Sampler Summer

Hold the traditions which ye have been taught (2 Thes. 2:15).

Megan compared the name on the warm, paper-wrapped parcel against the name carved into the board hanging from a pole by the gate: M. Maybaum. This was it. Slowly, carefully, so that she wouldn’t drop Grandma’s package, Megan lifted the latch on the gate and walked up the uneven path to the squat, ramshackle house. She almost expected the seven dwarfs to come heigh-hoing in answer to her timid ring instead of the old lady with twinkling, violet eyes.

“Landsakes! Do we know you, girl?”

“No, ma’am,” Megan said.

“Oh. Well, you’d best come in, anyway.” Mrs. Maybaum stood back, pulling the door wider, and Megan edged in.

The inside of the house was dim and cluttered and smelled of flowers. Megan followed the old lady down the tiny hall to the living room, where she perched on an overstuffed chair and asked, “What brings you to see us?”

As Megan held up the parcel, she glanced around but couldn’t see anyone else in the room.

“A package for us? And what might be in it?”

“It’s bread. My grandma made it.”

“Ah, bread!” Mrs. Maybaum studied Megan. “You’re Helen’s grandchild, then. You have the look of Helen.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m Megan.”

“And where might your mother be? Why hasn’t she come to see us?”

“The hospital sent her on a seminar to be trained on a new invention.”

“More training! Well, Marian always did like to keep up on the latest. Old things too—like our honey taffy. Hollyhocks.”

“Excuse me?”

“Hollyhocks. Your mother was a one for hollyhocks—made dolls out of them, she did.” Mrs. Maybaum hopped up and scuttled over to Megan. “I’ll just take that package and put it in the kitchen. We expect that you’d like a bit of our honey taffy, too, so I’ll get it for you.”

Alone, Megan looked around again. The room was so full of things, most of which looked breakable, that she was afraid to move. On one wall were a lot of interesting looking pictures, and she edged carefully closer. They were all different sizes and shapes and had stitched pictures of houses and flowers and alphabets and sayings. They all looked very old and beautiful, though Megan noticed that one of them wasn’t finished. Leaning closer, Megan saw “Lovina Maybaum, 1945” neatly stitched at the bottom. The poem centered in the frame read:

The rising morning can’t assure
That we shall end the day,
For death stands ready at the door
To take our lives away.

“Oh, do you like samplers?” Mrs. Maybaum asked from the doorway.

“Is that what they are?”

Walking over to Megan, Mrs. Maybaum pointed to one. “That’s mine. The family tree. Maybelle Trimble. I was nine years old when I started it. All the girls in my family started one when they were nine. That was one of our family traditions.”

“It’s a beautiful sampler. They’re all beautiful.” Megan pointed to Lovina’s. “I think that one’s interesting, but the poem is so sad, and the sampler isn’t finished. Why wasn’t it finished?”

Mrs. Maybaum gently traced the stitching to where it stopped. “This was our daughter’s sampler. She was a good girl—too good to live.”

“I’m sorry.” Megan reached out and squeezed the old lady’s hand.

“It’s all right, dear,” she said. “She died a long time ago. We wish … well … we’re sad that there won’t be any more samplers.”

That evening Megan looked up from her position on the floor to where Grandma was working out on her walking machine. “Grandma, why does Mrs. Maybaum say ‘we’ when she talks to me? She lives alone, doesn’t she?”

Grandma paused in her walking and looked at Megan. “Yes, but I guess that she doesn’t feel alone and still includes her husband in her conversation. Does it bother you?”

“A little,” Megan admitted. “She’s the first really old, old person I’ve known.”

“And what do you think of her?”

“Well, she’s weird, but it’s a nice sort of weird. Do you think she’d mind if I visit her again?”

Grandma smiled. “I’m sure that she’d enjoy another visit.”

Megan sat up and traced the pattern in the rug with her finger. “Have you seen her samplers?”

“Of course. Why do you ask?”

“Then you’ve seen the one that isn’t finished, the one her daughter did.”

“Yes, Lovina died before she could finish it.”

“Did you know her, Grandma?”

“Oh, yes. In fact, we were friends.”

“Why did she die?”

“Lovina died because no one knew how to make her better, Megan. She was always sickly. She couldn’t go out, so I used to visit her once a week. We would make dolls—hollyhock dolls, cornhusk dolls, and paper dolls. Sometimes we had tea parties with honey taffy and lemonade for them. Lovina’s dolls looked alive, and she made the most beautiful clothes for them. She couldn’t wait to make her sampler. On her ninth birthday she got a basket and some little embroidery scissors shaped like a stork.”

“Why did Mrs. Maybaum say that there wouldn’t be any more samplers?”

“Well, she has only a son left. And he has only sons.”

“I wish that I could make her a sampler. But I guess that it wouldn’t be the same.”

“No, it wouldn’t be the same,” Grandma said, “but if you’re serious, I think that it would be very special for her.”

“Could you show me how?”

“Don’t you want her to show you?”

“I wanted to surprise her.”

“Surprises are fun, Megan,” Grandma said, sitting down by Megan and putting her arm around her, “but Mrs. Maybaum’s family weren’t just handing down stitched pictures. The art of making the pictures was the real treasure being passed on. I think that it would mean a lot to Mrs. Maybaum to pass her art on to someone.”

“Is a family treasure the same as a family tradition? That’s what she called it. Do we have any family traditions?”

“Yes, a family tradition really is a treasure—and yes, we have some family treasures.”

“What are they, Grandma?”

Grandma smiled mysteriously. All she said was, “The best treasures have to be discovered, don’t they?”

It was several days before Megan knocked at Mrs. Maybaum’s door again.

“Well, it’s Helen’s granddaughter again. Come in! Come in! We were hoping you’d come see us again.”

When they were settled in the living room, Megan blurted out, “Mrs. Maybaum, would you teach me how to do a sampler? I’m nine now, and I’ll be here five more weeks.”

Mrs. Maybaum leaned back in her chair. “Are you sure? It’s not as easy as it looks. And you’d have to do it right.”

Megan smiled eagerly. “I’m sure. And I promise to do it just like you want.”

When she talked to Grandma later, Megan said, “I’m to design my sampler before I go back. She said that it should be something that’s important to me.”

Megan was very nervous when she showed her design to Mrs. Maybaum the following week. “This is my family,” she explained to the old lady. “Mom’s in her uniform, Dad’s on his oil rig, and my two brothers—they’re visiting my other grandparents right now—are playing ball. In the middle I want it to say, ‘Home is where the heart is,’ because even though we move a lot, we love each other and take care of each other wherever we are. That’s our family tradition. What do you think?”

“We think that it’s exactly right. Now you’re ready to start.”

Mrs. Maybaum showed Megan how to trace her pattern onto the fabric, then put it in the hoop. She showed her how to hold it while she pushed the needle through.

When Megan went home that day, she was carrying a practice scrap of fabric, fabric for her sampler, and a pair of small, stork-shaped scissors in Lovina’s basket. “Mrs. Maybaum insisted that I borrow them, Grandma,” she said.

Megan’s hands were clumsy at first as she tried to make the tiny stitches, and they got tired and crampy. The thread kept knotting up, and many times Megan longed to throw the sampler away. Then she’d look at the stork scissors and the basket and try again.

After a while, the front began to look a little like her drawing. But the back was a mess! There were knots that she couldn’t get out, and big clumps and crisscrosses of thread. Mrs. Maybaum would be very disappointed.

Suddenly Mom was back from her seminar, and it was time for Megan to go home. She hurried over one last time to Mrs. Maybaum’s.

“We were afraid that you wouldn’t have time to come and say good-bye,” the old lady said. “Here’s some honey taffy for you and your mother.” She held out a parcel with a hollyhock doll for a bow. “Now, let us have a last look at your sampler.”

Megan handed her the sampler with the top side up. She thrust Lovina’s basket and scissors along with it, trying to prevent Mrs. Maybaum from turning the sampler over. “Here are Lovina’s things, Mrs. Maybaum. I took good care of them.”

“Megan, we’d like you to have them if you want them. It would please us to know that they were being used and appreciated.”

“I’d love to have them—but I just can’t take them. I don’t deserve them, Mrs. Maybaum. My sampler isn’t right.”

“It looks fine to us. What’s wrong with it?”

When Megan turned the sampler over, the old lady held it up. “It certainly is a mess,” she acknowledged. She got up and took Lovina’s off the wall, pulled the cardboard backing from it, and showed the back of it to Megan.

Megan stared in astonishment. It was every bit as messy as hers!

“Mine’s even worse,” Mrs. Maybaum laughed. “Most of them are. Samplers are for learning—you’ll do better next time.”

Megan got up and gave the old lady a big hug. “Thank you, Mrs. Maybaum. Thank you for everything.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Shauna Mooney