The coming of Fall in Branscomb’s Mill, Virginia, meant many things to those of us who’d spent most of our lives nestled in the idyllic little town nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It meant the return of our beloved high school football season, it meant the changing of the leaves that would soon turn the mountains that surrounded us into brilliant canvases of autumn finery, and most importantly, it meant the annual Fall Festival. Not only was the Festival a local economic boon, drawing tourists from all over the mid-Atlantic to our town, it was also a vicious competition that pitted neighbor against neighbor as local craftsmen, cooks, bakers, and folk artists battled in a deadly serious quest to win the coveted blue ribbon prize in their respective categories. And it was also, to a large degree, fixed.
Not to suggest that the results were bought, necessarily, but it had long been accepted that the plenteous Price family would garner most of the top awards. It has been said that when John Branscomb put down his stakes next to Indian Creek and built his first grain mill in 1828, there was a member of the Price family there to greet him with a plate of warm buttermilk biscuits and a jar of Damson preserves. When Branscomb prospered, and the town that sprang up around his mill took his name, the Prices never forgot the slight and had been working overtime getting even for it ever since. There has been a member of the Price family serving as mayor, chief of police, fire chief, and/or county sheriff without interruption for over 150 years. And every Fall Festival since the first one, held for the city’s centennial in 1928, the Prices had dominated virtually every category of the competition.
There was no reason to believe that this year would be any different. Essie had been working overtime for the last three months to produce enough quilts both to enter in the competition and to supply the ravaging hordes of tourists to whom authentic Appalachian quilts were irresistible. For the past three months, as I had every year during our 20 years of marriage, I’d dusted off my limited cooking skills and made dinner for us every evening as Essie labored away on her Festival quilts. I’d fixed ice packs for her tired, aching hands, the same way she did for me when my old football injuries acted up. Mostly, though, I’d help as much as I could by cutting patches out of fabric to her exacting specifications. And when she’d fall asleep from sheer exhaustion, with a sewing needle still in her hand, I’d carry her to bed and marvel at the amazing woman I’d loved for more than half my life.
Essie and I met at the Festival, at the age of 15, when we were both sophomores in high school. Though we had lived less than five miles from each other our whole lives, we had never met. Essie’s father was a surgeon at the big new hospital in the county, and Essie attended the county schools. My father was a blue collar mechanic who worked on the enormous drying ovens at the mill, and I went to city schools. But the Festival was a time for the whole county to come together, and it was that year that I first noticed her, a shock of unruly carrot orange hair spilling over the top of the pile of quilts she was carrying towards the crafts tent.
“Here,” I said, feeling suddenly chivalrous, “let me help you with those.” I took the pile from her and was immediately struck by the serious, determined look on her face. It was not something I had seen before, on a girl my age. Of course, most of the girls my age that I knew were the vacuous and self-absorbed jock chasers to whom dating a football player was considered integral to their social status
“Third table on the left.” she said, pointing into the tent, as she turned and went back for the rest of her load. I watched her walk away, but not the way you’d think a pubescent boy would watch a girl walk away. She walked with a determined gait, almost marching, as though going into battle. Never mind that she was a lanky and sort of awkward girl, all knees and elbows, there was just something about the way she carried herself right at that moment that told me she was something special. It was one of the few times in my life that my first impression was righter than I could have imagined.I carried the armful of quilts into the tent and laid them on the appointed table, next to two more piles. A hand-lettered card on the table said, simply, “Esmeralda Leary.” I waited for a moment for her to return, then decided to go see if she needed any more help. I was almost to the tent entrance when she came bounding in, carrying a fishing tackle box filled with her sewing supplies, and ran straight into me. Even then, I was a stout example of thick hillbilly stock; 210 pounds of beans and cornbread cast from the same mold as my father and all the Quesenberry men of our line. She bounced backwards, and fell straight back on the sawdust-covered ground. The serious, determined look on her face was briefly replaced by an expression of surprise, and then a flash of embarrassment. I was reaching down to offer her a hand up when she popped up on her own, literally right in my face. For a second, our noses were an inch apart. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I didn’t know whether she wanted to kiss me, or head-butt me.
Neither, it turned out, right at this moment. She took a step back, and thrust her hand forward to be shaken. “Essie Leary.” she announced.
“Mike Quesenberry.” I said.
“I know.” she said. “I’ve seen you play football. You’re really good.”
I was taken aback. I was a defensive lineman, my specialty was clogging up the middle of the line and stuffing the inside running game. It was not a high profile position, not one that attracted a lot of attention from anyone who was not a serious fan of the game. In fact, I considered it a point of pride that if no one noticed me during the game, it meant that I was doing my job. No penalties, no long runs up the middle, no having to chase down a scrambling quarterback. If all you noticed in the middle of the line of scrimmage was an impassable wall of unmovable meat, I was on my game. I didn’t know it at the time, but it turned out that Essie knew more about football than I did; a fact she never lets me forget even now when we’re glued to the couch watching her beloved WVU Mountaineers or the Sunday slate of NFL games.
I had intended to spend the bright early autumn day sampling all of the wares of the Festival, from the Shriner’s Club ham biscuits to the fresh fried pork rinds to the famous fire department hot dogs, and chasing after giggling groups of my school’s cheerleaders. I ended up spending it in the crafts tent with Essie, helping her set up all her quilts and talking. In that one afternoon, I had more conversation with a girl than I had in my previous fifteen years combined. There was something about this freckled, redheaded, exceptionally talented girl that just clicked with me. She was easy to talk to, and interesting to listen to. She said what she meant, without any of the indecipherable girl code that we poor, clueless boys were expected to figure out without a Rosetta Stone to guide us. She didn’t giggle or flirt; if she found something funny, she laughed, heartily, and if she thought my pitiful attempt at a mustache was kind of skeevy-looking, she said so. I could say that I fell in love with her on the spot, but that wasn’t quite true. I didn’t fall in love with her until later that evening.
I sat at her table all afternoon, helping her fold and bag quilts for the many buyers who seemed to prefer her complex, unusual designs to those of any of her fellow artisans. I went and got lunch for us, a bagful of hot dogs and a half-gallon of fresh-pressed apple cider, and sat in wonderment as she matched me dog for dog. Most girls I’d known seemed to be afraid to be seen eating in front of a guy. Not Essie. She was completely unselfconscious, putting down four dogs in no time and licking the mustard and chili off of the corners of her mouth instead of gently dabbing it away with a napkin like the “proper young ladies” were taught to do by Mrs. Green, our fifth grade teacher, who devoted actual class time to teaching us archaic Southern manners in hopes we wouldn’t end up acting like a bunch of ill-bred heathens once we got to junior high.
When everything was sold except for her competition quilt, we sat and waited for the judging to begin. And as Mayor Price and the rest of the judging contingent—most also named Price or related by blood or marriage—made their rounds past the displayed entrants, Essie grabbed my hand and held it tightly. When the winners were announced, and Etta Mae Hollander (née, Price) won yet another blue ribbon, Essie went up to the awards platform, took her second place red ribbon and marched straight back to me, burying her face in my chest as I hugged her. She didn’t cry, she knew going in that the fix was on, but I could tell that the loss bothered her.
It is rare in any relationship to pinpoint the exact moment two people fall in love. I am fortunate to have an indelible memory of that very moment. It was that night, when the fairgrounds turned into a glowing neon carnival of sketchy-looking rides, rigged games and out-of-town vendors selling generic midway treats like corn dogs and funnel cakes. We walked around the fair, holding hands, and talking. She told me that she hadn’t expected to win the competition, and she felt that, in this case, the red ribbon was as good as the blue one. But she would keep trying until the day came when her quilts were so good that they couldn’t help but award her the blue ribbon. As the temperature fell, I offered her my letter jacket, which she accepted, and we finished our first, unofficial date by riding the Ferris wheel. And as we reached the top, and the wheel stopped to let more passengers on, we sat there in silence. I looked over at her, to say something just to break the quiet and keep the momentum of our day going a bit longer, and our eyes met. The look of seriousness and determination had softened to something else, something I was not experienced enough with the fairer sex to identify. I opened my mouth to speak, she leaned forward and stopped the words with a kiss. My heart exploded in my chest. I fell in love with her then and there, and my love for her has not waned an iota in 27 years.
We dated all through high school, and were very nearly inseparable. Her father worked long hours at the hospital, and her mother was one of those compulsive joiners who filled her days and most evenings ingratiating herself into Branscomb’s Mill society (inasmuch as was possible if your name wasn’t Price). Essie spent most afternoons at my house, where my family had accepted her as one of our own. My mother taught her how to cook; my dad, whose hobby was woodworking, made her some quilt racks that now occupy a place of honor in her bustling little Appalachian arts and crafts shop downtown. My little sister, Maggie, worshiped her, following us literally everywhere. Essie used to joke that Maggie was the only reason she graduated high school still a virgin.
Just before our senior year of high school, Essie’s mother, Elizabeth, died from an unexpected brain aneurysm. Her father, already somewhat distant, now withdrew completely. Essie had learned to love football because it was one of the few things she and her dad could share; he was a die-hard UVA Cavaliers fan, who had grown up in Baltimore and loved the Colts even after they moved to Indianapolis. But after his wife’s
death, he was either at the hospital or in his study, pretending to pore over medical journals. Even though he and I weren’t close in those days, I could still see what was going on in his mind; “I’m a doctor, I should have been able to save her.” Essie took to spending more and more time at our house, even spending the night occasionally. Maggie was only too happy to give up her princess pink bed to her idol, and considered sleeping on the floor in her Hello Kitty sleeping bag a huge adventure and a small price to pay to have Essie to herself. Even now, at the age of 34 and a mother of two, Maggie keeps her natural blonde hair dyed “Essie orange.”
Then, Essie’s maternal grandmother, a tough old coal miner’s widow from Mingo County, West Virginia, moved into the Leary house to look after her beloved granddaughter. Myrtle “Myrt” Tyler was a walking compendium of Appalachian folk knowledge, from cookery to mountain superstitions, and it was she who taught Essie everything she knew about quilting. She was a sharp, funny, no-nonsense woman and it was plain to see where Essie got her most distinctive attributes. And Essie was the bright star in Grandma Tyler’s sky. While she had given birth to five sons and one daughter, Elizabeth never displayed any interest in carrying on the old ways. Of her eight grandchildren, only Essie demonstrated any interest in the arcane knowledge Myrt possessed. A bright, curious child, she soaked up every piece of mountain lore Myrt dispensed. It was perhaps the greatest comfort of Grandma Tyler’s life to know that the age-old wisdom of the hills would live on even after she was gone.
Elizabeth never warmed to the idea of being a coal miner’s daughter. She decided very early in life that she wanted to live in a spotlessly clean world far from the slag heap that towered over the coal camp into which she was born. She applied her portion of resolute Tyler gumption to graduating valedictorian of her high school class and earning a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where she met a handsome lacrosse-
playing pre-med student named George Leary and did everything in her power to leave her dirt-poor upbringing behind her. She named her daughter Esmeralda, because it sounded exotic and least like any of the hillbilly names she grew up around. In the last few years of her life, she and Myrt had rarely even spoken. Though Essie got to spend a couple of weeks every summer with the redoubtable old matron, in the last years, her parents just put her on a Greyhound bus and shipped her off instead of making the drive back to Mingo County. Myrt never knew if Betty—her preferred name for her daughter—was more ashamed of the shotgun shack in which she grew up or the earthy, unsophisticated woman who had raised her.
Nevertheless, Grandma came to get the Leary household in order. Dr. Leary, who had no opinion one way or the other about his wife’s mother, was glad to have someone to occupy his daughter and leave him to his grief. For the first time in Essie’s life, she had constant access to the woman who gave her the one thing she’d always lacked; the feeling that she was loved, wanted, and important. Essie’s mother had always been more occupied with her own standing, bolstered with endless Junior League meetings, PTA fundraisers and Garden Club luncheons. Essie did not turn out to be the trophy child Elizabeth had always wanted, showing no interest in equestrian sports or tennis or any of the acceptably upper middle class activities Elizabeth chose for her. Essie was always more interested in watching football with her father, and spending endless hours in her room “wasting her advantages” on sewing and making primitive mountain crafts. Essie would never forget the look of disapproval and disappointment in her mother’s eyes when she presented her with the first quilt she ever made, a lap blanket-sized throw, when she was only eight.
Myrt did what she could to encourage Essie, but it was hard to undo the psychological damage Betty had wrought upon the child with only two weeks a year to work with. And Myrt could never understand her only daughter’s profound dislike of her own upbringing, much less explain to a child why her mother couldn’t bear any reminders of the life into which she was born. Myrt had tried to love and accept Betty with all her heart, but it was never enough. But with Essie, it was more than enough. The wise old woman never tried to impose any superficial identity on Essie, she was content to just let her be who she was. Essie could pour her heart out to Grandma, and not have to worry about disappointing her or being judged. For the first time in her life, she finally felt like she belonged to her own family.
Mrs. Leary never quite approved of me, either. Though she never wasted an opportunity to remind Essie how unlikely it was that she managed to get a boyfriend at all, she referred to me behind my back as “that fat redneck kid” and to my face as the icily formal “Michael.” She managed to stick little digs in whenever the opportunity arose; she called my dad, who was a master mechanic and head of the mechanical operations department, a “maintenance man.” She asked me what football position I played, and before I could answer, said, “I’d imagine you’re one of those morbidly obese tackles or something.” When the newspaper reported that Stan Kramer, our quarterback, was receiving scholarship offers from James Madison and William and Mary, Mrs. Leary made sure to mention right in front of me that Essie should be dating him if she was going to date a football player at all, because “he was the only one of us who was actually going somewhere.” Every month, when Essie got her period, her mother would make a point of expressing how glad she was that Essie hadn’t yet gotten knocked up and sealed her fate to be trapped in this town forever.
That all changed with the arrival of Grandma Tyler. Myrt wasn’t afraid to call it like she saw it, but always with a modicum of kindness. She enjoyed playfully ribbing us, but it wasn’t laced with venom like it was when Mrs. Leary said awful things to us under the guise of “just kidding.” Myrt would not accept Dr. Leary hiding in his study, either. She would have dragged him out into the family gatherings by his ear, if need be. She opened her heart to him, even though she was still aching from the loss of a daughter and nursing a litany of regrets about the way their relationship had turned out, and allowed him to find his way through his grief and back to those who loved and needed him. To this day, I believe he holds a special place in his heart for his mother-in-law that is beyond even the space occupied by his own brutally demanding mother.
With Myrt in the house, there was a hot meal on the table every evening and dinner was eaten together as a family or not at all. Veritable feasts of hearty mountain food filled the table every night. I found myself having dinner at the Leary’s house several nights a week. My mother was a good cook, but Myrt was gifted. Essie gained 20 pounds, all in the right places, and seemed to go from lanky tomboy to drop-dead bombshell
overnight. All my football buddies, who used to chide me about “my boyfriend, Essie,” weren’t laughing so hard when we showed up at the senior prom. Essie, who generally favored baggy jeans and loose T-shirts, wore a form-fitting dress she and Grandma Tyler had made together, one that emphasized every curve of her newfound hourglass figure. I can’t say that I didn’t notice, appreciatively and in great detail, but Essie had always been beautiful to me even when she was gangly and “flat as a Kansas highway,” as my buddies used to say.
In Branscomb’s Mill, it was expected that once you graduated high school, you would either immediately get on at the mill or join the military. If you did join the military, you’d do your three or four years and return home where your mill job was still waiting for you and marry your high school sweetheart (or the first woman who said yes). You’d get a little house, have a few kids, get a slightly bigger house, and settle into a life of very few challenges or surprises. Men would take their spin on the Wheel O’ Cancer at the appointed age, leaving widows behind to live out the rest of their days playing bingo, aimlessly wandering the aisles of Wal-Mart and spoiling the hell out of their grandchildren. As graduation loomed near for Essie and me, we had no illusions about what the future held for us. Essie’s dad had already prepaid for her education at his alma mater, and I had been speaking to the Army and Marine recruiters. It seemed inevitable that we would soon have to give each other up and go our own ways, each carrying a First Love torch for the rest of our lives. We tried not to speak about it, but it lurked ominously over our every moment together.
The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, came the day when, out of nowhere, a coach from Mars Hill College showed up at my door to offer me a football scholarship to the small private college in North Carolina. He had just left my house with a signed letter of intent when the phone rang. It was Essie, and she had just received a scholarship from West Virginia University to study Appalachian folk art. She hadn’t told her father yet, he’d always had his heart set on her following the family legacy to Mr. Jefferson’s University, but Grandma Tyler had been very pleased and excited for her. We both knew this was the beginning of the end for us, the machinery was officially in motion.
Still, we spent almost every minute together that summer after graduation. We thought we knew that once we separated, that would be the end. Neither one of us wanted to let go, but we didn’t know what else to do. Then came the night in late July, two weeks before I was to leave for Mars Hill and the dreaded two-a-day football practices. I was having dinner at Essie’s, Myrt’s unbeatable fried chicken livers smothered in gravy and sautéed Vidalia onions, when Essie blurted out the news we’d been keeping to ourselves.
“Mike and I are breaking up.”
“Why in the hell would you do a fool thing like that?” Myrt asked, not even looking up from garden-fresh tomato from which she was slicing off a thick, juicy slab.
“Well, we’re both going off to college, ma’am. And long-distance relationships just don’t work.” I said.
“Bullshit.” she said. “You two were born for each other, and it’ll take a damned sight more than a few years apart to change that. You two are going to be married, sooner or later, mark my words. Take a few years apart if you need ‘em to convince you that you can’t be apart, but don’t take too long. The longer you’re apart, the more regrets you’ll end up with, particularly if one or both of you gets a wild hair and marries someone else. All you’ll do is ruin someone else’s life then. Most people spend a lifetime looking for the other piece of themselves, y’all are lucky to have found it young. Go off to school, let life kick the last bit of young and stupid out of you, but never forget that you’re carrying the other half of each other’s heart with you. Treat that like the precious responsibility that it is. Don’t do anything to cause it a hurt you can’t heal.”
Neither of us, at 17, had even considered the possibility of the word “marriage.” As much as we truly loved each other, even with our naïve adolescent concept of romantic love, we couldn’t fathom the concept of “till death do you part.” Just the mention of the idea sent a strange chill through both of us that we couldn’t quite understand. Only later did we realize that it was the feeling of hearing your exact future revealed to you.
We did break up, of course, being 17 and being convinced that we knew everything. We swore to remain friends, and wrote each other constantly while at school. I tried my hand at dating, but wasn’t accustomed to having to decode inscrutable female behavior. If Essie said she was fine, she was fine; there was no subtext to it. If I screwed up, Essie called it on the spot of the foul and in no uncertain terms. I never got used to the whole “if you cared about me, you’d learn to read my mind” nonsense. For her part, Essie got plenty of dates her freshman year, before the guys realized they weren’t going to get even so much as a look at the bounty that was underneath her sweater. She gained a reputation as an ice queen, and acquired the semi-derisive nickname “The Porcelain Goddess.” This effectively placed her off the dating radar of all but the occasional hormone-addled frat boy who was either too stupid or too stoned to realize he didn’t have a chance in hell. Essie may have been uncomplicated, but she wasn’t easy.
Summers came and we would both return home to Branscomb’s Mill. We still spent almost all our time together as “just friends,” except for the occasional heated tumble in the back seat of my old Cavalier that we attributed to a mere moment of weakness and assured each other it wouldn’t happen again. At least, until the next time we found ourselves alone together. We’d have dinner at Essie’s, where Grandma Tyler seemed to enjoy getting us all flustered with talk of where we might live once we settled down, and what we’d name her great-grandchildren. And every time we’d reiterate the same tired, well-rehearsed speech about how we were just friends now and that was the full extent of it. Myrt would always wink and give us a sly smile. “You never know.” she’d say.
After college, I took my degree in beer-drinking with a minor in business to Charlotte, to get into the banking industry. After exactly one month, I realized I was not cut out for the banking industry and started sending out resumes. As fortune would have it, I got a callback from a recruiter for AgriTech, a giant conglomerate who had just acquired a mill in Virginia and was looking for a candidate for a fast-track executive position. They’d had a hard time filling the job because not too many people were willing to relocate to the remote little mountain town. They normally required at least an MBA for the position, but they called me because I was a native of said town. You guessed it. I accepted the job immediately, packed all the boxes I had yet to unpack in my new apartment, and headed home.
Essie, meanwhile, was working at West Virginia’s Tamarack Center, a showplace of the Mountain State’s finest artists and craftsmen. She was getting ready to apply to grad school with an eye to someday teaching, passing along the old mountain ways to another generation. Before she could mail the application, she received devastating news from home; Grandma Tyler had an aggressive form of breast cancer. Essie’s father had already performed a double mastectomy, but the cancer had spread. He had taken her to one of the top oncologists in the country, and the prognosis was grim. Essie called me, packed her things and made straight for Branscomb’s Mill that same day.
I was already at her house when Essie arrived. I’d gone over to see if I could to be of any help. Myrt, the stoic mountain woman accustomed to the harsh realities of this life, was actually taking it better than any of us. She had a deep and abiding faith that everything was somehow part of God’s plan, whether we understood it immediately or not. We were sitting at the kitchen table, talking, when Essie came in. Her eyes were red from crying, and she seemed to be on the verge of emotional collapse. She hugged Grandma, very carefully, and then hugged me hard enough to squeeze the breath out of me. She broke down, crying in gasping, choking sobs. Myrt and I both tried to comfort her, and before we knew it, we were both in tears as well. I come from a culture where men just don’t cry, but I don’t mind telling you, I wept from the very depths of me.
Finally, Myrt gathered herself and said, “Come on, children. We got some work to do, and I’m afraid we don’t have much time to do it.” She led us both to the quilting room where both she and Essie worked on their craft, and instructed me to bring in an extra chair. Once we were all seated, she began giving precise directions. She gave me a list of fabric patches we’d need, with exact drawings of the size and shape they should be. I took up a pair of scissors and got to it. She and Essie then started working on the foundation of a new quilt, just as I’d seen Essie do a hundred times before. That first night, we worked until we were all exhausted and could barely get our fingers to move anymore. We ordered out from Branscomb’s Mill’s only Chinese restaurant, because Grandma Tyler had never had Chinese food before and didn’t want to die without trying it. She loved it, and every evening for the next two weeks, we’d gather in that room to work on the quilt and try something different from the extensive Golden Wok menu. Essie would occasionally get impatient, thinking she knew what design Grandma was making, and get a little ahead of plan. Myrt was slowing down as the cancer inside her continued its fatal course, but she would still look over Essie’s work and make her take a stitch-puller to every piece that didn’t conform to the vision that only she could see.
Finally, the quilt was finished. I could tell from the look on Essie’s face that she couldn’t figure out what the pattern meant, and why it was so important that it be done so precisely. It wasn’t until Myrt told me to hang the quilt on the far wall, fully spread out, that we saw the final plan; when viewed from the proper distance, it was a perfect picture of Essie and me taken from our prom photo. It was the final, astonishing work of a great artist. It was, and remains, the only time I’ve ever seen Essie moved beyond words.
“That is my wedding present for you two.” Myrt said, her voice weakened to barely above a whisper. “I intend to live long enough to see you married, and then I’ll go home.”
Essie and I were married two weeks later, by a justice of the peace in Myrt’s hospital room. That night, she slipped peacefully into unconsciousness and passed away the next morning. We took her home to Mingo County and buried her up on the mountain, next to her husband. Her youngest son, Ole, and I dug her grave with a couple of miner’s shovels that had belonged to his dad, and we had to rent a mule-drawn cart to get her coffin up the hill. Ole, a stonemason who had inherited a goodly share of his mother’s talents, sent us a picture of the tombstone he carved for her; two angels holding the corners of a quilt upon which her name and dates of birth and death appeared to have been sewn in patchwork. We had the picture enlarged and framed, and it now hangs on the wall of Essie’s quilting room next to the quilt that Grandma had made for us as a tangible example of her absolute belief in our love even when we ourselves weren’t quite convinced.
Two decades later, the Festival still came every year. And the ritual was the same each year. I’d help Essie all I could, up until two weeks before the Festival. That’s when she’d work on her competition quilt, alone, behind a locked door. When it was done, she’d emerge from her sanctuary and fall into my arms, physically and emotionally spent. Each year’s entry outdid the one before, even if that sometimes seemed impossible. And her increasingly brilliant efforts always resulted in the same red second place ribbons, even as Etta Mae Hollander had ceded her winning streak to her daughter, Connie Dressler. Connie’s workmanlike blue ribbon quilts were always greeted with tepid applause and most of her output went unsold, while Essie usually ended up having to pull quilts from her shop just to make it through the weekend. I wish I could say that I had a feeling somewhere deep down that this year would be different, but I’d be lying. As we packed all of the quilts into the Explorer, save the top-secret competition quilt which Essie brought out wrapped in thick black trash bags and kept close to her at all times, I expected this year would be the same as every year before. Still, I never got tired of seeing Essie take on that same air of determination that first captivated me. I looked forward to seeing each year’s competition quilt as it’s unveiled on the judging stand. And of course, the fire department’s hot dogs and the Shriner’s ham biscuits were just as good as they’d always been.
When we arrived at the crafts tent, I was surprised to find that Dad was already there. He had retired from the mill a couple of years before, and had thrown himself into his hobbies. He was assembling a huge rack the size of a queen bed frame, but I honestly didn’t think anything of it. He was making all sorts of unusual stuff these days, learning different techniques and trying out new tools. When it looked like Essie had finally been able to get pregnant last summer after years of trying and uncountable fertility
specialists, he built three cribs, each fancier than the last. He quietly got rid of them when she miscarried after four months.
Essie and I were setting up her booth, which now occupied two stalls, and were struggling to keep up with the line of people who had been following the Quilts by Essie Q. Facebook page and had been waiting all year for the new works. The bidding had already started on her competition quilt, and was already well over $2,000 sight unseen. Last year’s quilt went for $3,200 to an art dealer from New York who wanted it for his gallery. Since then, she’d tapped into a market of online buyers in the Northeast willing to pay top dollar for her functional artistry. So I can tell you I was absolutely stunned when Essie finally looked up from the frenzied mass of commerce in which she was immersed and stated, plainly, “This year’s competition quilt will not be for sale.”
Essie’s shop made money, and I was now a senior vice president at the mill. We were nowhere near poor, but it was still a surprise when she announced her intentions not to sell the competition quilt. Normally, she put the year’s Festival proceeds back intothe shop, but we had already started talking six months ago about using that money for a vacation to Ireland that she’d always dreamed of taking while we were still young enough to get the most out of it. But I didn’t question her. In all these years, I’d learned that Essie never did anything without a solid reason, and that she’d tell me what it was when she felt it was time for me to know.
All of her quilts, save the still-hidden competition quilt, were sold after barely an hour. Essie already had buyers coming on Saturday, so she decided to hold off on bringing stock from the shop. She was able to satisfy the remaining buyers still coming up to her booth by taking orders and offering free shipping. Soon, all that was left to do was sit pat until the judging, then call it a day. Maggie and her family were coming up from Richmond, and we were having a family dinner at mom and dad’s tonight. But of course, we couldn’t leave the Festival without our yearly ride on the Ferris wheel.
“Honey, would you mind to go get me a Coke? I’m dry as a bone.” she asked, about an hour before the judging.
“Sure, babe. You want a hot dog or anything?”
“No, my stomach is a little upset. Just a Coke would be fine.”
Essie has very few quirks, but one of them is her distrust of fountain drinks. There’s something about the ice and the sometimes inconsistent mix of syrup and carbonated water that she simply can’t abide. She won’t even order a fountain drink in a restaurant. And she won’t drink soda from a can, either. The fact that you have no idea where that can has been before you open it and put your lips to it just makes her queasy. The only way she will drink a soda is from a bottle, and only if she herself breaks the seal on the cap. She won’t even trust me to open her soda for her. Which meant that I had to wander from vendor to vendor all over the festival grounds to find the one who sold Coke in a bottle. Everyone else either had fountain drinks, cans, or Pepsi. Essie and I were both dyed-in-the-wool Coke fans; if you brought her a Pepsi, be prepared to duck because it would probably be coming right back at your head directly.
I was walking back to the crafts tent when I fell victim to my biggest weakness. I did not inherit my father’s mechanical ability or his man-of-few-words demeanor. What I did inherit from him was his lefthandness, and the inability to resist freshly popped popcorn. Sometime after I first began my quest for a bottle of Coke, someone had popped a fresh batch. I couldn’t help myself. I had to have some.
I was waiting in line when I became aware of two ladies talking quietly, but just loud enough to hear, a couple of places in line ahead of me. Quesenberry is an unusual name, and when I hear it, my ears automatically tune in.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do.” the first one said. “Etta Mae is entering the contest this year, and you know the fit Connie will throw if she doesn’t at least finish second. Plus, Mayor Price’s new wife is entering a quilt, and you know he won’t let her come away empty-handed.”
“He shouldn’t even be judging this year, what with his wife, his sister, and his niece in the competition.” the second one said.
“I know. But what I’m worried about is what will happen when Essie Quesenberry doesn’t even place. I mean, everyone knows she’s the best of them. There might be a riot in that tent. It’s never been fair, what they do to that poor woman every year, and I think everybody not named Price is sick of it.”
“I wouldn’t feel too sorry for her. She sells all her quilts, and that shop of hers does quite well, I’m told.”
“Still, why have a competition at all if everyone knows the best doesn’t win? And what if people just stop entering all the competitions? The Festival will go to hell in no time. The Prices have to learn that the Festival means more to this city than just their own personal ego trip.”
I had heard enough. I left the line and made my way back to the tent, trying to think about what to tell Essie. She knew she wouldn’t win the blue ribbon, but if she didn’t win anything at all, I don’t know what she’d do. Every year, Essie had worked herself to the verge of total exhaustion for this Festival, just for the satisfaction of walking up to the judging stand to get her red ribbon to a thunderous round of applause while all the Price clan just stared at the ground in shame. Without that moment, it was almost like her hard work didn’t matter at all. And I honestly didn’t know what that would do to the woman I considered to be the other half of my heartbeat.
I got back to the booth and delivered her Coke. She could see instantly by the look on my face that something was wrong.
“What’s the matter, sweetie?” she asked.
I sat down and tried to calmly explain what I’d heard in the popcorn line. The three winners were all but chosen, and she wasn’t going to be among them. Her face went very serious, as if processing what she’d just heard, and then she did the one thing I had honestly not expected—she smiled.
“You never know.” she said.
“Fifteen minutes until the judging in the Quilting Competition.” came the call from the podium on the judging stand. “All entrants, please display your quilts on the judging stand at this time.”
I started to get up, and Essie grabbed my arm. “Wait.” she said. “Wait until there are five minutes left. Then we’ll go up.”
So we sat there for ten minutes, as Etta Mae and Connie alternated spreading their quilts out on display racks and looking back to see what Essie was doing. Essie was sitting there coolly, sipping her Coke, pretending not to notice she was under surveillance. When the five minute announcement was made, she stood up, and grabbed the black trash bag she’d kept under the table at her feet all afternoon.
“Mike, honey, carry that rack your dad made up there for me, please.” she said, heading to the judging stand with virtually every eye on her.
I carried the rack up and placed it on the stand. She seemed to be taking her time removing the quilt from the bag, finally kicking into gear when she saw the judging contingent enter the tent fresh from awarding Merlene Price her 32nd ribbon for her strawberry-rhubarb preserves over in the food tent. Essie unfolded the quilt and had me stand behind the rack to help hang it. As soon as it was secured, I saw her step to the side and heard an audible gasp go through the crowd. I moved around in front and for a moment, I couldn’t quite understand what they were seeing. Then, it dawned on me. I stepped off the platform and moved back a few feet, and a picture-perfect portrait of Grandma Tyler came into focus. My jaw literally dropped. This was Essie’s masterwork, the one she’d been striving for her whole life. You could have heard a pin drop in that tent.
The judges came up to the stand, pretended to examine the quilts and make notes, then stepped off to the side and made a show of discussing the entries. They were at least smart enough to take enough time to make it look like they’d made a serious appraisal of the competitors. Mayor Price pantomimed writing the winners down on a piece of paper and then stepped up to the podium.
“Third place in this year’s quilting competition is Vera Price. Good job, honey, not bad for your first try.” he said, handing the white ribbon to his too-blonde, too-tanned, too- surgically enhanced new wife, who accepted it with a too-fake smile.
“Second place goes to…oh, this is a surprise! Etta Mae Hollander! Glad to see you back
in the competition, Sissy.” Etta Mae, a rotund grandmotherly sort in culottes, accepted her award, but didn’t appear to be the least bit happy about it.
“And first place goes to…is this the beginning of a dynasty? Connie Dressler. That’s what, girl, four in a row now?”
The tent was dead silent as Connie came forward, head down, and accepted the blue ribbon. She then stepped off the podium and headed straight for us. For a second, we weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. It was no secret that Connie had been a hellion in her younger days, and still had a redneck streak in her a mile wide. But I also knew that if she dared say anything smart to Essie, my sweet girl would not hesitate to knock her flat on her ass. It turned out to be something else entirely. Without a word, she presented the blue ribbon to Essie. Essie smiled kindly, and graciously accepted it. The applause was almost deafening, and lasted fully five minutes.
Essie looked up at me, and even through her tears, I saw something special in her eyes that I’d only seen a couple of times in all the years I’d known her. I fell in love with her all over again, as though it were that day twenty-seven years ago. My heart was full, and I kissed her with every ounce of love in me.
That afternoon, on the Ferris wheel, she gave me the good news. Exactly eight months later, she gave birth to our daughter, Myrtle Tyler.
You never know.
©2013 Jeffrey E. Fitzgerald