One of my happiest memories is one of my mother’s worst. It was summer. I was five years old and would be starting kindergarten in a few weeks, so Mother decided to take me shopping for school shoes. She got behind the wheel of our Ford Fair- lane and cranked down the window so we wouldn’t be stifled by heat and the exhaled smoke of her cigarettes. I climbed into the front seat and off we went.
The safety belt, an accessory made mandatory by the enlightened legislators of Wisconsin two years before, was wedged down a narrow crevasse between the seats, forgotten among the gas receipts, discarded gum wrappers, and a grainy mixture of sand and cookie crumbs --- the debris of our annual vacation trip to the beaches of Door County. The idea of unearthing the belt and buckling it low and tight across my lap for our trip to the J. C. Penney department store never crossed my mother’s mind. It was 1963. There was less to be afraid of then.
Penney’s had the only escalator in our town, a distinction it would claim for another eight years. Later, when someone built a big shopping center on the edge of town, J. C. Penney would desert its downtown store and move there, leaving Main Street with a full city block of darkened display windows and empty parking spaces. The new mall would have three escalators, a glass elevator with gold-tone trim and white marquee lights in the middle, and four stores with at least twice the square footage of our old J. C. Penney. But back in 1963, Penney’s was the biggest store in town, and I believed they carried at least one of every single thing that was offered for sale on the face of the earth.
After we bought a pair of tan and white saddle shoes exactly like the pair I’d just outgrown, Mother decided she needed one of those new electric coffee percolators, so we rode the escalator upstairs to the housewares department.
Normally, I stuck close to my mother’s side, so I don’t know what made me do it, but while she was trying to decide between an eight- or ten-cup model, I quietly slipped away to explore the bed and bath department.
Walking between a valley of shelves piled high with sheets, I admired the delicate scallops and embroidery stitching on the edges of pillowcases, poking holes through the cellophane wrappings of the packages so my fingers could stroke the smooth, crisp sheeting inside, marveling as I considered the folded towers surrounding me and realized that white wasn’t just white but an enormous spectrum of whiteness from snow and alabaster to marshmallow and pearl. Amazing.
Then I heard my mother’s voice calling, beckoning me with the calm, singsong “Eve-lyn” she used to summon me to supper every night, the first syllable accented and extended before dropping into a short, lower-toned chirrup at the end, a secret call between hen and chick. I began walking toward the sound of my mother’s voice, but when I turned a corner in the valley of sheets, I stopped, frozen and fascinated.
My eyes rested upon midnight, then rolled skyward to navy, royal, cobalt, progressing to aqua, seafoam, avocado, moss, and forest, and then, reaching the ceiling, floated down a row of yellows, lemon to electric and every sunny tint between, then to the orange shades, peach to rust, before reaching the floor and beginning the journey again. It was an entire wall of towels, a delicious, soft rainbow that, as I drew closer, filled every inch of my field of vision and made me feel, for reasons I still cannot explain, simply and completely happy.
I forgot all about my mother, didn’t hear her soft chirp rise in volume and intensity as a minute passed and then two with no answer from me. Wanting to take in the full perspective of what lay before me the way an art lover backs away from a canvas to experience the impact of a painting, I retreated a few steps until I backed into a cabinet holding a pile of shower curtains and sank down to the floor. I wrapped my arms around my knees and pulled them up under my chin, making myself very quiet and very small, hearing nothing, seeing only the colors displayed before me... for me.
Until the day she died, whenever Mother told this story, relating her growing panic, the numbers of clerks and customers that combed the aisles, dressing rooms, and interiors of clothing racks searching for me, and the relief that actually made her dizzy when a dishwasher salesman finally found me, she instinctively clutched at her heart as if reliving the palpitations. Then she would shake her head and say, “Evelyn, you were always such a good little girl. Whatever were you thinking of?”
I never did find a way to explain it to her. For my mother, those fifteen minutes when I was “lost” were pure hell. For me, pure bliss.
Those rich, rolling gradations of color spoke to me, like finding the end of the rainbow and walking into it, reaching out with both hands and discovering that which had, from a distance, seemed no more substantial than vapor, refracted light, and hope had heft, and texture, and substance if you drew close. I found comfort in the predictability and measured pace of the spectrum as it progressed from blue to green to yellow to red and back to blue again, excitement and unbounded promise as I considered the infinite number of patterns and expressions that could be achieved simply by lifting one color, or two, or twenty from their natural context and placing them somewhere else in the column. For a five-year-old in 1963, a time when Crayolas came twenty-four to a box, it was an astounding revelation.
I never knew how to explain the importance of that moment to my mother, though later I would come to understand what it meant to her. For Mother, my disappearance was a reminder that in the time it takes to decide between eight cups and ten, or to turn your back, or take a breath, the things you love most can be lost, perhaps forever. Between one breath and the next, your whole world can change.
One morning, you may wake up on a sunny day in early spring, happy, your mind filled with nothing weightier than the thought of what you’ll put in your garden this year or what fabrics should go into your next quilt. And then a conversation begins, or the telephone rings, or the lab report arrives, and everything you thought you knew for certain is suddenly called into question.
It’s a lesson I’ve learned from personal experience, and, for a time, the weight of that lesson almost sank me. But then I learned something else: the pendulum swings both ways.
One moment you may be trapped in a maze of despair so thick there seems to be no hope of ever finding your way back to the place where you were happy, or at least happy enough, and then you stumble around a corner and find yourself in a different world. Taking one step down a cobblestone path that looks like a blind alley, and then another, going forward not from any sense of expectation or faith but only because there is nowhere else to go, you suddenly and surprisingly find yourself in a wide, sunny place where potted geraniums bloom in scarlet mounds and dormant dreams lie behind wooden doors with chipped paint and rusting hinges, waiting. From one breath to the next, everything changes.
Life is as terrible and wonderful as all that. I know from experience.
Later I would learn that that particular stretch of Interstate 84, crossing from New York into Connecticut, is usually choked with traffic. But at one in the morning with only fifty miles to my destination, mine was the only car in sight, and I sailed down the empty lanes. It wasn’t until he pulled up behind me that I saw the state trooper and looked down at my speedometer.
Ninety. He had me. I called myself a name, shifted my foot from the accelerator to the brake, and started to pull over even before the pulsating strobe of colored lights filled my rearview mirror.
The patrolman was a nice-looking young man. If he had smiled he would have looked a lot like Garrett, but his expression was stony. Strange to be face-to-face with an authority figure young enough to be my son, but when he asked for my license and registration I obediently handed them over.
“Ms. Dixon, do you have any idea how fast you were going?”
“About ninety,” I said honestly. There was no point in lying when I already knew he knew the truth; besides, I’m a terrible liar. “I started out in Nashville this morning and decided to drive straight through to New Bern, but I wasn’t deliberately speeding.
The road was clear, and I guess I just got lost in my thoughts. I didn’t realize how fast I was going until I saw you.”
He looked at my license. “You’re from Texas? And you’re driving all the way to New Bern by yourself?” I nodded.
“What brings you here?” he asked.
“It’s kind of a long story.”
Three days before, I’d had no more thought of driving to New England than of becoming an astronaut and taking a trip to the International Space Station.
When the doorbell rang at exactly ten-thirty that morning, I knew who it was: Mr. Lindsay from Elite Moving and Storage. Rob’s secretary had left a message the day before saying that a Mr. Lindsay would be coming to give me an estimate and a date to pack my furniture and move it out of the house I’d called home for the last twenty years.
Mr. Lindsay was wearing a pair of polished brown Justin cowboy boots just like Rob’s. He smiled broadly as he sat at down at my kitchen table, pulled a clipboard out of his briefcase, and started filling out paperwork. I disliked him instantly.
“And what address will we be delivering to?” he asked without looking up.
“I don’t know.”
He lifted his head, his eyebrows rising to arcs of annoyance. “Mrs. Dixon, I can’t very well estimate the price for your move if I don’t know how far we’re moving you.”
“Well, I’m sorry about that, Mr. Lindsay, but I simply don’t know yet!” I snapped. “And if that is inconvenient for you, or Elite Moving and Storage, or Rob Dixon... well, I frankly don’t give a damn. It isn’t like I invited you to come over here!”
This outburst was so unlike me. For the last several weeks all I’d been able to do was cry; now here I was cursing at a complete stranger. I was shocked, but Mr. Lindsay didn’t appear to be.
Putting two and two together, his brows lowered and his face became a mask of practiced, utterly unconvincing sympathy. He had seen this all before.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Dixon. I wasn’t aware of the circumstances of your move. I know how hard this must be for you; divorce always is. But please understand, I’m just trying to help you. Now, it’s my understanding that the new owners are planning on moving in on the fifth, so that means you’ll need to be out of here by the end of next month. When do you think you’ll finalize your plans?” His voice was smooth and unflappable.
I sighed. “I’m looking at several condos in the area, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. Not that it really makes much difference. They all look the same --- fake granite countertops in tiny kitchens, white paint, four walls, sliding glass doors looking out onto a sad five-by-five square of concrete they call a patio. Each one is just as depressing as the one before.”
“You know, there is a complex we’ve moved several ladies in your situation to, and they’ve been very happy,” he said brightly.
“I see. You mean there’s a central depot for storing discarded wives these days? Someplace where they warehouse the women who’ve passed their sell-by date and been replaced with newer models? How convenient.” There was no point in taking my anger out on this man, but I couldn’t help myself. It didn’t seem to bother him though. He ignored my sarcasm and kept talking.
“My sister-in-law works in the sales office. Have you seen Rolling Hills at River’s Edge? If you’d like, I could give Beverly a call and ---”
I shook my head. “You mean the place over on Alamo Drive? The place with no hills and no river? No thanks.”
“Well,” Mr. Lindsay chuckled, “they might have been taking a little bit of literary license with the name, I’ll give you that. There aren’t any real hills between here and Austin, but there will be a river. Beverly told me that they’re starting on the excavation next week.”
“A fake river?” I laughed. “Thanks, Mr. Lindsay, but I’m up to here with that sort of thing --- plastic flowers, simulated wood-grain cabinets, planned communities, absent friends, false promises, broken homes. I want something real. I’ve had enough of counterfeits, and, for that matter, I’ve had enough of this conversation.” The legs of the chair made a scraping sound against the laminate wood flooring as I got to my feet. Mr. Lindsay looked surprised and a little confused.
“Mrs. Dixon, I know you’re upset, but we really do have to make some decisions here ---”
“No.” I shook my head. “We don’t have to do anything. And I’m not going to. Not today. I’m sorry that you came out here for nothing, Mr. Lindsay, but this is still my home.” I could feel tears pooling in my eyes, but my voice sounded strong in my ears. “You need to leave.”
As I walked him to the front door and opened it, it occurred to me that I needed to do the same.
The next thing I knew, I was in the front seat of my car, heading northeast, and my suitcase was in the back. I really didn’t know where I was going, only that I was. But by the time I neared the city limits, I decided I’d better tell someone that I was leaving. I called his office in Seattle.
“Claremont Solutions. This is Garrett.”
“Hi, honey. It’s Mom.”
“Hi, Mom. Are you all right?” Garrett is my only child. He’s a good son and has always been protective of me, even more so since the divorce.
“I’m fine, sweetheart. I’ve just decided to go on a trip, and I thought you’d want to know.”
“Well, that’s great,” he said cautiously. “I’ve been telling you to take a vacation for months now --- anything besides sitting around the house and moping --- but this is kind of sudden, isn’t it? Where are you going?”
And suddenly I knew. “To New England. To see the fall colors. I’ve wanted to go for years, but your dad never would. His idea of a vacation has always involved sitting on a beach and baking to a golden brown, even if that meant I had to spend the whole time hiding under an umbrella.”
My complexion has always been fair. Twenty minutes in strong sun can leave me with a nasty burn. But even after the dermatologist removed a malignant mole from my shoulder a few years ago, Rob continued booking our vacations in tropical locales. I knew I shouldn’t subject Garrett to my acrimonious memories of his father, but sometimes it was impossible to swallow back the anger.
When Garrett took a job as a computer programmer all the way in Seattle after college, I was so disappointed. I’d been hoping he’d settle down closer to home, someplace where he could come home for holidays or drop by on weekends. Now I was almost happy that he lived so far away, too far to get caught in the fallout as Rob and I flung accusations at each other across a battlefield barbed with betrayal and lawyers. No matter how bitter I was, I never wanted Garrett to feel like he had to take sides in all this.
“Well, that sounds great, Mom,” Garrett replied, ignoring my commentary. “Do you know when you’ll be back? Where are you staying?”
“Actually” --- I smiled to myself ---”I have no idea. I guess I’ll stay wherever looks good and come back when I feel like it.”
I heard Garrett tap-tapping his finger against the telephone receiver.
“Excuse me? Operator? Excuse me? There must be some problem with this connection. I just thought I heard my mother, Evelyn Dixon, President of the Boy’s Club Annual Benefit Auction, as well as the Altar Guild, the Children’s Library Advisory Committee, the Neighborhood Association, and the foremost list-maker in all of Texas, say that she didn’t have a plan. Someone must have crossed our wires.” He laughed, and I smiled. Even in my darkest moments, the sound of Garrett laughing has cheered me.
Standing in the middle of downtown that day and turning in a slow circle, I decided that New Bern, Connecticut, looked exactly as a New England village should. I still think so.
The tallest building in town is the Congregational Church. It stands at the narrow, western end of the Green, an imposing façade that dominates the landscape, as if anchoring the town to the Almighty, reminding the residents of the meaning of the word “omnipresent.” With its evenly spaced doors and windows aligned beneath the exact center of a white wooden belfry, it is a monument to symmetry. Next to it, and painted in the same simple white clapboard as the church, stands a line of antique homes, probably from the late eighteen hundreds, on smallish lots. They are nearly identical, two-storied and rectangular in shape with wide porches and high-pitched roofs and, at least in comparison to the grand mansions that line the village’s main east/west residential street, Elm, rather modest.
The lots on Elm are large, some measured in acres instead of feet, and the homes sitting on them represent a variety of architectural styles --- Colonials, Federals, Greek Revivals, and Victorians.
Historic plaques on the homes list dates of construction stretching from pre-Revolutionary times to post–Civil War, the most recent having been built in 1902. Walking down the sidewalk on an autumn afternoon, under a canopy of red gold maple leaves shot through with shafting sunbeams, you half expect a man in a tall beaver top hat and morning coat, or a woman wearing hoopskirts and pulling on hand-tatted lace gloves, to open the gate in one of the white picket fences and wish you good-day. New Bern is a town with an active and powerful historic preservation society, and it shows.
There is little distance or demarcation here between residential and commercial; people who live in town are within easy walking distance of New Bern’s businesses, a small but diverse collection of restaurants, galleries, antique shops, and boutiques housed in two-story brick storefronts with hand-painted signs. There isn’t an inch of neon on New Bern’s main commercial street, aptly called Commerce. And even though the village shops clearly cater to the tourist trade (you’d be hard-pressed to buy a quart of milk or packet of shoelaces in the village; all those mundane but necessary transactions take place in charmless cinderblock buildings along the state route leading out of town), there is a feeling of authenticity to the place.
Taking a quick walk around, perusing the village before deciding how to spend the rest of my day, I was pleased to see there was nothing too precious or souvenirlike for sale in the store windows, no T-shirts claiming that the wearer’s girlfriend, husband, or grandma went to New Bern and all they got was a lousy T-shirt, and none of the merchants had dubbed their boutiques a “shoppe.” I was looking forward to poking through the stores, but my rumbling stomach insisted that lunch come first.
There were three or four restaurants to choose from, and all of them looked nice, but I settled on a place called the Grill on the Green. Though it was still early, the restaurant was packed, and I had to wait for a few minutes to be seated. Waiting for my table, I noticed that while many of the customers were obviously tourists (the shopping bags and cameras gave them away), the handsome, gray-haired gentleman who was seating diners greeted many by their first names, kissing the ladies on the cheek and exchanging hearty handshakes and laughter with the men. Clearly, the restaurant was a favorite of locals as well as visitors. It was easy to see why; the atmosphere was elegant but relaxed, with brick red wainscoting running beneath walls painted a warm yellow. The simple black Windsor chairs looked cozy around the white-clothed tables. And the food? To die for! The chicken and endive salad I ordered was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Normally, I hate eating alone; it always makes me feel so conspicuous. But with the French patio doors at the front of the restaurant open to catch a warm, fall breeze, a pleasant buzz of conversation in the background, and a great glass of pinot grigio to sip, I found myself smiling for the first time in a long time.
The waitress brought me a cappuccino to finish my meal. “So, are you up from New York for the day?”
“Texas, actually. I took a room at the Inn for a few days. I’ve always wanted to see the fall colors.”
“Texas?” she commented, looking at me with interest before placing the cup on the table. “That’s a long way. Well, you picked the perfect time for it. The weather’s beautiful. We’ll be packed this weekend, that’s for sure.”
“I noticed. Do you always have so many tourists?”
She shook her head and put a ceramic container filled with pink, blue, and white sugar packets down near my cup. “We’ve always got a steady stream of weekenders from New York, but we’re too far from the city to be a big tourist destination --- not like the Hamptons or anything. Which is fine with me.” She grinned. “I went to East Hampton for the weekend once and I couldn’t wait to get home --- too many people! Here, we’re busy in the summer, and, of course, we get a lot of visitors now, during leaf season, but that only lasts a few weeks. Most businesses make seventy percent of their income in about three months’ time. Things get pretty quiet after that.”
“Doesn’t that make it hard to make a living?” I asked.
The waitress shrugged. “In a way, I guess. If we run into a summer with bad weather, and the tourists stay home, it can be tough, but I’ve lived here all my life and always managed. Probably I’d make more money if I lived somewhere else, but New Bern is a good place to raise my kids. Can’t see that making more money would make me any happier, so I guess I’m here to stay.”
We had been talking for quite a while. Standing near the bar, the maitre d’ shot the waitress a look that reminded her she had other tables.
“Is there anything else I can get for you?” she asked quickly.
“No, thank you. Just a check.”
She pulled the already-prepared bill out of her black apron pocket and placed it on the table. “It was nice talking to you,” she said. “I hope you enjoy your trip. If you get a chance, drive over to the nature preserve and walk the trails. They’re real pretty this time of year.”
“Thanks. I’ll do that.”
I’d planned to do some window-shopping after lunch, but changed my mind when a motor coach pulled up and disgorged a swarm of camera-wielding senior citizens onto the sidewalk. Instead, I crossed the street and took a walk on the Green, hoping the crowd of seniors would disperse by the time I returned.
The Green, I soon learned, is just a quaint word for a municipal park that marks the center of town and is a fixture in most New England villages. In New Bern, the Green is a block wide and three blocks long. Commerce and Elm Streets run on its long, east/west edges; Maple and Church streets bound the shorter sides. Those four are the most important thoroughfares in town, though I would later learn that Proctor Street, which parallels the back side of Elm, is where the real mansions are. Those homes, owned by old Yankees with old money, with layers of trees and hedges to camouflage them from prying eyes, don’t look like much from the road. But once you get past the overgrown shrubbery you’ll discover grounds dotted with tennis courts, swimming pools, and carriage houses surrounding stately, enormous homes that rarely change hands. The owners’ last names match those of the oldest headstones in the cemetery. In this part of the world, amassing a great fortune is considered admirable; flaunting it is not.
I took my time strolling through the Green, gazing up at the tapestry of brilliant-leaved trees. Some, towering overhead like massive columns, had obviously been there for decades if not centuries. Others, more recently planted, with slender, pliable trunks, were scattered haphazardly on the carpet of grass. Hardy yellow and orange mums mounded in indiscriminately placed flowerbeds near bushes of purplish hydrangeas at their peak and leggy geraniums that were far past it. But for the sidewalks cutting through the park at tidy right angles until they met at the granite memorial to the
Civil War dead, the Green would have given the impression of nature run amok. Instead, the feeling was one of humanity imposing order upon nature, but lightly, respectfully, recognizing that, while they might adapt and make use of the natural world, the people of New Bern weren’t so arrogant as to suppose they could control it.
It’s like a quilt, I thought to myself as I approached the war memorial. All the different patches of green coming together to make a whole. That’s why I feel so comfortable here.
I’d made my first quilt twenty-five years before, when I was expecting Garrett. From that moment on, I was hooked. I love quilting, the sheer geometry of it, the endless patterns and combinations that can be achieved by the arrangement and rearrangement of something as simple as a straight line. The order and precision of quilting appeals to that part of me that wants a refuge from life’s chaos, while the unbounded possibilities of color, fabric, and finishing speak to the part of me that wants to live life surprised. The most wonderful thing about quilting is that if a whole stadium full of people were to make a quilt in the exact same pattern, no two of those quilts would be alike. No matter how untutored or timid she may be, when it comes to quilting, everyone is an artist. Expertly, or innocently, or inadvertently, the quilter cannot help but reveal something true.
That’s what I was feeling as I left the Green and joined the dwindling groups of shoppers enjoying the last lazy rays of sunlight on that fall afternoon: that I had stumbled upon something true, a town completely and unapologetically itself. No one here would think of digging a river where nature hadn’t seen fit to put one in the first place, trying to impose some counterfeit, saccharine-quaint overlay of what someone in Corporate thought the landscape should look like based on the most recent polling numbers and focus groups. Here, the sidewalks were uneven in spots, and tufts of grass sprouted insistently between the cracks. Walking past the Grill on the Green, where clutches of diners lingered over coffee and dessert, I looked up and saw that the hand-painted wooden sign suspended overhead had spots of chipped paint, scars from a hailstorm. No one had thought to touch it up after the ravages of winter, trying to restore it to some ideal of pristine perfection. The residents and merchants of New Bern weren’t striving to achieve perfection, because they understood it was the imperfections that made their village perfect, because that was what made it real.
One of the first bits of wisdom imparted to a novice quilter is that the Amish, who make some of the most simple but exquisite quilts in the world, purposely plan a mistake into each of their projects because they believe attempts at human perfection mock God. Of course, any quilter knows that you don’t have to plan for imperfections in your work; they come quite naturally on their own, so I don’t know if this bit of Amish folklore rings true or not, but the idea does.
If there were such a thing as human perfection, it would mean that there was one ideal; one standard for beauty, one right answer to every question. And maybe, for the Mr. Lindsays of the world, the people who can’t see any difference between a real river and a freshly dug one, who can’t understand why someone would go to all the trouble of stitching a quilt by hand when you could make one faster on a machine, or better yet, buy one cheap from the discount store for $49.95, which is less than you’d pay for the fabric; maybe for those people there is some universal ideal. Maybe they simply can’t recognize the sublime splendor of imperfection. But I bet the Amish do, and the young waitress who thinks a smaller paycheck is a fair trade for happiness, and whoever owns the sign over the restaurant and lets the chipped paint stay chipped because they realize that tradition and endurance are what ultimately bring us to perfection. They understand. So do I.
Maybe that’s why, after only a few hours in this little village, I felt more at ease here than I did after twenty years of living in a suburban planned development.
How odd, I thought as I opened the door of the antique store I’d been browsing in and waved in response to the owner’s farewell, to be surrounded by strangers and feel so at home. If I believed in past lives, I might think I’d spent one in New Bern. Of course, that couldn’t be. There’s no quilt shop here, and even in reincarnation I can’t see me spending a whole lifetime without a place to buy fabric. If not for that, I’d never want to leave.
It was nearing five o’clock, and some of the shopkeepers were locking up. I was almost at the end of Commerce Street and had investigated every shop. Tomorrow I planned to take the young waitress’s advice and spend the day hiking through the nature preserve, so I knew I should go back to the Inn and turn in early, but I really didn’t want to. I wanted to make the day last. There was a bakery on the corner with a sign that promised fresh cookies and strong coffee. People were still coming in and out the door. I wasn’t really hungry, but lingering over a cup of coffee seemed a good way to prolong the afternoon.
The sun was beginning to dip lower in the sky, and it was getting chilly. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets as I hurried toward the bakery. I’d almost reached the door when I heard a bird chirrup that sounded surprisingly close and loud.
If the bird hadn’t called at the moment it did, I’d have missed it entirely, but when I turned my head to see where the noise came from I noticed an opening between the two buildings I’d just passed. It was an alley paved with old-fashioned cobblestones, wide enough to allow people to pass on foot but too narrow for a car. A faded sign posted on a brick wall announced that this was Cobbled Court, and an arrow beneath pointed the way in.
There weren’t any lights in the alley. Even if there were any shops down the passageway, they were surely closed by now, but curiosity got the best of me. Ignoring the damage that the uneven cobbles were inflicting on my high heels, I set out to investigate the passage that, in all probability, led to nothing more interesting than back doors where shopkeepers piled their empty shipping crates and trash cans. But that’s why you mustn’t bet the bank on probability; sometimes it’s better to follow your instincts.
The dark, narrow passageway ended abruptly, opening onto a generous, cobbled square large enough to let a wide column of light stream into the center. When I stepped out of the dim alleyway and into the light-filled courtyard, it felt like I was passing into a secret world, a place that didn’t exist before I discovered it.
At a right angle to the alley I’d just exited, I saw another passage that I thought might lead to Maple Street, which meant the courtyard could be accessed from two of New Bern’s most important streets. There were a few small storefronts opening onto the courtyard --- a gift shop, an art gallery, and an attorney’s office --- but, as I had anticipated, they were all closed.
One store, much larger than all the others combined, took up an entire brick building. It was empty. Judging from its appearance, it had been for a long time. The red paint on the wooden door was peeling, and the big bowfront display window with dozens of panes of glass was clouded with dirt and cobwebs. I moved closer and spied a faded For Rent sign taped to the window.
Using my sleeve to wipe some of the grime from the glass, I peered inside and saw that the interior of the shop was even bigger than it appeared from the street. I could make out stone floors and scarred wooden counters topped with an old-fashioned black cash register that probably hadn’t rung up a sale in decades.
The place was in terrible shape. Water stains on the walls testified to the existence of bad plumbing or a leaky roof, probably both. Several of the windowpanes were cracked, and one was completely missing, allowing me to get a strong whiff of wet and mildew when I leaned closer. The window frames were soft in spots where termites had been feasting. In spite of all this, I could see that, once upon a time, it had been charming. Closing my eyes, I could envision how the dozens of tiny windows would have gleamed when they were clean and new and how inviting the red wooden door must have looked when the paint was fresh. In my mind, the sour odor of mold was banished by the perfume of scented geraniums growing in pots under the window, and I could hear a cheery, frequent jingling as the door swung open and the bells alerted the shopkeeper to the arrival of yet another customer. I could see it all, but only with my eyes closed. Opening them again, I stood face-toface with a ruin of a building, an abandoned memory.
It must have been lovely, but that was a long time ago. It would take pots of money and a mountain of work to make it look that way again.
I didn’t care.
I backed away from the broken window and started rummaging through my purse for a pen and scrap of paper so I could write down the name and number of the realtor. This was it. What I had been looking for without even knowing it. My place, my town, my shop. The dream I’d nearly forgotten had been waiting for me at the end of a blind alley.
I closed my eyes again, and the vision came back to me, the shining windows, the gleaming red door, this time with a hand-painted sign overhead that read:
COBBLED COURT QUILTS
I was in luck. Though it was after hours when I called the real estate office, someone answered the phone. Wendy Perkins said she’d just been getting ready to leave, but, seeing as I was only a couple of blocks away, she’d be willing to wait if I came right over.
“But,” she asked doubtfully, “are you sure we’re talking about the same building? That great big space in Cobbled Court? The one with the broken windows?”
“Yes,” I assured her. “I’m standing in front of it right now. Red door and a bowfront window. How much does it rent for?”
“Honestly, I don’t remember. It’s been so long since anyone inquired that I’ll have to look up the information in my files, but I’ll have it by the time you get here.”
When I walked through the door of the office I was enthusiastically greeted by an older woman with a white beehive hairdo. She wore a big pair of rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses on a rhinestone-encrusted chain around her neck and pants that were a size too small. She snorted whenever she laughed, which was often, wrinkling her nose, folding her tongue into a little U shape when she did and involuntarily thrusting it through the O of her lips. She reminded me of that Lily Tomlin character, Ernestine, the wickedly funny telephone operator whose weekly appearances on Laugh-In, back when I was a teenager, always had me rolling. I liked her instantly.
“It’s in here somewhere, Evelyn,” she said, frowning and pushing her glasses up on her nose while she dug through the file drawer.
“It’ll just take me a minute or two to find it. The paperwork on that building must be older than me.” Snort! Snort!
She laughed, and I joined in. It was impossible not to.
“What’s the history of the building?”
“Well, it was originally a drugstore, way back at the turn of the century. Fielding Drug Emporium. It was family run all the way up until the sixties, but then Jim Fielding died of a heart attack real sudden, and the place closed down. After that, there were a couple of boutiques that tried their luck, but, you know, it’s such a big space and not an ideal location. People don’t know it’s there unless they walk down that passage. It’d be fine if you were catering to a clientele of alley cats and rats.” Snort! Snort! “You’re not looking to open a pet-supply store, are you?” Snort!
I smiled. “No, I’m afraid not. I’m a quilter. Years ago, when I was first married, I dreamed of opening a quilt shop of my own back in Wisconsin. That’s where my husband and I grew up. At one point, I actually inquired about getting a loan and started working on a business plan, thinking I’d do it as soon as my son was in school and I had a little more time. But you know how things go. My husband got a job offer in Texas for a lot more money. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. At the time, I thought I’d just open my store in Texas, but the town we moved to didn’t support small businesses. Two quilt shops opened while I was there. They asked me to teach some classes, which I loved, and sometimes I’d help out in the store too. Just part-time work, you know. But in the end they couldn’t compete against the big fabric stores, so they closed. Then, too, I was very involved with my son, his school, and I volunteered for all kinds of community things.” I shrugged.
“It’s no one’s fault but mine, but I eventually kind of gave up on my dream and, in a way, on myself. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. Now I find myself nearing fifty and newly single, and when I saw that empty storefront today, I knew... I just knew...” Wendy’s eyes were fixed on me as I spoke. Suddenly I felt very foolish, telling my life story to a stranger.
“Well, you know what they say --- ‘Better late than never’!” I laughed, but this time Wendy didn’t join in. Instead, she leaned forward, making the springs on the desk chair squeak, and placed her hand on my knee.
“Evelyn, believe me, I’m happy to make this deal, but you seem like a nice lady. You need to think this through. You’ve just gone through a divorce. Maybe this isn’t the time for you to be making such a big decision or moving to a town where you don’t know anyone. At a time like this, you need friends around, old friends who know you and what you’ve been through. People who can support you.
“This is a huge change you’re contemplating, and an expensive one. I don’t know what your financial situation is, but if you’re like most recent divorcees, then this is the worst possible time for you to be taking a big financial risk. I know what I’m talking about. You think I’d be sitting in an office trying to sell real estate at six-thirty on a Thursday night if I didn’t? At my age, I should be sitting on a beach in Florida, calling my children and nagging them because they never come see me.” She snorted, but halfheartedly. Her eyes became serious again.
“And even if you weren’t reeling from the effects of your divorce, be practical. New Bern isn’t big enough to support a quilt shop. You won’t last six months.”
Excerpted from A SINGLE THREAD © Copyright 2011 by Marie Bostwick. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.
A Single Thread