Wrapped in Hope
A Water Street Christmas
For as long as I can remember, quilts have been part of my life. The Christmas of 1860 was no different. This year they will give hope to those on their way to freedom.
A bell rang on the wall signaling the beginning of the workday, but Selah had already been working for hours. The sun beams highlighted the dust angels floating in the air as it shone through the small window of Selah’s attic window. The shelves of neatly arranged colorized fabric created the décor of the room. She rocked in a chair in the corner, sewing her tiny signature stitches working a block of blue and green. The fabric was collected from the servants of other houses in town when the other black ladies were doing laundry. There were always shirts and dresses that were past their prime just waiting for the trash. Selah had slowly made friends here in Washington and they were all willing to give her scraps for her fabric collection. She had been blessed with a full pallet of colors to design with. The bell rang again distracting her and she pricked her finger.
“Ouch.” She stood up smoothing her long full dress. Her mistress insisted on starch petticoats for the staff even though it took longer to do the house laundry. She placed her sewing in the seat of the rocker and then rewrapped the bun at the base of her head. Selah bit her lip. Her hair was not staying in place today. She went to her dresser and retrieved a scarf. The crisp ironed cotton would hide the unruliness, she thought. She carefully wrapped and tucked it so that it covered her head. She looked at the basket beside her rocker. Twenty more blocks and the top would be ready to piece together. It was her signature design but this one was for the mayor’s wife and had to be perfect. It was two weeks till Christmas and she was working around the clock to finish all the town ladies’ orders. The reputation of a Selah quilts had grown quickly and soon the ladies were ordering them for distant relatives in the South. Her quilts were hanging on clothes lines of the largest plantations in the South as well as on walls of the homes as art work. She was honored for the business, but it was the secret that pushed her to finish as many as she could. They were roadmaps for the railroad to freedom and only those who knew the code could decipher the map.
The bell rang for a third time and she knew that she would get a scolding when she arrived in the kitchen from the cook. She hurried down the steep stairs pausing in the well to peer out the window facing the harbor. The sky looked so bright today. Such a beautiful North Carolina December day. She continued to head to the kitchen. As she descended, she prayed the sea would be calm and keep her love, Abram, safe. He was on the water constantly with only biweekly trips into town to sell his catch. Sometimes, she saw him unloading in the harbor, working hard for his master. She knew his dream of owning his own boat one day but his freedom would have to come first. His price was a high one because of his knowledge of the Shoals and experience as a boat Captain. She would have to sell many quilts to raise that much. The extra work was worth it. If she had to work day and night, she would raise the money. Then they could start their family. He wouldn’t jump the brooms with her until he had his freedom. They would be free together.
“Selah, what are you doing? Don’t doddle girl. We don’t have time for that. Today is the ladies Christmas tea and you are to serve,” the cook shouted up the stairwell. Her large frame filled the whole space at the entrance into the kitchen. “Come on. Breakfast is ready to go up. Then, I need you right back.”
“Yes, mam,” Selah quickly responded, grabbing the tray and heading out to the main stair case. The house was not as grand as some of the others in town, but it was a respectable size for a merchant’s residence. Mrs. Willis spent her husband’s income wisely and decorated the house in rich velvets and wallpapers. Selah wondered how many ladies were coming for the tea. This was the big private event of the season. Only the most prominent ladies received an invitation. The mistress loved showing off Selah’s quilts. There was one hanging on the wall in the main room. In front of the quilt was the 7-foot-tall Christmas tree. Selah had no idea why they would have such a large tree. There would be no room for the ladies, she thought as she knocked on the bedroom door.
“Come in,” a voice inside shouted in a thick Southern drawl.
Selah slowly opened the door as she balanced the tray in one hand. She stepped into the dark room. Her mistress laid in bed with her head covered with a bed cap and the covers pulled up to her nose. “Selah light that fire girl. It is cold in here.” She said with her muffled voice not bothering to remove the quilt.
“Yes mam.” Selah moved over to the fire and organized the contents of the fireplace so that it would light faster. Working efficiently with the matches, the fire was soon crackling and Mrs. Willis stuck her chin out from under the covers.
“Do you have your quilts ready? I know there were a lot of orders for Christmas.”
“It was no trouble mam. I got the ones that ordered ahead.”
“Did you make more? The ladies will want more when they see them.” Mrs. Willis asked anxious to make a good impression on her friends.
“Yes mam. Twenty total.” Selah smiled at her accomplishment. She had 40 quilts to sell. Of course, her fingers were black and blue from the needle pricks but she knew that they were the best she had ever made. She laid out her mistress’ clothes, while the older woman ate her breakfast.
“Get Jacob to help you bring them down to the drawing room.”
“Yes, mam.” Selah backed out of the room and slowly closed the door so it wouldn’t make any noise to disturb her. It was going to be a long morning she thought to herself. How much will the Mistress charge for her quilts? She wondered. She better get down to the kitchen to help with the preparation.
Selah headed down the main staircase taking two steps at a time. Cook shook her head as she rounded the corner. “How is the Mistress this morning?”
“She’s cold. I lit the fire for her.”
“Here girl. Start cutting the bread for the sandwiches. The master is not going to like that. Heat in the morning. He will be fussing about the cost of wood for burning. It is not cold in this house especially with all the baking I have been doing this morning.” She stirred some concoction in a bowl carrying it with her as she walked around the kitchen. She poked her head up the back stairwell again. “Jacob I need you to go down in the cellar for me. Jacob, Come down here please.”
“Comin.” A tall slender black man dressed in a suit came rushing into the kitchen. “what do you need?”
“I need you to get me a jar of lemon curd and one of blueberry jam. I don’t know why they don’t build cellars for real cooks.” She shook her head again. “There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to go and get my own ingredients.
“Yes mam.” Selah smiled to herself thinking that if the cook did not taste as much as her own cooking, she would probably be able to fit in the cellar even with the extra petticoats she was so fond of wearing. Usually the three of them did not fit in the kitchen together because of the skirts.
“We will be using the good china today. Make sure we don’t have any accidents.”
“No mam. I’ll be careful.”
“There will be fifteen ladies. It will be a tight fit in the drawing room. We may have to serve in the formal living room as well.”
“Yes mam. I think these are done. Is there anything else you need me to do? Jacob has to bring all the quilts down.”
As if on cue, Jacob popped his head through the floor. “Are these the ones? I have to do what?”
“Yes, those are the ones,” the cook agreed.
“the Mistress wanted you to bring all the quilts down now before the guests arrive.”
“right, how many?”
“Forty,” Jacob exclaimed, “Where am I going to put all those?”
“We will stack them out of the way for right now.” Selah explained meeting Jacob’s doubtful gaze. “they are neatly folded.”
Cook interrupted, “I need you to make the sandwiches then you can see to the quilts. Jacob, you put the china out on the sideboard so it will be ready for the ladies.” Jacob nodded and left. “Selah, I need you to make half lemon and half blueberry. Be generous with the filling. The mistress is making a show of it today. You know this is for your benefit, don’t you?”
“Yes mam.” Selah was thankful for the Mistress’ help with selling her quilts. She probably would not be as helpful if she knew that they were going to pay for Abram’s freedom and their trip North. But she wouldn’t need to know that right now. It was taking longer than Selah thought to raise the money though. Last year when she arrived, she thought six months would be long enough and it had been a year. She bit her lip in frustration. She couldn’t stand another year. Being away from Abram was so hard. She survived on sightings and letters. Letters of Love from the sea as Abram called them. He worked just as hard as she did to save the money they would need. The dream of that future was all she had.
Cook cleared her throat, “Daydreaming again? You have to stop that or you are going to get punished. You are doing way too much of that these days.”
“I was just thinking of my next quilt,” Selah lied. “There is not enough time to do everything and have time to sew. So, I will have to do two things at once.”
“Just don’t slop that jam, girl.” Cook turned back to the petit-fours she was decorating.
Selah had designed quilts for many different areas of North Carolina. But now she had an order from Savannah. How would she get a map of that area for the code? Maybe Abram could help with the waterways. She could not steer someone wrong by using the wrong information. She would complete it but needed it done by Christmas. That would take a miracle. She said a silent prayer and continued her sandwich building. The cook began to hum a Christmas carol and Selah knew today would go well.
Selah watched as the elegant ladies arrived carriage by carriage and the horses were led to the back of the house for water and rest. There were a few more than expected but to Mrs. Willis’ delight a few of the ladies had brought their Christmas guests from down South. All the better for quilt sales, Selah thought to herself. She readied herself and headed to the drawing room to start serving tea. Many of the ladies wore Christmas silk scarves around their necks. Their dresses rustled as they brushed past each other and the Christmas tree. Selah looked envious at the fabric. She would love to have just a piece of that for a quilt. She walked through the group silently moving between the ladies pouring tea and listening to the conversations. Some of the ladies sat and enjoyed the cakes and sandwiches. Small talk and gossip was all that was discussed and Selah bored quickly of the light conversation that was going on. There was much more interesting conversation down at the market on Saturday morning.
She was invisible to these women which was fine with her. She needed to be sewing or drawing her next quilt. After an hour, Mrs. Willis asked Jacob to help her with the quilts and they were given to each of their new owners. Each of the quilts was built around a huge compass with a sunflower center. The borders varied along with the colors. The visiting women snatched up the extra ones that were available. It was a frenzy as they fought over their favorite colors.
Mrs. Willis ignored the unladylike behavior, “Selah can you tell us about your design?”
“I call this design, Alizeti Compass. Each of them are different. I hope you enjoy them, they are made to be used and seen. Thank you all for your interest.” Selah quickly bowed and started to remove the dirty dishes.
“Thank you, Selah, for your hard work. Okay ladies not to mention the distasteful subject of payment but if you could settle your bill before you leave.” The ladies quickly moved toward their purses and handed Mrs. Willis the bills.
Selah continued to clear the room. She took the extra food and headed to the back door. She motioned to some of the men that were waiting with the carriages. Each of them grabbed a handful of the small sandwiches and nodded at her appreciatively. A small boy stepped through the crowd and tugged at Selah’s skirt. She looked down and handed him a sandwich. He shook his head no and handed her a small note. She smiled down at him, handed him some food anyway and took the paper from him. He quickly disappeared around the hydrangea bush at the corner of the house as quickly as he had appeared. The plates of food were emptied quickly and Selah headed inside to finish up. The linen napkins went to the basket to wash later and she busied herself with washing the dishes. When they were all washed, Selah made one more sweep through the drawing and living room to check for any strays that she might have missed. When she returned to the hall, she caught movement in the library out of the corner of her eye. It was Mrs. Willis counting money into two separate stacks. She took the second stack and put it into the small drawer of her secretary and folded the first in her hand. Selah quickly continued down the hall so that she would not get caught.
“Selah,” Mrs. Willis called. “Selah, can you come here please?”
“Coming,” Selah yelled from the kitchen. She turned and recovered her steps that she had made just moments before. She stepped into the library and crossed the room. Mrs. Willis held out her hand and placed the bills into Selah’s hand.
“A very respectable sum. You are quite talented. The ladies were quite pleased. I do appreciate you working here. You have done an admirable job for Mr. Willis and I.”
“Thank you, mam.” Selah turned and returned to the kitchen. There was no time to count the money at the time and she knew that it was not as much as she was supposed to receive. Why would the Mistress take a share? She carefully packed away the dishes and went upstairs to her room.
She laid the money on her bed and stared at them. Slowly, she counted four hundred dollars. She had never seen that much money in her life, but still it was not enough. The women liked the quilts and they were taking the maps made of fabric back to their plantations. She put the money away in the coffee tin under her bed and reached in her pocket for the note that had arrived. Her heart started to pound when she saw her name, Alizeti in his unsure handwriting. Abram was getting better, but his hand was still shaking forming the letters. She quickly unsealed the paper and unfolded it. As she read his words, tears ran down her cheeks.
I am writing to tell you I am headed south. My master is sending me to warmer water to better fishing during the cold months. Do not worry. I have a strong crew and the boat is sure. I have thoughts of you and our love to keep me warm. Our love will survive this. I will return next year as we planned. This voyage will bring higher prices and will bring us closer to our true North. I will miss you my love.
You have my heart forever,
The note had been written quickly on a scrap of paper. Selah held it in her hands as she went numb. The sea would have him again and she had no choice but to share him. It fell to the floor and her eyes no longer saw the room. How would she survive the next year without seeing him at all? He told her not to worry. Their love is strong; it can survive this. It can survive anything. She wiped her face and reached down for his note. Her eyes focused on the outside and could not believe what they saw. He had brought her what she needed. It was a navigation chart of Charleston, South Carolina. The very chart she needed for her next quilt.
Her Christmas miracle.
All photos on the website are taken by Tammera Cooper and remain her property.