I drop onto the couch next to Sally, thinking about lost time.
She touches my cheek and points to the ceiling. “You’re wiped out, and I’m leaving that room to you, Chrissie. Sorry, it’s a lot, but that’s yours and Mom’s space.”
“It’s not that,” I say. “I’m still angry at Mom, and I can’t get past it. She wasted six years with Alex, and now she’s gone. Why did she put up with him?”
“People can be unpredictable when they’re lonely,” she says. “Maybe she found bad company better than no company after Dad left.”
You were so strong when I was young. Never gave in or compromised when something needed to get done. Back then, you would’ve thrown Alex out. I miss admiring you.
“She pushed us to never settle for less in a relationship, Sally, and we didn’t. I loved her for cultivating that strength, though it led to some agonizing breakups. But Alex turned out a loser, and she knew it. You’re wrong. It has to be more than loneliness.” I glance upstairs and decide it’s time.
Opening the sewing-room door, I’m at the big table, watching you measure and cut another block of fabric for a quilt. Then it’s my turn, and you hand me the rotary cutter.
“Go slow, and watch your fingers, Honey,” you say. “That blade is a razor.”
You taught me to quilt, from six to sixteen, until my friends displaced your fabric.
The room is packed, and I squeeze past mounds of colorful material. Sewing machines, overflowing storage bins, and spools of thread surround me. An unfinished quilt hangs from the ironing board. I spread it out and examine the blocks. Images of raccoons, deer, and bears, laser-printed onto photo fabric, alternate with blocks displaying trees, barns, and streams.
I love your photographs.
Drifting through the room, I touch well-worn pin cushions and assorted tools. This room would fill my apartment. The back door leads to a porch that faces woods.
I remember your excitement when a black bear and cubs stopped here one afternoon. Their photo decorates much of your work.
I see the new aluminum shed Alex built, and it ruins the landscape and moment.
You said he kept his tools and liquor there, before leaving six months ago. It’s too late to ask again, but the question still gnaws. How could you live with this guy?
Surprisingly, the closet where I loved to hide is nearly empty. Several dresses hang over a cardboard box. Pushing them aside, I see a note on the box.
“Dear Chrissie, my love. I know you’re disappointed in me about Alex, and I understand why. You used to call me an oak tree, but time diminished my strength and confidence. This is for you. I know you’ll do what’s right.” Mom
I open the box and find another quilt, but it lacks color. I’m more confused by the blocks. They contain photos of your face, bordered by black. It takes a moment to focus on the photos, and I step back, trembling. Your face is bruised and swollen. The photos are date-stamped just before Alex left.
Is this the reason you stayed with him so long? Fear?
Furious, I curse and reach for my phone, but stop. The last photo is different. It shows Alex, appearing pallid. Light reflects off something near his head. I stop breathing when I see it’s the aluminum-shed wall.
I grab the quilt and sprint down the porch stairs to the shed. Pulling open the door, lawn equipment and seed bags lie on patches of dead grass and dry earth. In one corner, a case of whiskey sits on a tarp near some tools. I pull the tarp and find the earth below it broken into clumps. As the certainty sinks in, my breathing eases.
Stepping outside, I scan the woods and spot where two trees once stood.
I take the tools and quilt, enter the woods, and find the fallen pine tree. Fifty feet away sits the stump of the great-white oak.
Sally and I enjoyed countless hours beneath that oak, playing on the swings you built for us.
It fell after a lightning strike many years ago, taking the pine with it. The next day, we found mushrooms growing on the roots of that pine.
You said that meant it was rotting and needed to come down, so the oak took care of it.
I recall your face, so young and animated as you told us the story.
A section of the oak’s trunk still lies across remnants of that crushed pine. I place the quilt across the oak, raise the pickaxe, and break ground.