Of the four stories in the first volume of my The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk, this story, The Memory Quilt of Lacey Mulhearn, is my favorite. In it Siobhan Mulhearn finds a beautiful old quilt in the attic of her grandfather's house. She brings it to Gretchen who owns a quilting shop and, with the help of Miss Martha Neubert they learn the secrets documented in the quilt. It is a heart-warming, deeply touching story and a perfect St. Patrick's Day read.
“Wait until you see this.” Siobhan unzipped the bag and remove a bundle wrapped in tissue. As she unfolded it she pulled aside the tissue which cracked and shattered, fluttering to the floor. “I’m making an awful mess.”
“Don’t give it another thought. I’ll vacuum later. Oh my…” Gretchen helped her to unfold a quilt nestled in the paper and spread it over the table. “Oh, this is amazing.”
The quilt was obviously very old—the cotton faded or stained in places, worn thin in others. It covered the entire length of the table.
“You found this in your attic?”
“It was in that garment bag in the attic. I have no idea how long it’s been there.” Siobhan stroked the surface lightly. “The stitches are so tiny. I’m almost scared to touch it.”
Gretchen nodded. “It’s been well cared for but it really should be under glass.”
“Have you ever seen anything like it? Each block is different. There are stains on it but I’m afraid to have it cleaned for fear it will fall apart.”
“You can’t have it cleaned.” Gretchen straightened the corners being careful to handle the fabric delicately. “This is what they called a ‘memory quilt.’ Each block represents a special memory in the life of the person who made it. See this?” She pointed to a key in a lock pieced out of calico and embellished with embroidery. “Maybe this is to remember a special secret place that was important to the person who made this. What a beautiful thing this is!” She looked up at Siobhan. “Would you mind if I called Miss Martha Neubert to come have a look at it? She knows everything there is to know about quilting. I’m going to call her right now. She just lives down the street. She might want to come over while you’re still here.”
Now that the quilt was spread out on a flat surface in a well lit room, Siobhan studied it while Gretchen was on the phone. There were twenty blocks in all—four across and five down—each separated by a strip of green calico with tiny white and yellow flowers. Where each block met was a white muslin square with a flower embroidered on it. The stitches in both the embroidery and the quilting were almost impossibly tiny.
“She’s coming right over,” Gretchen said. “I knew she would. There’s nothing Miss Martha loves as much as a beautiful old quilt.” She glanced out the window and immediately spotted a woman with thick gray hair, bundled into a heavy sweater over a house dress, hurrying up the street. “Here she comes now.” She grinned.
In minutes The Calico Cuckoo’s door opened and a slender woman wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a flowered bib apron— its pockets spilling over with pins and needles, thimbles and thread, bits of chalk and tiny scissors—hurried inside.
“Oh, this is so exciting,” she said, as she carefully closed the door. “Nothing makes me happier than discovering a new old quilt.” She laughed a laugh that was delightfully girlish. “Is it in the workroom?” She hurried past Gretchen, oblivious to Siobhan’s presence. “Oh my!” She stopped suddenly and pressed her hands to her chest. “Oh my, oh my, oh my! This is a treasure.” She stood for a moment studying the quilt, then slowly circled the table. “Look at this.” She pointed to a square in the middle of the quilt showing a little church nestled in trees pieced out of faded fabric with a garland of leaves and hearts around it. The date May 3, 1881 was embroidered in uncertain letters under it.
“What is that?” Siobhan asked leaning closer to have a look.
“I think it’s a wedding date,” Miss Martha said. “Whoever this quilt was made for was married on May third in eighteen-eighty-one.” She turned and peered at Siobhan over the top of her glasses. “Is this yours? You have a real treasure here.” Miss Martha turned back to the quilt and sighed. “A real treasure.”
She circumnavigated the table again studying each square. “See these?” She indicated five squares, each showing a pieced baby cradle in different colors, with names and dates embroidered on them. “I think the couple who got married had five children. See—Bridget, Donal, Liam, Moira, and…” She paused, frowning. “And Padraig.” She was quiet as she studied the other blocks. “Obviously the family was from Ireland.”
“Look.” Gretchen pointed to a block above the one of the church. “Is that a train?”
Miss Martha looked at it and nodded slowly. “It certainly is. And over there are railroad tracks. The Irish came to Marienstadt in the 1860s to work on the railroad. If I was to guess, I’d say this was pieced by a woman who married a railroad man.”
“Grampy told me his grandfather came here with the railroad during the Civil War. Oh, this is so exciting. Miss Martha, you are reading this quilt like it was a book.” Siobhan’s eyes sparkled as she carefully touched one of the blocks.
“I wonder…” Gretchen walked around the table and stopped at one corner. She turned it over carefully and smiled. “Oh good! The quilter embroidered something on the back. I’m always telling the quilters in my classes to sign their quilts for future generations. It looks like this quilter did.”
“Let me see.” Miss Martha hurried over and bent down to examine the stitching. “Oh, my,” she whispered.”
“What does it say?” Siobhan asked.
“It’s very faded,” Gretchen said, “and the writing is hard to make out but I think it says For My Honorable Husband Padraig From Your Devoted Wife Lacey Mulhearn, 1910. Oh, how amazing.”
“They were my great-great grandparents—Paddy and Lacey,” Siobhan said. “Grampy talked about them all the time.”
Miss Martha stood silent for several minutes, then she gathered up her apron and, lifting her glasses, dabbed at her eyes.
“Miss Martha? Are you all right?” Gretchen put her hand on the older woman’s arm.
Miss Martha nodded, smiling through tears. “I’m fine. I’m just fine.”
“But why are you crying?” Siobhan asked.
“This is so silly.” Miss Martha laughed as she swabbed at her eyes, then readjusted her glasses. “When I was a little girl—nine or ten—my Grandmother O’Brien came to live with us. She was in her eighties then and, though she was very frail, her mind was as sharp as could be. Nanny loved to sit by the window overlooking the street and do needlework and I loved to sit with her. She taught me to sew and embroider and quilt—I just loved her so much. While we were working she would tell me the most wonderful stories. Oh, dear, I’m going to start crying again.” She removed her glasses and reached for her apron but Gretchen handed her some tissue.
“Here. Use these.”
“Thank you.” Miss Martha sighed. “I sat sewing with her every day after school for all the years that she lived with us, and, though I loved all her stories, the one I loved the most was about Lacey Mulhearn and her memory quilt. I’d ask her to tell it over and over. Heaven only knows how many times. Poor Nanny—she was so patient with me.”
“That’s a sweet memory,” Gretchen said.
“Yes. It is. But, you see, the thing is—I had no idea it was true. I thought she made it up. You can’t imagine what it feels like to see this.” She looked back and forth between them. “It’s just such a … a … I don’t even know what to say.”
Siobhan slipped her arm around Miss Martha’s narrow shoulders. “It’s like finding Cinderella’s glass slipper.”
“Yes.” Miss Martha laughed and blew her nose. “Yes, that’s it.”
“Well,” Gretchen said. “I think I should make a pot of tea so the three of us can enjoy it in my kitchen while you tell the story to us.” Read the rest of the story....