For my 50th birthday in 1997, my husband invited our friends and family to celebrate at Toledo Restaurant in Manhattan. It was a bash. The aroma of zarzuela de mariscos floated through the room where our guests were seated; a trio played Sinatra.
Let me pin the moment. Our kids were 23 and 25. We 50-somethings were in the juiciest part of our lives, children grown, careers set and our parents still at the family table. In some ways it seemed as if the hard part was over.
My sister, who was 46, gifted me with a quilt. Well, actually, the promise of a quilt. She gave out envelopes containing a square of cotton fabric to all the guests. She asked them to write a birthday wish or sew something onto the patch and return it in the self-addressed envelope she included. She would put it all together as a birthday tribute. I was thrilled.
A few weeks later, I asked her how the quilt was going. She was very pleased that everyone was sending back their squares. It would take some time to put it all together.
A few months later, I asked about the quilt. She said it was coming along nicely.
On my 51st birthday, full of excited expectation, I opened my birthday package from my sister. It was a scarf. Neither of us mentioned the quilt.
Then my kids got married and had children of their own. Then her kids got married. Our parents got old and died. Our first two dogs trotted over the Rainbow Bridge. There were 25 Thanksgivings. My birthdays came and went, 55, 60, 65, 70, and then, this year, 75! The big one. I opened the box from my sister this March and found a handbag.
What was I thinking all that time? The sensible part of me understood that my sister’s life was busy. She had moved eight times over the years. Maybe the quilt-to-be was left behind. Maybe she felt that the moment had passed. Maybe she harbored unresolved little-sister feelings. Didn’t she once refer to me as Kim Jong Il? Maybe it was inertia.
To me, it was a loose thread. But the love between us is strong, and I would never let a loose thread unwind that fabric. Neither would she.
There were other birthdays and other gifts from her. She paints and makes jewelry. I have some brilliant watercolors of hers, and a handmade beaded necklace.
But I didn’t have the fricking quilt.
After the first 15 years, I never brought it up. It seemed bad form. I imagined she was actively not thinking about it. I mean, what else could be occupying her thoughts? Raising the kids? Running her house? Teaching? I pushed all quilt thoughts away, but they did stream into my consciousness now and again. Like when anyone, anytime, ever mentioned the word “quilt.”
By the time I was 70 and 20 years had passed, if I thought about The Quilt, I imagined the pieces were left at the curb of one of my sister’s homes or spontaneously combusted in an attic.
A big box arrived yesterday, when it wasn’t my birthday. Inside was my 50th birthday quilt, wrapped in tissue and ribbons. The note said, “Happy 50th birthday. Sorry it’s late.”
Twenty-five years late, but now a piece of family history. Clever girl, my sister. Our parents’ quilt square features a photocopied portrait of them. They were the age I am now. There are squares crafted by friends who’ve died. How amazing to hear from them after all these years. I never got to thank them for their good wishes. And there is a square from “Cousin Alan.” I don’t remember him. If you’re out there, Alan, phone home.
Time has spread a poignant glaze over the birthday quilt. Everything seems more precious these days, even a meal at Toledo. In 1997, a lobster paella there was probably $18. Today it’s pushing $50.
My quilt is experiencing inflation, in a good way.
My sister’s quilt patch is a square with a pocket. I opened the pocket and pulled out a faded antique postcard she must have picked up at a yard sale. It’s adorned with gossamer lace. “To my dearest sister,” it says in a scratchy cursive hand. “Best Christmas, Millie. Love Bob.” It’s dated 1916. The postcard was never mailed. It’s been 106 years.
Millie, if you’re waiting to hear from your brother Bob, don’t give up. Love is love, and it is timeless.
Copyright 2022 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.