I’ll never forget the day my husband and I bought a schoolhouse.
We were scouting possible locations to open a bed and breakfast, when I spotted a real estate office with listings taped to the windows.
“Look at this,” I excitedly pointed at a listing printed on yellowing paper with curling edges:
FORMER SCHOOLHOUSE FOR SALE - PRICED TO SELL
“We’re looking for a two or three-story house, honey,” Johnston reminded me.
Undeterred, I insisted we take a look. Rain began to fall as we stood with the realtor on the sagging wooden porch, watching water sluicing through pebble-sized holes. Inside was a dangerous obstacle course of broken glass, debris, and rotting floorboards. The damp air was pungent with age and mustiness.
The realtor consulted his notes. “It was a schoolhouse during the thirties and became a residence when a new school was built in 1940. It’s been vacant for quite awhile,” he sighed. “To be honest, the land would be worth more if you razed the house and started over.”
My heart sank. The place was definitely not meant to be renovated into a B&B, but I brightened as another thought occurred to me, “Let’s turn it into a restaurant!”
After much persuasion, Johnston reluctantly agreed to the project. Two years of costly renovations followed before the Schoolhouse Café finally opened for business.
Mr. Weber, a kindly old gentleman, gazed at the walls adorned with abacuses, used textbooks, and other old-fashioned school items. “I went to elementary school here,” he declared. “I’ll never forget Miss Starling, the schoolteacher. She didn’t take any guff from us boys. We used to put her Model A up on blocks to keep her from going home after school, but she’d get the car down somehow,” he chuckled.
“She must have been a smart lady!”
“Oh, she always knew who pulled the capers . . . except for one,” he face clouded.
“Which one?” I was intrigued.
“I’m too ashamed to talk about it,” he muttered and ambled away.
The next afternoon, after the lunch crowd departed, Mr. Weber appeared with a large item rolled up in oilcloth and said, “I have a favor to ask.”
As Mr. Weber unrolled the oilcloth, Johnston and I gaped in wonder at a beautiful quilt fashioned from blocks of various colors, each embroidered with names: “Wesley & Ruth Worth . . . Sam, Lena, Ola, Ray Maxwell . . . Miles, Sarah, Ezekiel, Joseph Corbett . . .”
“That’s my family,” he said softly, tracing a block embroidered with “Jonah, Ruth & Eli Weber.”
Johnston stepped back to survey the full view. “It has at least thirty different surnames sewn onto it!”
“The ladies in the community sat up many nights sewing it as a gift for Miss Starling. She was so proud of it and hung it near the chalkboard.” He bit his lip sadly. “One day she caught me cheating and told my daddy. I got into terrible trouble. In revenge, I broke into the schoolhouse one night and stole the quilt.”
“She didn’t figure out who the thief was?” I wondered.
“No, I hid it in our attic and told no one,” he sat down wearily on a nearby chair. “I knew she was very upset, but I kept quiet because I was afraid I’d get into more trouble. A month later, she abruptly left town and never returned. Guilt has nagged me for years . . . I wish I could return it to her, but I doubt she’s still alive.”
Johnston hung the quilt back in its rightful place, and we began searching for a needle in a haystack.
For months, we attempted to find Miss Starling by scouring the internet, poring over old newspapers and placing ads. A local newspaper placed the story on the newswires. Just when the search seemed hopeless, the phone rang.
“This is Katherine Starling calling. . . I read the story in my local paper,” the voice still rang with authority. “Eli Weber was always a rascal,” she chuckled. “You tell him I’m always willing to forgive a repentant child, but he’d better return that quilt in person!”
Mr. Weber made the 750-mile journey with us.
As we watched the two happily reminiscing over names sewn by loving hands so many years ago, Johnston said softly, “This reminds me of how God has forgiven us and etched our names in the Lamb’s Book of Life for all time . . .”
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