I originally wrote Family Tradition (aka The Blanket) for a creative writing class in college, circa 1985. I transferred it to my computer in 2007, and did a bit of a rewrite in 2008 so I could submit it to a short story contest. I’m not entirely sure, but I think I got my first official rejection letter as a result.
I’ve been meaning for ages now to add it to my WordPress Short Stories section, but it just never seemed to be the right time. It’s more somber than my usual pieces, and there are still bits about it that I feel need tweaking. However, I found it this morning (when looking for something else) and decided to just go ahead and post it.
This has been work-shopped and reedited many times over the years, so I resisted the aforementioned urge to edit yet again. Well, other than going through and deleting all the extra spaces between sentences, as I grew up in the age of the double space (yes, I’m that old…lol).
Now, without further ado…
Family Tradition (aka The Blanket)
I almost didn’t start it.
It wasn’t until the day I left for the grocery store, but ended up in the “Pregnancy” section of the bookstore instead. After, as I headed to my car, I noticed the sign for the craft store from across the lot. I decided I might as well pick up yarn in case I felt like knitting. I wasn’t sure which color to get, but after a long deliberation, decided on Lion Brand’s Strawberry Red. The name reminded me of my old Strawberry Shortcake doll, and red was Jack’s favorite color, so it seemed the perfect choice.
When I got home, I pulled out the blanket my mother made while pregnant with me from the cedar chest. The stitches looked intricate, but the pattern was pretty straight forward. I decided to give it a shot.
I finished the second row when I realized the light outside had faded to dusk. I scolded myself for losing track of time. Jack would be home soon and I had no idea what to do for dinner.
Trouble rolled over on the baby’s bureau and stretched. She was a housewarming gift from a friend, because cats were supposed to bring good luck. Jack thought she was an ordinary calico, but I knew there was something special about her. Since my maternity leave started, she’d become my feline shadow. Now she jumped to the floor and wound herself around my legs.
“Relax, Troubs. I know what time it is and I could move faster if you’d get off my feet.”
She blinked up at me and mewed. I put the knitting aside, grasped the arms of the rocking chair, and tipped myself into a standing position. I felt a stirring as I pulled my shirt over my belly.
“Did I wake you? I didn’t realize I’d been sitting here for so long – I get so caught up in my daydreams. I wonder if you’ll be a dreamer like me, or more practical like your dad.”
Trouble rubbed against my leg, sputtering meows under her breath.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming. You’d think you hadn’t eaten in a month.”
Twenty minutes later, the front door banged open, announcing Jack’s arrival. His face appeared around the kitchen door. “Smells good. When can we eat?”
“In a few minutes.”
His cold ear pressed against my cheek as he hugged me. The smell of legal offices and burning leaves rose out of his tweed coat. After he helped with the table, he poured a glass of wine and sat down.
“Rough day at court?”
“Yeah, that custody battle’s heating up. It’s reaching a stalemate, but no one wants to back off.” He yawned and leaned back in his chair. “Wanna trade places tomorrow?”
“No thanks. I’ve got enough to keep me busy. I started the blanket today. At the rate I’m going, it may be done by the time the baby graduates.”
“Why the sudden interest in knitting?”
“It’s kind of a family tradition. I vaguely remember my mom making blankets for Michael and Kimberly before they were born, and I have mine upstairs. Nana did the same for her and Aunt Mary. Mom said it was relaxing to…”
We heard a thud in the next room. Trouble streaked in from the hallway, skittered across the linoleum, and dashed up the stairs to the second floor. I groaned, knowing what I’d find when I went in the bathroom.
Jack sighed and asked, “Want me to check?”
“No, I’ll go. You can finish mashing the potatoes.” I found evidence of Trouble’s prank in the hallway – shredded pieces of toilet paper were scattered across the rug. A white roll rested against the radiator in the bathroom, scratched and clawed into confetti. “She got a whole one this time… it looks like it exploded.”
“I don’t know why that cat attacks toilet paper. I swear she’s got a mental problem. I’m not letting her anywhere near the baby.”
I started up the stairs. “I’ll go yell at her. I don’t know how she got in. I keep that door shut tight.”
I found her hiding in my closet, eyes huge and green. She sputtered meows as I picked her up, denying her crime. I carried her down to the back door. “Bad Troubs! One more roll gets destroyed and Jack may lock you out for good.”
The October wind pushed the door wide open as Trouble slipped out into the dark. I shivered and wrapped my arms around my stomach before I turned back into the warmth of the kitchen.
Two weeks later, I got a letter from my grandmother. The wind almost grabbed it from me as I pulled the collection of junk mail and bills out of the mailbox. It was the first real mail I’d gotten in ages.
I sat down at the table, trying to decipher Nana’s spidery writing. My mother mentioned she’d been getting more confused and disoriented since her eighty-fifth birthday in August. It showed in her handwriting; she used to have beautiful script. I made out the words, “baby blanket”, “DON’T CAST OFF” and “curse!” before I gave up, knowing this was an echo of a phone conversation we had when I told her I was pregnant.
I sat and stared at the tea I no longer felt like drinking. The wind had stopped, and silence filled the house. This had been my favorite time of day while I was still working – a self-imposed quiet hour. Now the stillness felt oppressive.
I tried calling my mother, thinking she’d be able to snap me out of this funk. I counted eleven rings before I gave up. There wasn’t anyone else I could think of who might be home in the middle of the week.
I wandered upstairs to the baby’s room. The bright wallpaper and polished wood looked dull in the gray morning light. Trouble followed me in, then walked out the connecting door to our bedroom. This time I followed her.
I got the phone from the night stand, and tried Mom’s number again, but still no answer. Troubs jumped on the cedar chest and curled up next to my pink baby blanket, still folded on top. I sat on the bed and watched her eyes blink shut, purring like crazy. After a minute, I felt a warmth spreading over me, and the bad feeling started to lift .
“I guess your happiness is contagious. Thanks for cheering me up, cat.” I picked up the blanket, but instead of putting it away, I brought it along in case I needed a reference while knitting.
Life fell into more of a routine. I’d wake up with Jack, make breakfast, then get the morning mail. Errands or chores were done by early afternoon, then I’d knit until it was time to make dinner. My funk was forgotten; when my mother called a week later, we only talked for a few minutes, and I didn’t mention my bad mood. Why bother, I figured, when I’m better now?
As I got more confident in my knitting, I worked faster. One afternoon, I was singing along with the radio and wasn’t paying attention to the yarn. One needle slipped a bit, and I dropped a stitch. Immediately I felt a small sharp ache in my stomach. I took a deep breath, hoping it would go away, but it intensified. Instead of stopping, I tried to pick up the stitch. Don’t be silly, I thought to myself, the pain is a coincidence. You should be resting instead of continuing with this foolishness. But the minute I got the yarn back on the needle, the pain stopped. My hands shook as I finished the row. Even though I had a few hours until dinner, I put it away and went downstairs.
I wasn’t going to say anything to Jack, but that night after dinner, as we settled down in the living room, he asked me if I was feeling alright.
“You’ve been awfully quiet tonight. Is everything okay?”
“Oh hon, I don’t know. I mean, it’s probably just my imagination, but it still worries me.”
“The blanket.” He sat next to me on the couch, and took my hand in his.
“What is it about the blanket that upsets you?”
“I don’t think it’s just a blanket. Remember I told you Mom and Nana made blankets for their kids, and it was a family tradition? Well, there’s a story behind it. Supposedly, way back in our family, there was an ancestor who was a witch.”
I stopped, waiting for him to laugh. He didn’t; he sat quietly, his thumb slowly rubbing circles in my palm.
“At least that’s what the people in the town thought. She lived alone on the outskirts of the small village, and had always talked about wanting children. One day she told someone she was expectant, but no one believed her because she was too old. She insisted she was making a child. Sure enough, a few months later she had a belly bump. The midwife went out to her property to check on her, and said she saw her working some wool with her fingers, muttering, ‘This stitch for hair of gold, this stitch for eyes of blue; this stitch for a gentle soul, this stitch for a heart that’s true.’ When the baby was born with blonde hair and blue eyes, the villagers drove them out, threatening to burn both mother and daughter.”
I paused. Jack thought for a moment, then asked, “So where does the blanket come in?”
“Now all the women in our family who are direct descendants must ‘make their baby’ – a blanket – before their due date, or else the baby will die.” As I said it, I felt foolish; I sounded like my confused and superstitious grandmother.
He didn’t laugh though. Instead, he asked, “So this story’s been passed down over the years… has anyone ever gone against the tradition?”
“Oh yes. Nana used to tell all kinds of scary stories about pregnancies gone wrong. My mother never did, but she never denied anything Nana said either.”
“Have you talked to your grandmother lately?”
“Not since I got a letter a few weeks ago. She mentioned the blanket then, but it didn’t bother me as much.”
“What changed your mind?”
“Today when I dropped a stitch, I got a sharp pain in my stomach. When I fixed it, the pain disappeared.”
He stayed quiet for a while, then said, “I guess I’ve left you alone too much lately… you’re letting your imagination work overtime. Maybe your mother should come and stay with us until the baby’s born.”
“I don’t need a keeper,” I snapped, suddenly furious at his patronizing tone.
“That’s not what I meant,” he said, ignoring my anger. “I’d feel better knowing you weren’t alone during the day.”
“You don’t believe me, do you? You think the whole idea is ridiculous.”
“Come on Cath, I don’t think it’s ridiculous, I just don’t believe in that stuff. Remember in college, when that girl from your dorm did a Tarot reading? She said we’d break up, and that obviously didn’t happen.”
“Yes it did! We had our first fight a week later, and broke up for almost a day. I only asked her for a short term reading. Besides, it could still happen.”
He let go of my hand. As he stood up and walked toward the door, I realized what I sounded like. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean that.”
He turned around. After a minute, he said, “I won’t take that personally, given the circumstances. But you need to seriously consider having your mother come for a visit.”
I swallowed hard, trying not to cry at the coolness in his voice. “I will, and I’ll try not to take my knitting so seriously. Chalk it up to my pregnant hormones.”
He smiled and kissed the top of my head, the tension momentarily gone.
I managed to keep my fears under control for the next few days. Jack was probably right – I spent too much time alone. I didn’t ask my mother to come, because I knew she had too many things going on at work. She’d drop them in a minute if I asked, but I didn’t need a babysitter, not yet anyway. Besides, Trouble and the blanket were company enough.
That is, until the cat turned on me. One afternoon, as I sat knitting, I dropped the skein of yarn on the floor. Trouble dove off the top of the bureau and went after it. When I pulled it away, she took a swipe at the blanket. One claw hooked it, and I felt a needle stab of pain in my belly.
I yelled, “Bad Troubs! Let go!”
Startled by the anger in my voice, she unhooked her claw and bolted from the room. I checked the spot where she snagged it, but couldn’t find any damage.
That night, I told Jack to make sure both doors to the nursery were always closed.
“But I thought you said Troubs was keeping you company?”
“She was, but she’s getting too spastic. I’m afraid she may damage something in the room.”
“Well, if you say so.” His worried eyes followed me around the kitchen, but I didn’t say any more.
A week before my due date, I finished the last row. I almost cast off, but Nana had said not to, and there was a note on the directions that said it wasn’t necessary.
That night, we had just finished our dinner when I heard a familiar thud in the hallway. Jack got up from the table to check on our toilet paper, as I cleared the dishes. He came back a second later and said, “Troubs isn’t in the bathroom, and there’s no mess. I’ll check upstairs.”
I was scraping the plates when the pain hit. A tingling sensation wrapped itself around my belly; I held on to the sink and tried not to panic, but it intensified. Blackness threatened to cover my eyes. I stumbled to the foot of the stairs, knowing what caused it.
“Jack, get her away from the baby!”
“Hon, what do you mean? I can’t find her anywhere.”
“Did you check the nursery?” I started up the stairs as he appeared at the top.
“My God, Cath – what’s wrong?”
“We’ve got to get her away from the blanket!”
“Relax. I shut the doors before dinner. There’s no way she could be in there. Come on, let’s go back downstairs and get you on the couch – you look awful.”
Another spasm hit, and I grabbed the banister. Jack rushed down, but I pushed him aside. I had to stop the cat.
Jack followed me up and said, “You should lie down. I’ll go check on the cat, if it’ll make you feel better.”
“I’ll take care of it – just leave me alone.”
I froze as Trouble came creeping out of the nursery, a tangle of red in her jaws. She ran down the staircase, dropping pieces on the polished floor. The pain tightened its grip, and I felt a sudden flood of wet running down my legs. As I passed out, I saw the fluid trickling over the landing, carrying away bits of red fluff.
I awoke inside a circle of anxious faces. I recognized Dr. Underkoffer, my obstetrician, staring down behind a surgical mask.
“Are you awake, Catherine?”
I managed a small nod.
“Do you know where you are?”
“The hospital.” I remembered being wheeled in on a stretcher, but everything else was blank. “Is my baby okay?”
“Yes, but we have a complication. We need to perform an emergency c-section.”
Frantic, I grabbed his arm. “Please tell me she isn’t…” I couldn’t say the word. “Tell me she’s going to be alright.”
He put my hand back on the table. “Your husband’s in the next room. We discussed the situation, and he agrees this is for the best. Relax and take deep breaths, and when you wake up it’ll be all over.”
A disembodied hand put a mask over my nose and mouth while the anesthesia hissed its accusations. Once more I was unconscious.
I awoke in a white and green room, feeling empty. I touched the bandage on my stomach, and knew our baby was gone. The tears flowed down the sides of my face, making twin wet spots on the sheet.
Jack and the doctor came in a short time later. Dr. Underkoffer asked, “How are you feeling, little lady?”
“Not too good, Doctor.”
“Are you well enough to hear my news?”
I grabbed at Jack’s hand, too ashamed to look at him. “I guess so.”
“Good. You have a healthy baby girl. Congratulations.”
The doctor smiled down at me.
Stunned, I glanced at Jack. The grin on his face told me it was true.
“But, what about… I thought… why don’t I remember…?”
“It was a difficult birth, but you and your baby are fine.” He patted my shoulder and turned to leave. “I’ll tell the nurse you’re awake.”
Jack squeezed my hand. My mind still felt hazy. Our baby was safe? “Hon, what about the blanket? Trouble destroyed it, didn’t she?”
“No, all she got was the extra yarn. I tried to show you that it was fine, but you were too upset to understand.”
He handed me the blanket, cast off and perfect.
“Wasn’t it still on the needles? Who finished it?”
“This is how I found it. It was folded up in the basket next to the rocking chair.”
The nurse walked in, carrying a small bundle. Jack laughed as she put our baby in my arms.
“If I didn’t know better, Catherine Trevor, I’d say this wasn’t my kid. No one in my family has hair like that.”
I gazed down at the tiny sleeping face, topped by a wave of red hair.
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