The Truth About Fairy Godmothers

SH-Fabric stripsYou can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Coming Up for Air, will be out later this year.

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This week, we’re going to spend some time learning about Chloe Cooper and how she decided to become a quilter and textile designer. Like most people, her choice had a bit of serendipity to it.

Or was it the fairy godmothers?

This is the first of two parts. Enjoy.

Growing up, Chloe Cooper always thought of herself as an “in-betweener.” It started when her battling parents finally decided to lay down their verbal weapons and get a well-earned divorce. As she shuttled between their houses, Chloe never felt comfortable in either place. At her mother’s, she was pushed out of the spotlight by her younger sister, Lisa, who lived for nothing but the latest hairdo, the most outrageous makeup, and clothes that left little about her physical attractions to the imagination.

The whole hair-makeup-clothes thing bored Chloe but her mother, Angela, reveled in it as much as Lisa. When she was at her mother’s overnight, Chloe always tried to block her ears as the two of them hooted and chortled together in the bathroom so she couldn’t feel how lonely she was.

Her dad, Charlie, tried to ease the rub of being an in-betweener but he was never sure how. He was a man of paper. By day, it was the torts and filings that underpinned his lawyering activities. By night, it was the books that fed his history habit. Chloe liked paper well enough but she preferred it with paint on it.

As her senior year of high school drifted by, Chloe began to panic over the idea of leaving Carding for college. It mystified her how her teachers, her father, her friends, and even her mother (who rarely noticed anything beyond herself) thought Chloe should be thrilled about leaving town for some strange school. But as she lay under her blankets at night, Chloe wondered why none of them realized that fitting in some place else was going to be even harder for her than finding a place in Carding.

What Chloe needed was a fairy godmother. She knew that. She needed someone to change her pumpkin of a life into an elegant carriage that would sweep her away to a future that made sense.

But she figured that fairy godmothers were rare in Carding, Vermont.

She was wrong.

The local librarian, Jane Twitchell (who turns out to be one of the fairy godmothers in this story) looked nothing like the magical ladies in the tales kept in the 398.2 section of the Frost Free Library in Carding. Chloe knew every book in that section because 398.2 was her favorite Dewey decimal number in the whole catalogue. It’s the designation for fairy tales, mythology, and lore. It’s the place to go if you’re looking for sumptuously illustrated tales by Arthur Rackham, well-thumbed copies of the Blue, Red, Yellow and Orange Fairy Books by Andrew Lang as well as stories by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.

Chloe loved them all and the librarian noticed.

As her senior winter sauntered toward her senior spring, Chloe withdrew more and more from the people around her. Her sister and mother didn’t notice—they never noticed Chloe at all—while her father tried but failed to reach her. The only place Chloe felt comfortable was the library so she took to wandering there every afternoon after school. The ageless Jane Twitchell worried, telling her sister Isabel that Chloe became “more ethereal by the day.”

Now it must be as apparent to you as it is to me that Chloe Cooper was stuck, not the spin-your-wheels-in-the-snow kind of stuck but more like the can’t-get-out-of-neutral stuck. She had no direction in her life, no passions, no idea how to go forward or even backward. She was stuck, plain and simple.

Now sometimes when you’re in that state of mind, it’s easier for new ideas to find you. This is where fairy godmother number two, Isabel Twitchell, comes in.

Twitchell Two, as Chloe called Isabel, arrived in Carding every year with the redwing blackbirds whose chatter animated the trees by the Corvus River on the first day of spring. At some time or another, Twitchell Two had worked for the state of Vermont before retiring with a pension in a size commensurate with a state legislature that thought of itself as fair but frugal. In other words, Two had enough to live on if she was prudent.

And Isabel Twitchell was always prudent. That’s why she confined her travels to visits with family. In return for their free accommodations, Twitchell Two cooked meals, spent time with the nieces and nephews in her preferred age range—after diapers but before raging hormones—as well as performing other services when she observed an unmet need.

Normally Twitchell Two limited her visits to three days: “Long enough to be helpful but not long enough to be tiresome,” as she liked to say. The only time Isabel broke that rule was when she visited her younger sister, the librarian.

By the time of this story, Twitchells One and Two had spent several years making plans to live together once Jane retired with her pension from the library. They were careful women so before that day arrived, they wanted to be sure they were compatible. To that end, Twitchell Two lengthened her stay with Twitchell One by three days every year. And at the end of Two’s stay, the sisters would discuss the tenor of their time together.

It was during one of those discussions that the sisters Twitchell agreed to acquire some crafty skills to fill their evenings at home, the passive watching of television being deemed a waste of time.

So Jane learned to knit socks while Isabel learned to quilt.

Twitchell One knit her socks from sweaters she bought at secondhand shops. After unsewing their seams, she’d carefully unravel the yarn, wash it and then rewind her treasure into balls. Twitchell Two haunted the same type of shops on her travels, scooping up men’s tropical shirts and women’s summer dresses for quilting fabric.

Anyone devoted to the art of quilting will tell you there are so many ways to put fabric together, you can spend a lifetime learning them all. It didn’t take long for Isabel Twitchell to discover she loved hand sewing more than the machine variety because it was more portable and the cost of tools fit her prudent budget. Eventually, she settled on appliqué as her favorite technique.

The technique called appliqué began with the mending of clothes when smaller pieces of cloth were sewn over holes in  larger pieces of cloth. Over time, some creative folks realized they could use appliqué in decorative ways by cutting the smaller pieces of fabric into shapes like hearts, flowers, stars, leaves, and birds.

Twitchell Two may have been a staunch traditionalist in most ways but when it came to choosing color for her quilts, she was anything but. Isabel’s appliqué danced with brilliant scarlets, blazing yellows, pop-you-in-the-eye greens, and bright sky blues. It was looking at all the beautiful colors in her sister’s quilts that gave Jane an idea about how to help Chloe.

On one especially desolate, drizzly March afternoon, Jane persuaded Isabel to take her sewing to the alcove near the fairy tale section in the library. At first, Chloe ignored Twitchell Two and her flying needle. But as she ran her finger over the spines of the books in the 398.2 section looking for favorite tales to re-read, it suddenly struck Chloe how many references there were to textiles in her preferred reading material. Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger on a spindle, Cinderella wore patched rags, and the young heroine in Rumpelstiltskin is commanded to weave gold out of straw.

These thoughts made something stir inside Chloe. At first, this stirring was uncomfortable but the young woman decided not to chase the feeling away because the novelty of it amused her. That’s when she started paying attention to Isabel Twitchell and her magic needle.

If Twitchell Two noticed Chloe’s intense gaze, she gave no sign as her needle and thread transformed scraps of purple into lilacs, reds into roses, and yellows and browns into sunflowers.

After all, creation is a seductive act, and it is fair to say that Twitchell Two had been seduced.

As Chloe studied the older woman’s face, she realized that Isabel’s eyes sparkled, and the wrinkles in her cheeks disappeared into soft smiles as she sewed. For the first time, Chloe saw something she wanted to do, and the craving to create woke her up.

But now that she was awake, what was she supposed to do next? She thought about asking Twitchell Two for help but she didn’t want everyone in town to know her business, particularly her shallow sister and no-less shallow mother.

No, Chloe decided, learning to sew had to be a private learning experience.

Strange as it seems, Lisa was the one who made that experience possible when she decided she “had to have” some new spangly something-or-other from the Cherries Jubilee store in Burlington. Since their mother had to work, Chloe got stuck with the driving duties to Vermont’s largest city.

When they finally got to the store, Chloe took one look at the bejeweled thongs and feathered push-up bras in the front window and refused to go inside.

“Oh my gawd, Chloe,” Lisa squealed, “are you planning to grow up to be a nun or something? Come on!”

But Chloe snatched her arm away. “I’ll be back to get you at…,” she looked at her watch, “at three.” Then she swept her arms wide to encompass the length of Church Street, Burlington’s renowned pedestrian mall. “I’m sure you can find something to amuse you until then.”

Lisa crossed her arms. Even in her heavy coat, her ample endowments drew glances from the men walking by. “And where are you going? The library?” she asked.

“That’s a great idea,” Chloe said. “See you at three.”

Lisa smiled as her sister trudged away then headed for the thong section of her favorite store.

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