked up to the stage, caught her eye, and smiled. Tickets for the event had sold out within a week, delighting the president of the Waterford Historical Society, and the booksellers were doing a brisk business at the table between the theater doors. From the moment Sarah had arrived, people had been coming up to introduce themselves, sometimes sharing their memories of Agnes or of Elm Creek Quilt Camp, sometimes thanking her profusely for acquiring so many invaluable, irreplaceable quilts for the society’s collection, now proudly on display in the upstairs gallery named for her old friend. So why, even though she knew her audience was friendly and receptive, did Sarah feel so nervous?
“You’ll be fine once you get started,” James reassured her, reading her mind. “You always are. But you’ll feel better if you have something to eat.”
“Yes, sir,” she told him wanly, picking up her fork and sampling the roast chicken. The cranberry stuffing gave it a savory, tangy flavor, and under different circumstances she would have cleaned the plate and requested the recipe for Anna Del Maso, the chef at Elm Creek Manor. She took another bite and glanced down the table just in time to see the president of the Waterford Historical Society check her watch and push back her chair. It was time. Her mouth suddenly dry, Sarah washed down the chicken with a gulp of water. James touched her on the back as he rose and went to confer briefly with the president. Conversation faded as he took the podium— without a pad or notes of any kind, Sarah noted with rueful admiration— and adjusted the microphone.
“Good afternoon,” he greeted them, his voice confident and cheerful. “Thank you for joining us today as we dedicate Union Hall’s newest permanent exhibit, the Agnes Bergstrom Emberly Quilt Gallery.” A smattering of applause went up from his listeners. “Some of you had the pleasure of knowing Agnes during her many years as an active member of the Waterford Historical Society, including a two- year stint as president, a post she assumed soon after she launched the campaign to save this very building. Although Mrs. Emberly was not born in the Elm Creek Valley, as a longtime resident, she cared deeply about the history of our community and was equally passionate about preserving and documenting historically significant but long- forgotten quilts discovered in storage rooms, attics, and boxes underneath beds. It was she who founded the Waterford Historical Society’s extensive collection of quilts, a mission that she passed on to our keynote speaker.” He spared a proud smile for Sarah. “Although I was just a kid when I knew Mrs. Emberly, I know she would be very pleased with how the collection has grown under Sarah McClure’s stewardship.”
Sarah felt herself flush with pride as applause rang out again, but then her heart thumped and she checked her pad to be sure she had not accidentally deleted her speech.
“I’m sure Sarah McClure is well-known to all of you as the president and founder of Elm Creek Quilts,” James continued, “the world’s most respected and renowned quilters’ retreat. There she introduced countless thousands of aspiring quilters to the art, and inspired innumerable experienced quilters to more fully develop their creative gifts. Her contributions to the study of quilts and other textiles, including her three- volume series on the history of quilting from the medieval era through the early twenty- first century, have rightly earned her awards and accolades. Her latest book, The Quilts of Pennsylvania, is the most thoroughly researched and detailed state quilt documentation project ever undertaken, ten years in the making and well worth the wait. And I’m not saying that just because my name appears in the acknowledgments.”
A ripple of laughter went up from the audience.
“This afternoon our speaker will tell you more about Agnes Bergstrom Emberly, whom she was proud to call a friend and colleague, and in whose memory the Waterford Historical Society has dedicated their newly refurbished east gallery. When, afterward, you view this magnificent collection of antique quilts, displayed for the first time in its entirety, I hope you’ll keep in mind that the collection would not exist if not for the foresight of Mrs. Emberly and the wisdom, tenacity, and generosity of our speaker. Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great privilege to introduce to you my mother, Sarah Mallory McClure.”
Sarah smiled as she rose and took the podium to thunderous applause.
“You paused after saying ‘my mother’ for dramatic effect,” she teased James afterward, as they strolled through the gallery admiring the collection. “You always do.”
“I had to,” said James, feigning innocence. “But not for dramatic effect. Their reaction would have drowned out your name. One hundred sixty people simultaneously saying ‘Awww’ can get kind of loud.”
“One hundred sixty?”
James nodded. “I counted.”
“You always remember.” No wonder her hand was sore. She had signed books for nearly an hour after her speech, about half of them pen upon paper, the other half stylus to pad. A traditionalist where books were concerned, she preferred the look and smell and feel of paper, but she appreciated the convenience and frugality of electronic books, as well as the ability to enlarge the quilt photos so that every exquisite detail could be seen and admired.
Sarah paused in front of one of her favorite quilts, an Album quilt fashioned from green, Prussian blue, and Turkey red calicoes, the muslin center of each block signed by authors and politicians from the mid- nineteenth century. The ink had faded away long ago and, in some places, had deteriorated the muslin fabric, but the black embroidery over each signature remained. From her research for The Quilts of Pennsylvania, Sarah knew that in 1860, local women had sewn and raffled off the quilt to raise money to build the first library in the Elm Creek Valley, and that it had been displayed on the wall behind the circulation desk until the 1950s, when a new, larger, modern library was built a few blocks away. The quilt had been one of the first Agnes had acquired for the collection, a gift from University Realty, a local real estate rental and development company that had somehow obtained it when the original library was razed. At the time, Agnes and Sarah had privately agreed that the new CEO had donated the quilt not out of any particular love for quilts or local history, but to atone for the irresponsible behavior of their most notorious associate. “However they acquired it, and whatever public relations benefits they may gain from the donation, what matters most is that the quilt now belongs to the Waterford Historical Society,” Agnes had declared as she prepared the quilt for preservation. “We’ll care for it properly and ensure that it will be here to educate and inspire for many years to come.”
The Waterford Historical Society had kept their promise, and Sarah had helped. Her first book, published by the Pennsylvania State University Press, was a study of the Authors’ Album and included detailed biographies of each person who had signed the quilt, some of whom had long since slipped into obscurity. It was required reading for all eighth graders in the Elm Creek Valley School District, and teachers often brought their classes on field trips to Union Hall to see the quilt. Now students, teachers, parents, and citizens alike would be able to view the historic treasure at any time of year without needing to make arrangements for the quilt to be retrieved from protective storage.
Since then, Album quilts had held a particular fascination for Sarah. “I’m planning an Album quilt for your sister,” she confided to James as they strolled on. “I’ve already pieced dozens of Memory Album blocks, and at the reception, I’ll collect signatures from the guests.”
“That’s a great idea,” said James, stopping short in front of another quilt. “But don’t you think Caroline would prefer something like this instead?”
Sarah looked to see which quilt he meant and had to laugh. The quilt James indicated was another of her favorites, but it was very different from the Authors’ Album. The intricate designs of the sixteen large blocks always reminded Sarah of the traditional Baltimore Album quilts popular in the first half of the nineteenth century, with appliquéd pieces creating still-life portraits in fabric— a basket of garden vegetables, a red banked barn, a farmhouse, a school, a ring of maple leaves and seeds, a wooden bucket half encircled by flowers, branches of elm leaves framing four lines of embroidered words, a book, and other tableaus. The most unusual block depicted what looked to be a large black kettle hanging above an open fire from a pole suspended between two bare- limbed trees. But whereas most Baltimore Albums offered flat, stylized images of elegant subjects— floral bouquets, nesting birds, wreaths, beribboned baskets, urns of greenery— this quilt depicted more ordinary, homey things, and the buildings, especially, used perspective to create more realistic portraits of daily life in the Elm Creek Valley.
“It’s a beautiful quilt,” Sarah said, tucking her hand into the crook of her son’s arm as they walked on, “but it’s not Caroline’s style, and you know it. It’s far too fancy and flowery for her taste.”
“And you’d never be able to finish something like this in time.”
“That too,” Sarah confessed with a smile. “But the Memory Album quilt will be a perfect wedding quilt, don’t you think? Their friends and family will write personal messages to the bride and groom, and when the blocks are sewn together and the quilt is complete, it’ll be a wonderful memento of their wedding day.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” James hastened to assure her. “I was just teasing about the Creek’s Crossing Album. It’s a masterpiece, but it doesn’t suit Caroline and Leo.”
“In a way it does,” Sarah mused. “It was a wedding gift. In the days when this quilt was made, in the mid- nineteenth century, girls would learn to sew by piecing quilts as a part of their domestic training. In this region, a properly brought up young woman was expected to complete twelve quilt tops by the time she reached marriageable age. The thirteenth quilt was meant to be her masterpiece, a beautiful, tangible sign that she had learned all the womanly arts of needlework she would need as a wife and mother. When the young woman became engaged, all the bride- to- be’s female friends and family would gather for a quilting bee, where the thirteen pieced and appliquéd tops would be quilted and everyone would celebrate the engagement.”
“I remember,” said James. “I read about the custom in Gerda Bergstrom’s memoir. But this quilt top was made by one woman and given to another, so it didn’t follow tradition perfectly.”
“That’s true.” Thinking of that lucky bride from long ago made her yearn to see the bride- to- be she loved and missed dearly. “Do you think we can duck out of here discreetly? I want to be home to welcome Caroline and Leo when they arrive.”
“It’s not like they’ll be showing up at an empty house. Dad and Grandma will be there, not to mention at least a few Elm Creek Quilters.”
“I know, but I want to be there too.”
James admitted that he didn’t want to miss his twin sister’s homecoming, either, but he suggested that rather than sneak away, they bid the president of the historical society a proper good- bye and explain that they were needed at home.
Soon they were on their way, James at the wheel of the Elm Creek Quilts shuttle, which hummed along almost noiselessly as they traveled south along the highway from downtown Waterford. After a time, James turned onto the narrow private road that wound through the leafy wood encircling the Bergstrom estate, and Sarah was struck by a sudden memory of the first time she had taken that route, riding along in Matt’s red pickup truck as he tried to find the home of the reclusive woman who had hired him to restore the overgrown gardens. She remembered clutching her seat as the truck bounded jerkily up a gradual incline rife with potholes, hoping fervently that no one was approaching them from the opposite direction. She had doubted that both cars could stay on the narrow road without one of them scraping a side on a tree. Suddenly the leafy wood had given way to a clearing, and the road, which had become little more than two dirt trails an axle’s width apart surrounded by overgrown grass, had climbed and curved around a two- story red barn built into the side of a hill. Just beyond the barn, the path crossed a low bridge over a burbling creek and then widened into a gravel road lined with towering elms. Then the manor came into view at last, and Sarah, who had been expecting a quaint cottage, could only stare in heartfelt admiration.
The road through the forest was paved now, and wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other safely at low, cautious speeds. Matt’s sunlit apple orchard filled the once grassy clearing, but the manor still captivated Sarah whenever it came into view— three stories of gray stone and dark wood, its unexpected elegance enhanced by the rambling, natural beauty of its surroundings. Most important of all, it was home.
James parked in front of the solar charging station and plugged in the car. “Looks like Anna and Gina aren’t back yet,” he said, noting the absence of the other shuttle as they climbed the four stone stairs to the back door.
“Anna said they were going all the way to her favorite specialty market in Harrisburg.” There, Sarah suspected, Anna and her daughter, Gina, had probably spent far more than they should have on delicacies for the wedding week. Soon after Caroline and Leo had announced their engagement, Anna and Gina had offered to cater the entire celebration as their family’s gift to the bride and groom. At first Caroline had reluctantly demurred, since Gina was also the maid of honor and Caroline didn’t want to burden her with too many responsibilities, but she couldn’t withstand the combined persuasive power of the two Del Maso– Bernstein women. And thank goodness for that. Sarah couldn’t imagine anyone else doing the job half as well— or with a quarter of the care and affection— as Gina and Anna would. Anna was Sarah’s best friend, and their daughters, who were two years apart in age but had grown up together in the manor, were as close as sisters.
Together they went upstairs to the library, where Sarah put away her pad and James checked his personal messages and then those for Elm Creek Quilts. A breeze fragrant with ripe apples stirred the long cotton curtains hanging in the west windows, and Sarah jumped at the sound of wheels crunching fallen autumn leaves on the road they had just traveled. “At last,” she cried, hurrying to the window and drawing back the curtain, but instead of Caroline and Leo’s car, she spied the other Elm Creek Quilts shuttle. After it came to a halt in its usual place at the charging unit, Anna emerged from the driver’s side and plugged it in, her long gray French braid slipping over her shoulder as she chatted merrily with her daughter. Then Gina appeared, climbing out the side door and reaching back inside to fill her arms with grocery bags, laughing at something her mother said. Gina’s black, close- cropped curls were as dark as Anna’s had once been, but she was petite and slender, whereas Anna was taller and had always carried a few more pounds than she preferred. Sarah was about to suggest that she and James hurry outside to help Anna and Gina when she heard the back door squeak open and bang shut. It was Jeremy, calling out a greeting to his wife and daughter as he descended the back stairs. The three made short work of distributing the bags among themselves, and within moments they had brought everything inside, the back door banging shut again behind them.
When Sarah sighed and let the curtains fall back into place, James joined her at the window, wrapped Sarah in a hug, and rested his chin on the top of her head. “Poor Mom, waiting by the window for her baby. You know Caroline wasn’t planning to get here until suppertime.”
“I know that’s what she said, but I thought maybe they were able to set out earlier.”
“I’d bet money that Caroline stayed at her desk studying until the last possible moment before they had to leave.”
“She could study on the way, if Leo’s driving.” Sarah wondered if she should encourage Caroline to leave her pad at the manor instead of taking it on her honeymoon, but Caroline had been reading for twenty- two of her twenty- five years, and she wasn’t likely to be parted from her beloved books now. That’s all the twins were, twenty- five years old. Sarah recalled feeling quite mature and adult at that age, but from her new perspective, twenty- five seemed shockingly young to make a lifetime commitment. If only Caroline would have taken Sarah’s advice and—
Sarah inhaled deeply and forced her misgivings out in the exhaled breath. Leo was a wonderful young man, and he and Caroline were very much in love. They were both reasonable, responsible young people, and Sarah had to trust that they knew what they were doing— and if not, that they would accept the consequences with maturity and grace.
Sarah didn’t want Caroline to wait forever to marry, just until she finished medical school. Just until she had her degree and a job and a bit more security. But Caroline had pointed out that Leo had recently earned tenure at the elementary school where he taught second grade, and they could live very comfortably on his salary while Caroline finished school. “It’s not like the days of yore when you were young, Mom, when teachers weren’t respected and well paid,” Caroline had said, a pleading tone in her voice. She wanted Sarah to be happy for her, to accept her choices wholeheartedly, and Sarah, remembering all too well how her mother had objected to her marriage to Matt, couldn’t bear to voice objections that could be misinterpreted as dislike or disapproval. On the contrary, Sarah thought Leo was a wonderful young man, but he would be just as wonderful in a few years, after Caroline graduated from medical school, completed her residency, and had a job, an income of her own, and her independence. So what was the rush? And if Caroline was in such a hurry to marry, why hadn’t she come home to Elm Creek Manor yet, so the week of preparations and festivities could begin?
“I know you miss her, Mom, but don’t be sad,” said James, giving her one last quick hug before letting her go, although she gladly would have held him longer. “Someday Leo might get an offer from a school in the Elm Creek Valley, and Caroline might set up her practice here in Waterford.”
Sarah regarded him levelly. “You know, it’s scary sometimes how easily you read my mind.”
“It comes from working side by side so many years,” James teased. “I know all of your quirks, all of your secrets.”
Sarah’s shudder was not entirely feigned. “I hope not all of them.”
James merely laughed, and then he announced that he was going to help put away groceries and hurried off to the kitchen. Never before had a young man been so eager to help unpack grocery bags, Sarah thought wryly. James and Gina thought they had everyone fooled, but Sarah and Anna knew their friendship had recently developed into something more. How recently and how much more, they could only speculate, and as their hopes rose, they privately congratulated each other on their children’s excellent judgment.
She reached for the curtain but, at the last second, resisted the temptation to peer out the window again and adjusted the tieback instead. Soon friends and relatives from near and far would descend upon the manor— cousins and classmates, in- laws- to- be and strangers-to-be no more, former Elm Creek Quilters, cherished friends— but it sometimes seemed to Sarah that if she closed her eyes and wished hard enough, she could climb the stairs to the nursery and find the twins sleeping in the crib, snuggled beneath the quilts Grandma Carol had sewn for them.
Twenty- five years had come and gone with a swiftness that might have been cruel except for the sweet, beloved memories of the days that had filled them.
They had been winter babies, longed for and cherished even before they were born. After Sarah got over the shock of discovering she was carrying twins, the pregnancy had proceeded uneventfully. She followed a healthful diet and exercise plan, the babies reached all of their prenatal benchmarks on schedule, and her friends were always nearby to reassure her when she worried or to help her relax when she became stressed. She planned her maternity leave with what only years later she realized was astonishingly naïve optimism. Though there were good days and bad, her pregnancy went along as well as she could have hoped— until that day in late November when Matt threw all her carefully wrought plans into disarray.
It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day Sarah and her friends always set aside as their very own annual quilter’s holiday. While others throughout their rural central Pennsylvania valley were sleeping in or embarking upon the Christmas shopping season, the Elm Creek Quilters always gathered at the manor for a marathon of quilting to work on holiday gifts for loved ones or decorations for their homes. One might have expected Sarah to stitch quilts for her unborn twins, but she left that project to her mother while she sewed Twin Star Log Cabin blocks into a quilt for her father- in- law, Hank. Although he had often declared that he had no interest whatsoever in quilting, she hoped that if he had a quilt of his own, he might develop a greater appreciation for the creative and artistic work that Elm Creek Quilts fostered. If he did, he might stop pressuring Matt to quit his caretaking job and come to work for Hank’s construction company. Later, Sylvia Bergstrom Compson Cooper— master quilter, Elm Creek Quilts founder, heart and soul of their circle of friends— remarked that it had been unfair to expect one quilt, however beautifully and lovingly made, to accomplish so much, but that was a lesson Sarah had yet to learn.
In the company of her friends, Sarah spent the snowy morning working on Hank’s gift. At noon she and her friends set their quilts aside and gathered in the banquet hall for a potluck lunch of dishes made with leftovers from their family feasts the previous day. That year, in keeping with the season’s spirit of gratitude, Sylvia had also revived a cherished Bergstrom family tradition. While remodeling the manor’s kitchen earlier that autumn, she and Anna had discovered a long- forgotten cornucopia that had once served as the centerpiece of the Bergstrom family’s Thanksgiving table. Into it, each member of the family, from the eldest patriarch to the youngest granddaughter, had placed an object that symbolized something he or she was especially thankful for that year. After the feast, each had drawn their item from the cornucopia and had explained what it signified. On that quilter’s holiday, Sylvia had invited the Elm Creek Quilters to continue the tradition by sewing quilt blocks that represented their thankfulness and gratitude. Not to be left out despite their inexperience with needle and thread, the husbands in attendance found squares of fabric in the classroom scrap bag and contributed those to the cornucopia instead.
Even as they had climbed out of bed that morning, something in Matt’s manner, something Sarah could not define, had warned her that something weighed heavily upon his thoughts. Even so, she completely missed his discomfort and embarrassment at lunchtime when she explained to one and all that the Twin Star block she had placed into the cornucopia represented her gratitude for her unborn children, and also for Matt, who had been by her side faithfully every day of her pregnancy, offering support and encouragement. The square of fabric he had placed into the cornucopia would have offered another sign, had she known to watch for signs. As the square cut from a landscape print of green trees on rolling hills was passed around the table, Matt explained that he was most thankful for his family. “I’m thankful for their support, their loyalty, their understanding, and most of all, their love,” he said. “I owe my family everything, and it’s a debt I doubt I’ll ever be able to repay in full, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try.”
His talk of debts and repayment puzzled her for a moment, but she quickly forgot it in the happiness of the quilter’s holiday. Her joy was to be short- lived. As they cleared away the dishes, Matt took her aside and explained that his father had again pleaded with him to take over the construction company while he recovered from a flare- up of an old back injury. Hank couldn’t afford to turn down jobs during such poor economic times, nor could he manage without someone he trusted on- site supervising the work. Sarah was surprised and hurt to discover that Matt had already agreed to go, without first discussing it with her, though it meant he would be a three- hour drive away for most of the winter, though it meant she would spend the rest of her pregnancy without him. But what could she do? Although he should have consulted with her before making any promises to his father, she knew he had weighed his decision carefully. If she asked him not to go, he would probably stay, but he would blame her if his father’s business failed— and she didn’t want to disappoint him.
So she consented, but not without exacting from Matt a solemn promise that regardless of any other consideration, he would not miss the birth of his children. She also warned him that if Hank decided he couldn’t manage without Matt after the twins arrived, and if Matt agreed to stay on rather than allow his father’s company to fail, she would not leave Elm Creek Manor to go with him.
They were at an impasse, and they knew it, and their inability to promise each other what they most wanted to hear left them bereft and unhappy.
Matt packed a bag and left on the Monday morning after Thanksgiving, promising to return late Friday afternoon. Restless, Sarah spent their first day apart in the library designing brochures for the next season of quilt camp and in the ballroom layering and basting Hank’s quilt top. On Wednesday she attended her weekly childbirth class with Gretchen Hartley, who, before accepting a teaching position with Elm Creek Quilts and moving into the manor, had spent many years volunteering at a shelter for homeless pregnant girls in Pittsburgh and had assisted so many of them through labor that she probably could have moonlighted as a midwife. Matt phoned every evening, but Sarah was not really interested in his perfunctory reports about hanging drywall and scheduling inspections, nor did he seem particularly enthralled by her accounts of the babies’ kicks and her weight gain. They were both tired and preoccupied, and Sarah’s surging hormones occasionally sent her careering off on mood swings that Matt, understandably, found difficult to handle. She told herself that everything would be fine between them again when he came home for good.
On Friday evening, she was so relieved to hear his pickup truck pull into the back parking lot that she nearly ran down the stairs to greet him. He greeted her at the back door with a hug and a kiss, and then he dropped to his knees and pressed his cheek against her ample belly to tell the babies how much he had missed them. On Saturday she had hoped he would help her paint the babies’ room, but he was so exhausted from the week on the construction site that after attending to his caretaker’s duties around the estate, all he wanted to do was relax, and she felt guilty asking him to do anything more. On Sunday he packed his duffel bag again, and on Monday morning he left. The next week wasn’t as bad as the first, as she grew accustomed to his absence, but she missed him with a hollow, aching loneliness that compelled her to count and recount the days until her due date when he would come home for good.
The Christmas season rekindled some of her joy. Matt agreed to take off work from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day, and she felt relieved and happy to have her husband close again, even though Hank spent the holidays with them also and all too frequently sat Matt down in the kitchen with cups of coffee and blueprints. Fortunately, Gretchen’s husband, Joe, was a woodworker, and he kept Hank happily distracted in his wood shop from time to time, leaving Sarah and Matt to themselves. While Sylvia and Gretchen decked the halls and Anna prepared apple strudel and other delicious Christmas treats her friends loved, Sarah and Matt prepared the nursery. While they worked, they talked and laughed, dreamed and planned, and it was almost as if the conflict that had begun on the quilter’s holiday had never happened.
Almost, but not quite. Hank’s lukewarm response to the beautiful quilt to which she had devoted so much time, effort, and creativity disappointed her. “Well, isn’t this a nice blanket,” he said after unwrapping the gift. “It looks as nice as anything you could buy in a store.” Less insulting but more annoying were his frequent reminders that he and Matt needed to depart before dawn on January 2. All week Sarah forced smiles to mask her irritation and offered cordial replies rather than spoil the holidays with complaints, but she reached her limit by New Year’s Day, and she wished they had never invited Hank to join them for the holidays.
The next morning, Matt and his father threw their bags into the back of Matt’s pickup and left soon after sunrise. After a week of Matt’s company, Sarah felt the loneliness of his renewed absence as keenly as she had upon his first departure in November.
Winter was supposed to herald a seasonal slowdown in the construction business, but for McClure Construction, January seemed to be as busy as ever. Twice Matt had so much work that he couldn’t afford to take the weekend off, and once a dangerous winter storm prevented him from making the trip home. Sarah comforted herself with the knowledge that the babies were healthy and that in a matter of weeks, they would be born and Matt would come home to stay, as he had promised. She didn’t know what that might mean for McClure Construction, and she couldn’t help worrying that in the end, despite Hank’s assurances that he understood Matt couldn’t work for him indefinitely, he might try to persuade his son to stay on.
“Matt wants to be with you and the children,” Sylvia reminded her whenever her worries became too great a burden to bear alone. “He knows his most important duty is to care for you and those babies. Surely Hank will respect that and not ask him to spend so much time away from home. He can hire a foreman if he can’t do the work himself. As fine a worker as Matt is, he isn’t absolutely essential to his father’s company, but he is essential to his wife and children.”
But Sylvia frowned, and her gaze over the rims of her bifocals was steely, as if she were already composing the lecture she would deliver to both men if they failed to follow the obviously correct and proper course.
February arrived, cold and silver gray. As her due date approached, Sarah found herself ending every phone conversation with Matt with a pleading reminder that he needed to tie up any loose ends and prepare to return home at a moment’s notice. Joe had finished baby- proofing the manor, the nursery was snug and cozy, and Sarah’s overnight bag was packed and waiting in the closet by the back door. All she needed was her husband.
Her due date, February 3, came on a Monday. Early that morning she followed Matt out the back door of the manor, the brisk wind chilling her to the bone since she could no longer close her winter coat around herself. “Please don’t go,” she asked him, shivering and tucking her hands under her arms for warmth.
Matt tossed his duffel bag onto the front passenger seat, hesitated, and studied her. “Are you feeling any contractions?”
She was tempted to lie, but she couldn’t do it. “Not yet.”
“Then you know I can’t stay, not when my dad’s expecting me.” He took her in his arms and kissed her on the cheek. “I promise, when the babies are really on the way, I’ll be here.”
She couldn’t speak. Pressing her lips together, she waddled back to the manor without so much as a wave in farewell. The day passed with miserable slowness, although Gretchen, Sylvia, and Anna tried to distract her with books and quilting. That evening, Matt called to see if she had gone into labor yet, and in a surge of hormone- fueled distress, she burst into tears and yelled at him when he remarked that his father had been right after all; due dates were apparently mere estimates and it hadn’t been necessary for Matt to stay home as Sarah had insisted. “If you’re planning to wait until my water breaks and I’m eight centimeters dilated before you get in the truck, don’t bother coming at all,” she cried before slamming down the phone. She sobbed on Sylvia’s shoulder for nearly an hour afterward, while her friends patted her back and alternately soothed her and reproved Matt in absentia. Their words were little consolation. Why wouldn’t her husband come home when she wanted him so desperately?
“He wants to get as much work done there as possible before the babies arrive, because he isn’t planning to go back,” Anna surmised. “You should take that as a good sign. I’d be more concerned if he left unfinished business behind.”
Sarah thought Anna made good sense, so she dried her eyes and accepted the cup of herbal decaf organic tea her friend had brewed for her. She knew she ought to try harder to see the situation from Matt’s perspective. He didn’t want to let his father down, and he knew Sarah was surrounded by devoted, caring friends. Maybe he didn’t realize how much she needed him. Maybe he didn’t understand that she was worried and anxious, and that the distance between them left her feeling bereft and alone even among her dearest friends.
Two nights later Sarah felt her first real contractions, and the long months of anticipation and excitement seemed suddenly to have flown by. She felt hopelessly ill prepared, despite the volumes of books she had studied, the classes she had taken, and the long conversations with Gretchen, who had proven to be an inexhaustible source of reassurance, patience, and wisdom. There was no turning back now. Ready or not, she was going to become a mother.
But she knew it could be hours or even days yet. Knowing Matt would already be asleep, she texted him with the news and asked him to set out for home as soon as he woke up. She would try to sleep, and she’d update him on the progress of her contractions in the morning.
After a restless night, she woke before dawn to strong contractions and the sensation that her bladder was about to burst. Huffing and puffing, she carefully climbed out of bed and tried to soothe away her worries with the thought that soon she wouldn’t be pregnant anymore. She certainly wouldn’t miss the waddle she had acquired or the frequent trips to the bathroom. She longed for a cup of real coffee, and she intended to celebrate her first day of motherhood with a piece of decadent dark chocolate and a glass of red wine.
Making her way back to bed, she groped on the night-stand for her cell phone. It was only five o’clock, and Matt had not returned her text. Sighing, she climbed back under the covers and tried to drift off to sleep, but found herself blinking up at the ceiling, watching the pattern of shadows shift with the approach of dawn and mentally rehearsing the ordeal to come. At six o’clock, she decided to time her contractions. First they were ten minutes apart, then nine, then— eleven? She must have counted wrong. She tried again, using the stopwatch feature on her phone. Eleven minutes. She set down the phone and flung an arm over her eyes, frustrated. Her contractions were slowing down? Her due date had come and gone, and now her labor was going in reverse? Well, she wouldn’t tell Matt, whenever he finally got around to answering her text. He’d use that as an excuse to tile one more floor or install one more light fixture instead of coming home where he belonged.
Her cell phone buzzed. She snatched it up and read Matt’s text: “Hope it doesn’t hurt too much. How far apart now? Thought I’d leave after lunch if ok.”
“Not ok,” she immediately texted back. “Come home now.”
She waited, but he didn’t respond.
If Matt were awake to text her, he was awake enough to talk, so she called him. The phone rang and rang and eventually went to voice mail. He was probably already in the truck driving, with his phone inaccessible in the back pocket of his jeans. “Hi, it’s me,” she said after the voice mail tone. “I hope you’re on your way home. Please call me as soon as you get this. I love you.”
Fuming and worried, she lay down again and timed a few more contractions. Eleven minutes. Dr. Jamison had advised her not to go to the hospital until they were seven minutes apart, unless her water broke. She didn’t want to report to the hospital only to be sent home again. She could imagine Hank’s reaction if he thought Sarah had panicked and summoned Matt home for a false alarm.
Carefully, gritting her teeth whenever a contraction seized her, she showered and dressed, then made her way downstairs to the kitchen. Sylvia and Andrew were seated at one of the cozy booths sipping coffee and sharing a plate of buttered toast, while Joe sat at the old wooden table with the newspaper spread out before him, an empty bowl and spoon at his elbow, his weathered, calloused hands cupped around a steaming mug. Although she didn’t see any bacon, she caught a faint whiff of it in the air, and the odor nauseated her as it hadn’t since her first trimester. Holding her breath, she paused in the doorway and clung to the frame as she waited out a contraction.
Gretchen glanced up from the eight- burner gas stove and smiled just as Sarah’s discomfort passed. “Good morning, sunshine. Are you hungry? I could make more oatmeal.”
“That sounds wonderful, thanks.” She ought to eat something, since she wouldn’t be permitted anything but ice chips once labor really set in. She returned Sylvia and Andrew’s greetings with a pained smile and eased herself into the adjacent booth.
“Whatever you do, don’t go into labor today,” Joe remarked cheerfully, turning the page and folding the local news section. “According to the paper, we’re supposed to get ten inches of snow by evening.”
“Oh, yes, I saw the weather radar online.” Gretchen shook her head as she filled a measuring cup with oats and stirred them into a saucepan of boiling water. “A huge mass of white and blue is covering eastern Ohio and the entire western part of Pennsylvania, and it’s heading our way.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sarah exclaimed. They had to be. She had not hidden her contraction in the doorway as well as she had thought, and they were teasing her. “Please tell me you’re kidding.”
All eyes went to her face. “Oh, dear,” said Sylvia. “Are you having contractions?”
“A few,” said Sarah weakly. “It’s probably nothing. Maybe they’ll go away.”
“You should call Matt,” said Andrew.
“You should call your mother,” said Sylvia, at almost the same time.
“I called Matt already, but I just got his voice mail.” Sarah shifted in her seat to retrieve her phone from the pocket of her hooded sweatshirt. “It’s only seven. Maybe I should wait to call my mom. I wouldn’t want to wake her.”
“Call her,” Sylvia and Gretchen said in unison. Gretchen added, “She’s probably awake already, and she’ll want to set out right away to beat the storm.”
“As Matt should,” said Andrew, frowning. Though he usually kept his opinions to himself, especially when they were unfavorable, he hadn’t been very successful at concealing his disapproval of Matt’s recent choices. He appreciated filial loyalty as much as the next man, but he thought it irresponsible of Matt to leave Sarah during her pregnancy, since it wasn’t absolutely necessary. “It’s not like he’s in the service or something,” Sarah had overhead him tell Sylvia. He thought even less of Hank.
Another contraction seized Sarah as she dialed her mother’s number, and she saw Sylvia and Gretchen exchange a knowing look. Her mother answered on the second ring. At Sarah’s news, she let out a gasp of delight and assured Sarah she would be there in an hour. “Is it snowing there yet?” Sarah asked, afraid to hear the answer.
“A few flurries for now, but I heard on the radio that a bad storm is on the way.” Carol sounded breathless, and Sarah imagined her pinning the handset to her ear with her shoulder as she pulled on her heavy winter boots. If only Matt felt the need for such haste. “It’ll be all right. The snow tires are on the car and I packed enough clothing for two weeks in case I get snowbound at the manor.”
Despite her worries, Sarah felt somewhat relieved, and she told her mother she’d see her soon. While Matt was two hours farther west than her mother, the weather couldn’t be too bad in Uniontown yet if only a few flakes were falling at her mother’s house. If Matt left soon, he should arrive in plenty of time. All the books said first- time mothers had longer labors anyway. Everything would be fine. Everything would almost certainly be fine.
She dialed Matt’s number, but again the call went to voice mail. Her annoyance rising, she left another, more urgent message warning him about the approaching storm and begging him to call her as soon as he could. “He’s probably on his way,” she told her friends as she hung up the phone, then she gasped as the strongest contraction yet seized her.
“Nine minutes,” said Gretchen, setting a steaming bowl of oatmeal on the table before her.
Sarah had not noticed that Gretchen was timing her contractions. “I think if I just sit here and have a little breakfast, they might slow down.”
Andrew’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”
Gretchen seated herself in the booth opposite Sarah and patted her hand. “Why don’t you eat since you’re hungry, and afterward we’ll see where we are?”
Sarah nodded and picked up her spoon, but her mouth was dry. Matt was surely on his way, and that’s why he couldn’t answer the phone. All that really mattered was that he arrived before the twins did. That’s what she told herself, but she couldn’t help thinking that if he had come home on her due date as she had asked, he could have spared her this unnecessary worry.
She managed to finish some of her breakfast, and afterward, she gathered her iPod, already loaded with her favorite relaxing music, a small bag of handwork in case she felt up to quilting, and a novel she had received for Christmas and had saved for the occasion. She packed everything into a tote bag and rejoined her friends, who had evidently been discussing her circumstances as they tidied the kitchen.
Sylvia spoke first. “Gretchen thought that perhaps, since you’re carrying twins, the nurses might bend their rules and admit you early.”
“Especially with the storm coming,” said Andrew. He glanced out the window, and Sarah instinctively looked too. Her heart sank when she spied a flurry of white flakes whirling in the wind. “It wouldn’t hurt to be prudent.”
“By the time we get there, they might not need to bend the rules to admit me,” Sarah managed to say, dropping her tote bag on the old wooden table and holding on to the edge for support. This wasn’t how she had imagined this day. She had envisioned holding Matt’s hand as they drove to the hospital, resting on the sofa in the birthing suite as Matt unpacked their bags, lying in bed as he stroked her forehead and murmured loving words of encouragement. But she refused to spoil the most important day of her life with disappointment. “You’re right. We should go. The worst they can do is send me home.”
There was a mad scramble as her friends gathered up her belongings, checked and double- checked to make sure they hadn’t forgotten anything, and helped her out to the Elm Creek Quilts minivan. Andrew loaded her suitcase in the back, where a matching pair of infant car seats waited, still swathed in plastic. Matt was supposed to have installed them already, but Sarah supposed it was just as well, since the infant seats would have left no room for the white- haired crowd piling into the minivan. “Everyone’s coming?” she asked as she buckled herself into the front passenger seat.
“You’d ask us to stay home and miss all the excitement?” protested Andrew. Sarah must have looked alarmed, for he quickly added, “Don’t worry. We’ll stay in the waiting room unless you invite us in. We just don’t want to be snowed in here and unable to come if you need us.”
Nodding, Sarah gritted her teeth through a contraction before she remembered to breathe. As Joe steered the minivan out of the parking lot and over the bridge, she involuntarily imagined Matt stuck in a snowdrift on the shoulder of the interstate, unable to reach her. She shook her head to clear it. No, no, he was an excellent driver and the heavy four- wheel- drive pickup handled slippery roads well. With any luck, he was already a quarter of the way to Waterford.
At the hospital, the admissions nurse raised her eyebrows in mild surprise at Sarah’s elderly entourage, but briskly took her vital signs, asked her a few questions, and agreed she should be admitted. Her contractions were becoming more painful by the moment, and although Sarah had been toying with the idea of attempting natural childbirth, on the teeth-rattling drive through the woods surrounding the Bergstrom estate, she had come down firmly on the side of narcotics. Sitting in the waiting room while the orderlies prepared an available suite, with Gretchen on one side rubbing her back and Sylvia on the other holding her hand, she waited in vain for her cell phone to ring and Matt’s welcome and reassuring voice on the other end of the line.
At last they were shown upstairs, Sarah traveling via wheelchair, her friends trailing along carrying her bags and coat. “Grandparents?” the young orderly pushing her along guessed as they waited for the elevator. “Great- grandparents?”
Breathing through a contraction, Sarah managed something halfway between a shrug and a nod, glad that she wasn’t obliged to speak. At the moment she couldn’t remember the hospital’s policies, and she was afraid that if she explained they weren’t related, they wouldn’t be allowed to stay.
The birthing suite was spacious for a hospital room, with a bed for her, a futon sofa for visitors that Matt could sleep on at night, a couple of armchairs, a bathroom, and a small closet into which Sylvia and Andrew promptly stowed her things. The orderly helped Sarah from the wheelchair onto the sofa as two nurses bustled about checking instruments. After wishing her good luck, Andrew and Joe escaped for the waiting room. On their way out, they passed a tall, attractive woman who couldn’t have been much more than thirty. She wore a long white coat over her tweed skirt and blouse, and her raven hair was pulled back into a smooth chignon. “The doctor will want to check how you’re progressing,” explained one of the nurses, plump and matronly. “Let’s get you up into bed, dear.”
“Wait,” said Sarah as the nurses helped her into the high hospital bed. “Where’s Dr. Jamison?”
The doctor, for that was who she must have been, pulled a rueful face. “She was on her way back from vacation, but her flight was grounded at O’Hare this morning thanks to the storm. I’m the ob- gyn on call, Dr. Susan Granger.”
Sarah heard Sylvia gasp in recognition as she numbly shook the doctor’s hand, her dismay at her usual doctor’s sudden absence warring with astonishment at hearing the familiar name completely out of its expected context. “You’re Dr. Granger?” she echoed. “Are you related to Jonathan Granger?”
“If you mean the ophthalmologist at Hershey Medical Center,” the doctor replied as she turned to the sink to wash her hands, “then the answer is yes. He’s my brother.”
“No, I mean the Jonathan Granger who was a doctor in the Elm Creek Valley back in the Civil War era.”
Dr. Granger shot her a look of surprise as she dried her hands. “That Jonathan Granger was my great-grandfather. How in the world do you know about him?”
“Oh, my goodness, do we have some stories to share with you,” exclaimed Sylvia, just as Sarah cried out in pain from the worst contraction yet. “But I suppose they’ll have to wait for another occasion.”
Before she knew it, Sarah was on her back with her feet in stirrups. Her momentary delight at the novelty of being treated by a descendant of the physician who had tended and befriended Sylvia’s Bergstrom ancestors vanished with the crushing squeeze of another contraction. She mourned the absence of Dr. Jamison, whose brisk efficiency had earned Sarah’s respect and confidence throughout her pregnancy. While she was not particularly warm or maternal, she possessed an aura of reassuring competency that only years of experience could give. This young doctor did not.
“Dr. Granger,” she gasped, her uncertainty augmented by the strangeness of addressing a young woman by that name, “forgive me for asking, but have you ever delivered a baby before? No offense, but you look— ” The rest of her words were swallowed up in a wave of pain.
“No offense taken. I’ve delivered hundreds of healthy babies both as an attendee and a resident. Well, Sarah— may I call you Sarah?” Sarah quickly nodded, breathing in rhythm. “You’re dilated to six centimeters, and the babies’ heartbeats are strong and steady. Sometime today, you’re going to become a mother.”
Dr. Granger patted Sarah’s knee, beckoned the nurse to assist her into a more comfortable position, and ordered an epidural. Mulling over the doctor’s words, Sarah felt joy and fear and hope welling up within her from a deep, deep source she had not known existed. She was going to be a mother. She blinked away tears and thanked the doctor, who smiled reassuringly and left to see to her other patients.
Before long the epidural took hold and she felt far more comfortable. Then she remembered Matt and her mother, driving through the gathering storm. Sylvia had gone to the waiting room to update Andrew and Joe on her progress, so Sarah asked Gretchen to search her tote bag for her cell phone. She felt dizzy with relief to see a text from Matt— “How are you? How are the babies?”— although she wished he had mentioned when he expected to arrive. Before responding to him she called her mother to tell her that she was fine, that the babies were fine, and that she should come straight to the hospital rather than stopping by Elm Creek Manor. The roads were slippery and becoming more so, her mother reported, but the salt trucks and snowplows were out in force and Sarah shouldn’t worry.
Sarah would worry less once she finally heard Matt’s voice. She called his number and sighed with relief when he answered on the second ring. “Hey, honey,” he said cheerfully. “How are you?”
“I’m feeling much better now that I’m hooked up to the epidural. Where are you? When do you think you’ll get here?”
Matt laughed, but then he abruptly stopped. “Wait. Epidural? You’re already at the hospital?”
“Of course I am. What did you think? Didn’t you get my text this morning? Didn’t you get my voice mail?”
“Well, yes, but all you said was— ”
“I said you needed to come home!”
“You said you hoped I was on my way home, but you’ve been saying that for days.”
“But this time I said it while I was having contractions!” Her panic soared. “Matt, where are you?”
Matt panted slightly, as if he were running. “I’m on a site.”
“You’re still in Uniontown?”
“Not for much longer. I’m leaving the building and running to the truck.” Wind whipped past the microphone, drowning out most of his words. “I wanted to finish a few things, then what with the storm and everything I thought I’d call you after lunch and see if you really needed me to come home— ”
“I really do.” Her tears spilled over. She felt Gretchen take her hand; Sarah threw her a stricken look and forced herself to take a deep breath, to calm down for the sake of the twins. “If you had listened to me from the beginning— ”
“I’m sorry.” The truck’s engine roared to life. “I’m really sorry. But you’re not alone, right? Gretchen and Sylvia and your mom are there, right?”
“My mom’s still on the way.” No, she wasn’t alone, but she wanted Matt. She needed Matt. “Just try to get here as soon as you can.”
“I will. Sarah”— he hesitated— “I love you.”
“Drive carefully,” she said, and hung up. She set down the phone and burst into tears. She didn’t need to explain; Sylvia and Gretchen had easily deduced what had happened.
“You’re going to be fine,” Gretchen soothed her. “I know you want Matt here, but if he can’t make it in time, you’re still going to be fine. Haven’t we taken all the childbirth classes together? I’m not as handsome as Matt, but I think I can fill in for him as coach just fine if need be.”
Sarah managed a shaky laugh. “You’ll probably be a better coach, since you took the classes.” She could not say the same for her husband. She fought to calm herself, to regain control of her breathing, to recapture the steady, even rhythm that had helped her ride the waves of discomfort not dulled by the epidural. She tried to put her husband and her disappointment and the storm out of her mind and concentrate on her babies, the beautiful babies she would soon hold in her arms. She was considering asking Sylvia to retrieve the book from her tote bag when a knock sounded on the door.
“Don’t start without us,” Gwen called, bursting into the room in a bright red wool coat that clashed merrily with her gray- streaked auburn hair. Following close behind was Diane, who beamed at Sarah before turning a wary eye upon the medical equipment surrounding her, and Agnes, petite and white-haired, her blue eyes joyful behind pink- tinted glasses.
Agnes hurried to her side and kissed her cheek, her rosewater scent lingering in the air. “Oh, my dear, you look beautiful.”
Sarah had to laugh. “I couldn’t possibly.”
“I’ve been saying for years that Agnes needs new glasses,” Diane agreed, and when Gwen glared at her, she added, “What? You want me to lie? Sarah’s in labor with twins, not preparing for a photo shoot.”
“Matt was going to take pictures,” Sarah suddenly remembered. “I left the camera in the library.”
“I brought mine,” said Agnes, patting her purse. “I’ll lend it to Sylvia.”
“You aren’t staying?” asked Sylvia.
“We figured you, Gretchen, and Carol would have everything under control,” said Gwen. “Is she on her way?”
Sarah breathed through a contraction and managed a nod.
“We just wanted to say hello and wish you well, Sarah,” Agnes said, patting her shoulder. “You couldn’t possibly relax with all of us crowded in here.”
“This isn’t all of us.” Diane looked around. “Where’s the father- to- be?”
“He’s on his way,” said Gretchen, squeezing Sarah’s hand.
“On his way from the manor, not from Uniontown, right?” queried Diane, glancing to the window, where thick clumps of heavy, wet flakes obscured the view. “If not, he’ll never make it, and he’d be stupid to try.”
“Don’t pay any attention to her,” Gwen said. “She’s been a nervous wreck about driving in the snow ever since she slid off the road last year.”
“Tim doesn’t know it yet,” said Diane, shuddering at the memory, “but someday we’re retiring to Arizona.”
“You can’t leave,” protested Gwen. “First Judy, then Summer, then Bonnie, and now you?”
“I didn’t say we’d move anytime soon,” said Diane, looking mildly affronted that Gwen would think her so near retirement age. “Anyway, Bonnie’s coming back next month.”
“I spoke to her a few days ago,” remarked Sylvia. “She said she would be sorry to miss this happy day.”
“She doesn’t have to,” said Gwen. “We can hook up a Webcam and stream the entire birth live on the Internet.”
“No, thanks,” declared Sarah, prompting laughter from her friends. She managed a smile and shifted in her bed. Quickly Gretchen was there to plump her pillow and adjust the blanket. The epidural was wearing off, and she was becoming more uncomfortable with each passing moment. Gretchen spoke to her gently and encouragingly, reminding her to breathe deeply and evenly, to rest and to relax. Sarah closed her eyes and nodded, remembering everything they had practiced in their weekly classes. How fortunate she was that Gretchen had offered to fill in for Matt, and that her other friends were close at hand. If she were lying in this hospital room utterly alone, she knew her strength and courage would falter.
“This takes me back,” said Gwen, sitting down on the sofa and resting her elbows on her knees. “Remember how we all met? Well, not all of us, just those of us who were here before Sylvia’s return to Waterford.”
“It was at Bonnie’s quilt shop,” said Diane. “On a beautiful autumn Saturday.”
“I was in charge of the Waterford Quilting Guild’s annual charity raffle quilt,” Agnes recalled. “Diane and I were shopping for fabric to make it.”
“Bonnie was helping me and Summer at the cutting table,” said Gwen. “Judy came in with a Baby Bunting quilt top, finished except for the border.”
“She looked as if she were nine and a half months pregnant,” Diane added for the benefit of Sarah, Sylvia, and Gretchen, who had not been present.
“That’s perhaps not the best time to go fabric shopping,” said Gretchen.
“She desperately wanted to finish the quilt before her baby arrived,” said Agnes. “But it gradually became clear to the rest of us that she was in labor.”
“It’s hard to pinpoint what gave it away,” said Diane, tapping her chin with a finger. “Was it when she kept groaning from the pain of the contractions, or was it when her water broke all over the quilt shop floor?”
“You’re kidding me,” said Sarah, shocked and delighted.
“The truly funny part is,” said Gwen, “that when we insisted upon calling nine- one- one, she told us she couldn’t be in labor yet because”— Diane and Agnes joined in gleefully— “her due date wasn’t for three more days!”
“As if a baby could read a calendar,” said Diane.
Sylvia laughed and Gretchen smiled, but Sarah said, “That’s an easy mistake to make.”
Gwen laughed so hard she had to wipe tears from her eyes. “Be that as it may, Baby Emily had no intention of keeping anyone’s schedule but her own. The ambulance came and whisked Judy off to the hospital— ”
“And you went along to keep her company,” Agnes broke in.
Gwen nodded. “And while she was recovering, the rest of us got together and finished the Baby Bunting quilt so Judy would be able to bring Emily home from the hospital snuggled up in it, just as she had wanted. And that, as they say, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
“I can’t believe I never heard this story before.” Sarah had to wait for a contraction to rise, crest, and pass before she could speak again. “I thought you met through your quilt guild.”
“A few of us knew one another in passing from the guild,” Diane acknowledged, “but we weren’t really close. I’d known Agnes since the time she babysat me as a girl, but Gwen— well, I thought Gwen was a loud, obnoxious hippie.”
“You still think so,” said Gwen cheerfully.
“Of course, but now I realize that’s part of your charm,” Diane teased. “I wouldn’t want you any other way, now that I’ve figured out you’re all bluster. If I ever suspected that you might actually do something to foist your liberal values on the rest of us, I might worry, but I know you’re harmless.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that,” warned Gwen, with a vigorous shake of the head that sent her beaded necklaces clicking. “You’ll force me to do something to prove you wrong.”
Everyone laughed, and for a moment Sarah forgot her anxieties, her weariness. But soon Gwen, Agnes, and Diane departed, explaining that they didn’t want to wear her out and they thought they should try to beat the worst of the storm home. Before leaving, each hugged Sarah and assured her all would be well. As they headed out the door, Agnes reminded Sylvia to call them regularly with any news, even if the only news was that they were still waiting. If they didn’t receive timely updates, Gwen might return and make good on her threat to set up a Webcam.
After they left, Sarah felt fatigue settle over her like the snow blanketing the winding mountain road into the Elm Creek Valley. She didn’t want her book or her music or her quilting. She lay in bed with her eyes closed, relaxing while Gretchen or Sylvia rubbed her back or stroked her hair. She half listened and half dozed as her friends chatted quietly about the upcoming camp season, new classes, the long- arm quilting machine they had recently purchased and set up in the ballroom. From time to time the nurses came in to check her vital signs and the babies’ heart rates, and occasionally Dr. Granger appeared to check her progress. Sarah dilated to seven centimeters, then eight. She had reached nine when her mother dashed into the room, unwinding her scarf and peeling off her gloves, her gray hair sparkling with melting snowflakes. “There’s my girl,” she exclaimed, hurrying to Sarah’s side. Her quick, appraising glance took in Sarah, her chart, and her companions. “I assume Matt’s out getting a sandwich or something?”
“Hmph.” Sylvia glanced up from feeding Sarah ice chips and shook her head. “He’s on his way, we hope.”
“He’s on his way,” said Gretchen firmly, rubbing Sarah’s back. “He’ll be here soon, and even if he doesn’t make it, we’ll be fine.”
Carol draped her coat over the back of an armchair and sat down. “He should have come home days ago.”
“That’s what I’ve been telling him all along,” said Sarah wearily. “If he misses everything, I won’t get any pleasure out of saying, ‘I told you so.’”
“He won’t miss everything,” said Sylvia, rubbing her shoulders and stroking her sweaty hair off the back of her neck.
Carol frowned. “He’d better not.”
The epidural had completely worn off by then, but Sarah couldn’t have another dose out of concern that it might slow down the labor. An hour after her mother arrived, Dr. Granger checked her again, but her brow furrowed slightly when she explained that Sarah had not progressed beyond nine centimeters. “We’ll give you Pitocin to help move things along,” she said, but her reassuring smile had lost its power to comfort.
“Why am I not fully dilated yet?” Sarah fretted wearily.
“I thought you were holding back on purpose to give Matt more time to get here,” remarked Sylvia.
Sarah managed a smile, but it quickly faded as she continued inhaling and exhaling in rhythm. Matt had not called or texted since leaving Uniontown, not that she had expected him to. She wanted his hands on the wheel and his eyes on the road. He should have come home days ago. He never should have agreed to spend the winter away from Elm Creek Manor. “If Matt misses the birth of his children, after I begged him time and time again to come home,” Sarah gasped between contractions, “I’ll kill him.”
“If Matt misses this, you won’t need to,” her mother replied, massaging her feet. “You’re in no condition to kill anyone. I’ll do it.”
“Don’t look so shocked. It was your idea.”
“I was speaking metaphorically.”
“So was I.”
“You sounded serious.”
“So did you.”
“Well, you sounded like you’d enjoy it a little too much.”
Carol seemed about to reply, but her attention was suddenly drawn to one of the many monitors beeping and blinking around Sarah. “What is it?” asked Sarah. Her mother, a nurse, knew much more about what was going on than she did.
“I’ll be right back,” Carol said, and stepped out of the room.
Moments later, through a haze of fatigue and pain, Sarah was aware of her mother and a nurse holding a quick, hushed conference at the end of the bed. “We’re going to give you some oxygen, dear,” the plump nurse said, and quickly placed a mask over Sarah’s mouth and nose. She could barely hear anything over the steady hiss of rushing air.
Moments later Dr. Granger appeared, examined her, and conferred with the nurse. “I’m afraid you still haven’t progressed beyond nine centimeters,” Dr. Granger told her, barely audible, wearing the same rueful look with which she had announced the delay of Dr. Jamison’s flight. “And one of the twins is starting to experience heart decelerations. We’re going to keep an eye on it, but I want you to consider the possibility of a C- section.”
“What’s a heart deceleration?” Sarah gasped, her voice muffled by the mask. Sweaty bangs clung to her forehead and fell into her eyes, but she felt a sudden chill.
“It’s a transitory decrease in the baby’s heart rate. It may suggest that the baby isn’t receiving enough oxygen to withstand the rigors of labor.”
Sarah propped herself up on her elbows and searched the doctor’s face for clues. “Is . . . my baby going to be okay?”
“Just try to relax,” her mother said, placing her hands on her shoulders and easing her back against the pillows. “Breathe deeply.”
Sarah obeyed, suddenly terrified. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths, tears trickling down her cheeks. “I think a C- section right now would be a very good idea,” she said shakily, and felt her mother squeeze her hand in reply.
The hiss of the oxygen mask filled her ears, drowning out the words of the doctor and nurses, but she knew from their carefully studied expressions that the matter was serious. Through her pregnancy, she had skimmed the chapters on Caesarian sections with a foolish superstition that if she prepared for such a measure, she would need it. She knew women carrying twins often required Caesarian deliveries even after a smooth labor, but she had dreaded surgery and had prayed she would avoid it. Now all she wanted was to deliver the babies as swiftly and as safely as possible, never mind what happened to her. The thought of the small, steady heartbeat faltering was too much to bear.
After what felt like an agonizingly long wait, though later she learned it lasted only a few minutes, Dr. Granger confirmed her recommendation for a Caesarian delivery. Sarah immediately assented and with a shaking hand signed the forms someone put in front of her on a clipboard. Once the decision was made, the team moved swiftly. The nurses prepared Sarah; Dr. Granger disappeared for a time and returned dressed in scrubs. Her heart pounded as an orderly pushed her bed out of the birthing suite and into the hallway.
“Sarah,” said Matt, suddenly at her side, snow dusting his coat and hat. “I’m sorry. I’m so incredibly sorry I didn’t get here until now.”
None of her frustration and disappointment over his absence seemed to matter anymore. “I have to have a C- section.”
“I know.” He tore off a glove, held her hand, and walked beside the bed as the orderly wheeled her toward the operating room. “They told me.”
Her words came out in a sob. “I don’t know if the babies are okay.”
“They’re fine,” he said firmly, squeezing her hand tighter. “I promise you everything’s going to be fine.”
She nodded, but how could he know? How could he promise her that?
“Are you the father?” someone unseen asked Matt. She heard him confirm that he was. “If you want to attend the birth, you’ll have to put on these and scrub up.”
Matt clasped her hand with both of his. “Sarah, I have to go for a minute but I’ll be right back.”
“I swear I won’t be gone long. I’ll be right beside you the entire time.”
She released his hand and heard him go. The operating room was unnaturally bright and cold. Dazed and exhausted, she sat up, supported by two nurses, and held her breath as they inserted the spinal block. By the time she was fully anesthetized and prepped for surgery, Matt had returned, barely recognizable in blue scrubs, cap, and mask, but she knew his eyes, full of love, concern, and reassurance. He stood by her side, just out of her range of vision, as Dr. Granger began the surgery, blocked from Sarah’s view by a blue drape. She felt pressure but no pain, and then there was a wrenching, and then a sudden flurry of activity and a baby’s cry and Dr. Granger declaring that she had a daughter, a beautiful baby girl.
“Can I see her?” Sarah called out feebly. “Can I see my daughter?”
Matt bent close to her ear. “They took her away, honey. They rushed her off to the neonatal unit.”
“Is she okay?”
“I’m sure she’s just fine.” Matt rested his hand on her shoulder, and she could tell he was shaking.
He had barely finished speaking before Dr. Granger announced that she had a son— a strong, healthy son, by the sound of his wail, which was so outraged and indignant that the attendees laughed. “Can I see him?” Sarah called out, only to be assured that he was being examined and would be cleaned up, and she would be able to hold him soon. Matt could accompany the babies, if he wished.
He seemed torn between concern for the children and his determination to keep his promise not to leave her. “Go with them,” she begged him. “Make sure they’re okay.”
Matt nodded and hurried away. Blinking away her tears, Sarah started at an unexpected touch on her shoulder. “They looked perfectly healthy— strong and beautiful,” a woman hidden in blue surgical garb said. Sarah would have known the eyes even if she had not recognized the muffled voice— her mother’s eyes, shining with unshed tears. Sarah had not realized Carol had been allowed into the operating room, and she was suddenly overwhelmed with gratitude that she was there. She placed her hand on her mother’s and held on while the doctor closed her incisions. Her mother walked beside her as she was taken to the recovery room, and there, when she shivered from the cold, her mother made sure she was draped with heated blankets. When Sarah felt warmer and less disoriented, Carol stepped away for a moment and quickly returned to report that Sarah’s son had an Apgar score of nine and her daughter’s initial score of six had risen to eight five minutes after her birth. Matt had been allowed to hold both of the children, and Sarah would be able to soon. It was the same answer as before, and yet Sarah seemed no closer to holding them. After months of waiting and hours of labor, to be unable to cuddle or even see her children now that they had finally arrived frustrated and worried her.
“This is routine,” Carol soothed when the nurse stepped away. “I know it’s annoying, I know it’s hard, but it won’t be much longer.”
The wait seemed interminably long, but at last she was taken back to the birthing suite where she had labored so long. Gretchen was waiting, and as a nurse attended to Sarah, two aides entered, pushing two contraptions that Sarah could best describe as tall, wheeled bassinets. Above the edge of one, Sarah glimpsed a tiny pink fist waving in the air, and she gasped out a happy sob. Her babies, at last. Her children.
Then Sarah was allowed to hold them, one at a time, while a nurse stood at her side watching attentively, since Sarah was still recovering from the anesthesia. “We’re filling out the birth certificates,” another nurse asked. “Do you have names for the children?”
“Yes, please do divulge the secret at long last,” said Sylvia, seated on the sofa with the baby boy in her arms. Beside her, Gretchen held out a fingertip for the child to grasp with a tiny
fist. “You’ve been keeping us in suspense for ages.”
“Not ages,” said Sarah. “Only nine months.”
“Please tell me you haven’t selected any of those silly names you were teasing us with before,” said Carol, leaning over to tuck a corner of the soft striped blanket out of the way so she could better see her granddaughter’s sweet face. Sarah smiled, knowing her mother longed to wrap the babies in the pink- and- white and blue- and- white Sawtooth Star quilts she had painstakingly made for them, the first and second— and only— quilts she had made in her brief career as a quilter. Sarah was saving them for the babies’ trip home to Elm Creek Manor.
“You mean Barnum and Bailey?” said Matt, who had just returned from the waiting room where he had shared the good news with Andrew and Joe. They had accompanied him into the birthing suite, looking as pleased and proud as if they truly were the baby’s great- grandparents. “Peas and Carrots? Skipper and Gilligan?”
“That last one’s not so bad,” Andrew mused, mostly to see the look of alarm on Carol’s face.
“Bagel and Schmear was always my favorite,” Sarah remarked, but considering how attentive and helpful her mother had been throughout that long, difficult day, she couldn’t bear to torture her a moment longer. “Yes, we’ve chosen names. Sylvia’s holding James Matthew, and this little sweetheart is Caroline Sylvia.”
A gasp of delight and recognition went up from the gathered friends, and Sarah thought she spotted tears of pride behind the loving smiles of the two women who had lent their names to the newborn girl. And their son, called James after Sylvia’s first husband and Matthew for his father— he, too, had a proud, honorable name that paid tribute to the McClure family as well as the Bergstroms. In the years since Sarah had moved to the Elm Creek Valley, the Bergstroms had come to seem like a second family to her, although she knew them only through Sylvia’s stories and the quilts and words they had left behind.
The parents, grandmother, and honorary great- grand parents took turns cuddling the babies and phoning absent friends to share the happy news. Two healthy, beautiful babies and a healthy, relieved mother— in all their lives Sarah and Matt had never had better news to share.
A lactation consultant arrived to help Sarah nurse her children. That first feeding went less well than she had hoped— not at all like the blissfully easy, natural process described in the books stacked on her nightstand back home— but the consultant assured her that the babies were probably not very hungry so soon after their birth, and by the time her milk came in and her babies were ready, she would have it all figured out.
Sarah had never felt less certain that she had anything all figured out, but surrounded by some of the people she loved best in the world and knowing that the rest would celebrate the joyful occasion when they returned home to Elm Creek Manor, Sarah had faith that she, Matt, Caroline, and James would be all right. Everything would be all right.
Sarah saw a shadow through the summer curtain an instant before a horn honked. Heart soaring, she waved the curtain out of the way and saw, at last, Caroline’s car rounding the bend by the old red barn, crossing the bridge over Elm Creek, circling the two towering elm trees that even then, in the warmth of late summer, sent yellow leaves dancing on the breeze, falling lightly to the pavement below.
As the car pulled to a stop, Sarah saw Matt striding across the bridge, coming in from the orchard to welcome his eldest child and her husband- to- be. She heard the back door squeak open and crash shut, and she heard James shout out a cheerful greeting. Friends and loved ones were there to bless Caroline’s homecoming just as they— and others, never far from Sarah’s thoughts— had been present on that winter day in early February twenty- five years before when Sarah and Matt had brought the twins home from the hospital. Hopeful, excited, apprehensive, overwhelmed— the new parents had brought their son and daughter home and devoted themselves to their care and nurturing. Sarah had wanted her children to be surrounded by love every day of their lives. For all too brief a time she was their world and she could grant them that great gift, but as soon as they began walking, they began moving away from her. Although James always circled back, smiling happily, arms open wide for her embrace, Caroline seemed ever set upon venturing beyond the gray stone walls of Elm Creek Manor, beyond the towering elms, over the creek and away, with just a glance over her shoulder to be sure Sarah was watching. And Sarah, who marveled at her confident, fearless daughter, had smiled and waved and fought the urge to beg her to stay— and tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her broken heart when she did not.
Sarah let the curtain fall and hurried to join her husband and son in welcoming their bright and happy girl to the childhood home she loved but found far too easy to leave.
For now, Caroline was home again, and Sarah could forget the pain of her absence, the many partings, the times when school, friends, college, work, or love had beckoned her away and she had gladly gone. For a few days more they could be a foursome again, the McClure family of Elm Creek Manor— father, mother, twins. Soon everything would change: Caroline would marry, and she would begin a new family with the man she loved.
Sarah knew her daughter’s wedding day would be bittersweet, an occasion of joy and love that marked the end of Caroline’s childhood even as it ushered in a future rich with hope and promise. But for now, Sarah would put away thoughts of the parting to come. She would enjoy the time they had together and not mourn its brevity even as it passed.
Her darling Caroline had come home.
“An outstanding series of novels about a fascinating craft.” —Booklist
“Strong female characters … in interesting lives and times.” —New York Journal of Books
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