A. Elizabeth Herting ~ The Holiday Quilt

The stitches were filled with love.

At least, that’s what Gram always said and on this particular Christmas Eve, Ruth was desperate to believe her. The Holiday Quilt. Ruth knew by memory the exact parts Grandma Jo made, as well as Ruth’s great-grandmother’s and the more recent panels sewn on by her own mother and sister.

Gram shared the old quilt and its cherished stories with Ruth and her sister, Sarah. How the quilt was lovingly put together by the women of their family to celebrate Christmas for well over a century. It was the last meaningful conversation they’d ever had as the autumn leaves turned, right before that great lady’s death ten years before. Ruth’s been especially devastated. She was eighteen-years-old and her grandmother was her very best friend.

The Holiday Quilt was a mish-mash of styles, colors and themes. Green threads intertwined with reds, golds, white and silver; trimmings and festive borders of every type surrounded the panels, each one special and filled with meaning. Their family history, whether in lean or plentiful years, could be told at a glance. After every Thanksgiving, in the years when it was her turn for custody of it, the quilt hung carefully over the back of Grandma Jo’s old wicker rocking chair in Ruth’s tiny apartment to usher in the holiday season. Gram had raised her and her sister. Ruth and Sarah were both toddlers when their mother died of cancer, never knowing their absentee father. Jo and the girls became their own little family unit.

Ruth was afraid to actually use the quilt, hating the thought of leaving it packed away even more. It was a physical reminder of Jo’s love and her unending holiday spirit, something Ruth needed very badly right now.

Gram would sit in that old wicker chair every night, regaling Ruth with stories of the Holiday Quilt before taking her teeth out and placing them into a full tumbler of whiskey. In the morning, Gram would shake the teeth dry, fix them back in her mouth and down the shot right after. Jo lived to the ripe-old age of ninety-five, fearless and sharp until the end. God, how Ruth missed her.

#

Barnaby came bounding into the room, snapping Ruth out of her memories. She rocked gently in her wheelchair, just as she used to do with Jo, the quilt covering her chest as she stroked his long, golden fur. This constant daydreaming was getting to be a bad habit. I’d better pull myself out of this funk and get back to some semblance of life. She placed the Holiday Quilt on her lap and reached for her cane. Barnaby, attuned to her every need, instantly went into service mode, helping Ruth to guide herself out of the chair and onto her feet. Wobbling and shaky, Ruth gave up on the attempt, clumsily dropping back down in defeat. The dog gently nuzzled her hand, giving her comfort.

#

The accident completely upended her life in one fiery, terrifying flash. One moment she was an ambitious young woman on top of the world, recently engaged, starting a new job in the city and the next, she was…well, this. Ruth knew she was lucky to be alive, but her new reality was a very hard pill to swallow. The doctors said she might eventually gain partial eyesight one day. It was the only thread of hope in her otherwise gloomy existence.

Brian stayed for a month, but who are we kidding? He was out the door the moment after he truly had to help me use the bathroom for the first time. My wife’s creds were greatly diminished, to say the least. Brian’s blue blood family with their ancient Mayflower lineage would never stand for a less-than-perfect, defective spouse. Her heartbreak was raw. He’d gone away for a couple of weeks saying he needed time to think. Ruth had no idea if he’d ever come back, the pull of his family was strong. She was trying very hard not to care.

Sarah was over earlier in the day to help Ruth finally put up her Christmas decorations. Not that Ruth had any clue what was happening, Sarah could have lit up the Taj Mahal with floodlights and Ruth would have no sense of it. It was like being in the darkest cave imaginable, a black void where not even the tiniest pinprick of light could enter. A perfect representation of her soul at this very moment. Sarah tried her best, Ruth knew that, but she couldn’t quite shed the bitterness that enveloped her.

#

“C’mon, Ruthie! Let me describe it to you, it looks really pretty in here! Your tree is in the corner, just like last year, the blue lights are over the mantle, the Christmas Village set up on the table…”

“Sar, you’re wasting your time. Seriously. I just don’t care. I’m sorry.”

Her sister went silent. Ruth could hear her switch tactics, the gears turning in her mind as if she was trying to reason with one of her twin five-year-old girls. It was positively maternal. Something Ruth was certain she’d never experience. Not now anyway.

“I haven’t told you the best part, Ruthie. I brought it for you.”

“Brought what? A new pair of eyes? A hunky Santa Claus? You could tell me anything right now and I’d believe you!”

It. The Holiday Quilt.”

“What? No! It’s not my turn! The girls will miss it…take it back home, maybe next year will be better for me..”

“There is no better time! You need it now, sis. Gram would insist upon it!”

Tears sprung to Ruth’s eyes as she saw Jo deep in her mind’s eye, the only place anything other than shadows still lived. She could see the quilt, every panel as if she were looking right at it as her sister wrapped it around her shoulders.

“It’s yours and that’s the end of it, Ruthie.” Sarah’s voice cracked a little at the end, causing Ruth to furiously wipe away a new batch of tears. “I wish you’d reconsider. The guest room’s all made up for you, Bill and I would love for you to come over tonight, the girls are so excited for Christmas, you should see them…” Sarah cut herself off in horror, grateful just this once that Ruth couldn’t see her face.

“No, Sar,” Ruth said, letting the sudden awkwardness slide, “I wouldn’t make great company this year. Besides, I’ve got Gram and the Holiday Quilt to get me through now, thanks to you. Love ya, baby sis.”

Sarah hugged her fiercely before setting up the voice activated computer camera that would link up the sisters in an emergency. Ruth went over it a hundred times with her before Sarah would agree to leave. She knew her sister’s guilt. Sarah’d been driving when the truck ran the light and plowed into them. It wasn’t her sister’s fault except in Sarah’s own mind. Luckily, Sarah walked away from the accident with only minor scrapes and the twins were safely at school. Only Ruth bore the scars of one man’s careless action.

#

It was odd. Ruth could lethargically feel the hours slipping later and later into the dregs of Christmas Eve. The snow howled and swirled outside her window, a storm to match her mood. She pulled the quilt down onto her lap and softly traced its panels. It was a huge regret that she’d never got around to adding to it. Sarah had the year she married. A pair of white doves under a red poinsettia. Ruth wasn’t much of a craft person, but she figured she’d make something once she and Brian…ah, well. No point in reliving any of that now. 

The clock on the mantle began to chime, ten, eleven, startling Ruth out of an uneven doze. Barnaby stood up from his place at her feet, patiently waiting. She knew she should move herself to the bed, but with the security of the quilt and the quiet and the ever present darkness, what difference would it make where she slept?

Pulling the Holiday Quilt up over her chest, Ruth began to fall back asleep when a light, breathy humming from the corner of the room sent her jolting up in terror. It was eerie, disjointed. A woman singing. Ruth’s voice was jagged, afraid as she bellowed out into the darkness.

“Who’s there?” Barnaby began to growl, a low, menacing sound. “You need to get out,” Ruth screeched in raw fear, “now!”

The humming got louder, an out of tune version of “White Christmas,” as Ruth felt a sudden rush of adrenaline. It sent her hurtling out of the wheelchair and painfully onto the floor. Barnaby began to bark, putting himself between Ruth and the intruder. Ruth began scrambling frantically towards the kitchen on her knees and elbows, planning to call out to Sarah on the computer before a kernel of recognition began to flower in the back of her mind. 

That was the song. Bing Crosby, White Christmas. It was always on, playing everywhere, you couldn’t escape from it. A young girl in pigtails singing along by an oversized family radio. Her favorite song. Jo’s memory.

“Gram?” she called out weakly. A small child’s voice. Ruth waited, dead silence enveloping the room. Barnaby laid down, she could feel him pressing up against her protectively.

A full minute went by and Ruth began to honestly doubt her sanity. She made a halfhearted attempt to get onto her feet when an overwhelming warmth overtook her body. Without having any idea as to how or why, she felt her body lifting up and lowering onto her bed all the way across the studio apartment. Barnaby jumped up into bed with her, calmly lying at her feet with his tail wagging, his canine suspicions somehow put to rest.

Ruth began to cry as she felt the Holiday Quilt being tucked in all around her, making her feel safe again. At last. She could smell the scent of lilacs, Jo’s favorite scent, the old woman’s humming filling her mind as an earth shattering light exploded behind her useless eyes and she was able, miraculously, to see once again.

It’s Brian! He’s standing over a table laughing, carving a blackened, well-done turkey as his parents look on completely horrified. Sarah and Bill laugh along with him, the girls hiding and playing under the table and Barnaby chasing them, barking…I never was much use as a cook! I warned him! The tree is in the same corner, the blue lights on the mantle, Christmas Village in place and the Holiday Quilt draped over Gram’s wicker chair. Except Jo is actually sitting there now, old and withered and seemingly, vibrantly alive, humming her song and making a new panel for the quilt. For me. It’s trimmed in gold and has a cane, a dog and a…baby? A chubby cheeked baby, nearly six months old. A baby…the accident? How? Joseph. His name is Joseph, we call him Joey…Brian cradles him proudly and the twins run around and Barnaby barks and my belly begins to swell with a brand new baby girl… Gram hums along to Bing Crosby on the radio and I can see it all! It’s dim around the edges and foggy and barely there…but…I CAN SEE! A true Christmas miracle…

A sharp knock at the door brought Ruth back to the present and out of her dream, her hands protectively cradling her belly. Daylight began to seep through the windows of the apartment but Ruth couldn’t see it. Not yet. She could hear, with her heightened sense of hearing, the last vestiges of an old woman’s humming and the creak of an old wicker chair as Brian’s voice and the turn of his key in the lock made her realize that Christmas Day had finally arrived.

Even within her own perpetual darkness, Ruth somehow knew the best was yet to come.

#

Over in the corner, draped over an ancient wicker chair, the Holiday Quilt lay quietly in perfect repose. Family lore would eventually tell of two sisters who would marvel at the addition of a new panel neither could remember adding. The quilt would continue to grow, generations adding on to it and passing on its traditions. Through it all, one thing would remain constant and timeless through many long years.

The stitches were filled with love.

 

A. Elizabeth Herting is an aspiring freelance writer and busy mother of three living in colorful Colorado. She has over 60 short story credits, podcasts, and reprints as well as non-fiction work, and two collections of short stories published by Adelaide Books, “Whistling Past the Veil” and “Postcards From Waupaca,” available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

One comment

  1. I was so intensely involved in this story welling up in tears and then it ENDED too soon!!! Amy you rock and I wish this one was longer especially this time of year it hit home with parallels on the same and different levels….being alone on Christmas will be a first!

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