Copyright is held by the author.
ALENA SHUDDERED and stifled tears as Hamish took a crowbar to her beloved desk — surely he could have found a gentler method to achieve the required result. The screaming resistance of violently yanked nails alternating with the scrunching surrender of splintering wood made for a frightening sound, but what Alena felt most was an overwhelming sadness.
She had, for nine years, spent hours of most days nestled within the desk’s dark mahogany depths, its tall smooth rounded front cleverly hiding from view the messy layers of her daily endeavours. The stately piece of furniture had such a presence that it was often assumed by visitors to have once been the reception desk of a small inn (though to her knowledge the Victorian-era house whose front rooms served as her antique shop had never been used for that purpose) so perfectly did the finish match the tone of the wide wooden window and door frames that graced the foyer in which it stood. Hamish had done a beautiful job, cleverly concealing a cheap curbside-dumped computer desk beneath a painstakingly-applied leatherette-covered work surface and topping it with a variety of cubby holes to store Alena’s ever-spilling paraphernalia. He had enveloped it all within expertly shaped, richly finished veneer and hand-polished walnut trim. Her husband’s skillful hands had created a masterpiece that deserved a much more dignified end.
“It’s a piece of shit, Leni. You know as well as I do that the new owners want it gone.”
Alena didn’t want to think about the new owners. If they felt that way about her desk —custom built for the space and virtually unmovable though it was — what atrocities did they have in mind for her house? She was certain the house was already shuddering in uneasy contemplation. Not to mention betrayal. Like you would a shelter dog, they had adopted this neglected old home knowing it needed attention and had carefully — with much patience and perseverance — groomed and fed, gradually coaxing it back to confident, glowing health while never admonishing its various quirks and irregularities. Without losing any of its original appeal, their house had thrived — and had reciprocated, too, embracing them in warmth and comfort. And now, without fanfare, they were abandoning this supposedly cherished pet to the whims of callous strangers, to no doubt wonder what it had done wrong for them to so irrevocably withdraw their love. Hamish would be disgusted — and quite probably alarmed — if he could read her thoughts. Today, Alena hardly cared.
“I’ll always love you,” she whispered, caressing the ages-smoothed curving maple banister as she made her way to the relative peacefulness of the bedroom upstairs. This graceful staircase, with its worn but still-vibrant deep-red Persian carpet runner and alcove landing with stained glass window had seduced them into choosing this house over all the others. The sunlight, when it streamed through the fleur-de-lis design of the glass, cast a purple and green prismatic spell across the golden hardwood floors below. “I’ll miss you.”
Upstairs, cardboard boxes were stacked everywhere, the bedroom closets bare — there wasn’t much left to do but wait for the movers to arrive in the morning. They’d been sleeping on camping mattresses, their handsome oak bedframe having been recently sold, and Alena now sank to the temporary nest, hoping Hamish would soon be finished his heinous task. Looking around the barren room, she reached for her jewellery box that sat on the rustic wide-plank floor where the antique dressers used to stand. This inlaid-wood box had been the last thing her grandfather’s arthritic hands had made before the pain was too much, and Alena had cherished it ever since her eleventh birthday. Opening the lid, she removed a small yellowed envelope, her grandmother’s cursive hand scrawled in still-vivid blue ink across the surface: For Alena Rose, to be opened on her 50th birthday.
Hamish must have bashed a finger. It would not put him in a better mood, but Alena secretly applauded her condemned desk for putting up a fight. She put the unread letter carefully back in the box and took a deep breath. She would go back downstairs and make a fresh pot of coffee in an effort to show solidarity with a man who could not tolerate the overflowing emotions she was constantly struggling to contain.
Avoiding Hamish and his menacing iron rod — she much preferred him with his paint brushes and not the handyman kind — in the entry hall, she took a detour to the kitchen through the adjacent front parlour, admiring, as she passed through, the elegant French doors she’d sanded and refinished that first cold winter before they’d upgraded the inadequate heating system. The parlour led to a sitting room with a rounded section of wall bordering the formal dining room, and both sides of this curve delighted Alena still. So carefully she’d steamed and pulled, scraped and peeled the seemingly endless layers of wallpaper, saving the best sample of each, all the while trying to approximate the date it had been hung and trying to imagine what the lives of the various long-ago wives who had likely chosen each distinctive design had been like. Alena had made a collage with the still-colourful scraps and preserved it in an antique gilt frame that she’d hung on the wall below the staircase, just behind her doomed desk. She’d left it hanging as a gift for the new owners, but now she wasn’t so sure —
“Leni, is that coffee ready?”
It was a gorgeous afternoon in late September. Alena filled their only two not-packed mugs with the fresh brew and, not thinking, motioned for Hamish to join her outside on the back porch steps. There, the mangled remnants of her desk gaped up at her forlornly from where they lay on the grass near the bottom step and Hamish tossed the last piece onto the heap before reaching for his cup. Other discarded parts of this soon-to-be-over chapter of life — things they couldn’t take or sell or give away — had already been deposited on the pile, waiting for pick-up by a local junk hauler. The day’s events in no way resembled how she might once have imagined spending what was generally considered to be quite a milestone. Before she could annoy Hamish with another threatening bout of tears, Alena headed back upstairs to take a bath.
The irony, she thought, as she sank into the warm lavender-infused comfort of her four legged cast iron tub, was that moving to the East Coast had been Hamish’s idea and now that it was all over, it was she who was having such a hard time. Back then, Alena had worked hard to build the sort of enthusiasm required for such a monumental shift. She’d been struggling with the loss of her adored sister and, almost simultaneously, the emergency surgery that mocked all faint hope she’d been clinging to for a child. That and the guilt she’d felt over abandoning two somewhat vulnerable generations of family members had added up to Alena being incapable of resembling the sort of adventurer Hamish naturally was. Yet she’d embraced the idea once it had been put into motion and somehow the move east had gradually helped deflect the pain of her sorrow.
Now she understood that, once again, relocating (returning, in fact) would help resolve issues, realities which they had — thanks to Hamish’s restless nature — enjoyed a hiatus from the inevitable eventuality of facing. Alena suspected that the supposed benefits of this move were intended mostly for her — that Hamish was making concessions, trying to right what he probably assumed was an unintended wrong from those earlier days — and she had somehow not grasped the truth of the situation until it had become unalterable. The house was sold; the plans were unfolding: they would be closer to her aging mother, now alone and (resentfully) in need of help, and her sister’s children who were now young parents themselves. Alena knew she should be grateful (she was, at least, heartened by the gesture) but what she felt was overwhelming anxiety. And she had found something here that she was loath to leave behind.
That evening they sat for the last time in the backyard on folding canvas chairs, and watched the progression of the super moon lunar eclipse — purportedly a rare event and, Alena thought, one of two bittersweet concessions to this otherwise dismal half-century celebration. Earlier, Hamish had taken her for a favorite drive over the low mountain road to the fishing village of Parker’s Cove where they sat at a rustic picnic table overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to indulge — just once more — in the fish and chips served in red and white checked paper-lined baskets and cooked to perfection by the wives of fishermen in the tiny wharf-side restaurant-slash-general-store. Now home again, the air was still warm, the sky calm and clear, and even with the distractions of neighbouring buildings and trees, the gradual revealing of the huge red harvest moon was breathtaking. Alena had read that this phenomenon was called a full blood moon. After some time spent with faces to the sky, thoughts to themselves, Hamish reached over and gently squeezed Alena’s arm. “Aren’t you going to open your letter, Leni? I can’t believe you haven’t done that yet — your birthday will be over, if you wait much longer.”
Alena was surprised and therefore touched that Hamish remembered. It had been some time since she’d mentioned the letter’s existence, and even if there hadn’t been so much going on, sentimentality — particularly where family was involved — had never, even remotely, been his thing. This letter from her grandmother, written when Alena was a baby, should have made up for every bad thing she was feeling today — after all those years, one would think she would have torn into it first thing this morning. Yet, after having waited almost a lifetime, she’d found herself in no hurry to open it.
When Alena had first been told of the letter at age 18, she’d been overwhelmed with emotion, her grandmother having died when Alena was just nine. Yet at the same time, she remembered having thought her grandmother rather cruel to offer something of herself that Alena must wait so long to receive. Now, though, she understood. At the time of writing, her grandmother had been about the age Alena now was and would have known as Alena now did that those years would fly by faster than you could have once thought possible. So part of Alena’s reluctance was that now that the time had come, she didn’t want the moment — like so many other parts of her life — to be irreversibly over. But something else had made her hesitant to open that envelope today. Alena knew she was putting off an expected letdown she wasn’t yet prepared to acknowledge — really, she had no more than a mild and timeworn curiosity for this unusual gift that should have been highly anticipated all these years. But there was a flaw attached: the letter had already been opened. Her mother, entrusted with keeping it for Alena, had opened it and read it soon after it was written and Alena already had a pretty good idea what it contained.
At 18, Alena hadn’t minded so much that her mother had read the letter meant for her. At that age, she hadn’t (much) yet questioned her mother’s undisputed position of authority or her seemingly never-challenged sense of entitlement within even the extended family circle. What Alena had minded then and still minded now was that her mother had told her that she’d read it before Alena even had time to savour the knowledge of the letter’s existence, thus diminishing the importance of such a precious gift. And worse, she’d told Alena what the letter had said. Or what she remembered it saying some 18 years after she’d read it. Apparently it hadn’t contained anything interesting enough to warrant a second reading over the span of those years.
“It was just a brief description of her day. Nothing much at all, really — I’m not sure why she even bothered, but that was Mom for you. Well, for heaven’s sake, Alena, it wasn’t even sealed . . .”
Alena could still hear the words, spoken in the manner of a shrug — not a hint of shame —trivializing the gift; her mother had even told Alena she could go ahead and read the letter herself, if she wanted, rather than wait. Alena had declined, taken aback not only at her mother’s lack of remorse for what her younger self had done, but her willingness to make Alena a party to disregarding her grandmother’s wish. Now fifty, with the letter hers to legitimately read, Alena felt herself once again reliving that sense of anger. Had her mother kept her selfish act to herself, the unspoiled (or unknowingly spoiled) gift of a lifetime would be hers to unveil. Still, Hamish was right. It was getting late, and, leaving him to the enchantment of the red harvest-moonlit sky, she headed inside.
Dec. 20, 1965
Carman MB, RR2
Dear Alena Rose,
You are probably a grandmother yourself by now.
Wouldn’t it I wish we could come back and see you. It seems impossible to visualize what your world will be like.
This morning, we watched the recovery of Gemini Six from the Atlantic Ocean after fourteen days in orbit around the earth. This broke the record.
You may have been to the moon and back several times by the time you receive this.
Gilda-Rose was sitting here last evening feeling very sorry for herself because she failed her grade XII physics exam (48). By Easter I hope she will have improved to a mark closer to 100%.
Love to you and your grandchildren from Grandpa and Grandma C.
P.S. The stamp was Grandpa’s idea. He says it may make you a wealthy woman someday.
Oh, Grandma. You did come back! Through a haze of tears, Alena’s imagined her grandmother — standing at a metal-edged curved kitchen counter — placing unbaked cookies on a tin baking sheet. Alena recognized shapes of the sugar cookies she and her older sister Kelly had helped her grandmother make — she remembered the satisfying squish-click as the cutter made contact with the dough, and then the coloured sugar they liberally sprinkled on the festive shapes. But not that Christmas; she’d been way too young, of course, and even Kelly would not yet have been much help. So Grandma was preparing for their visit, for three-month-old Alena’s first Christmas.
Maybe it wasn’t tears, but snowflakes that blurred the scene as they melted and trickled down the multi-paned wood-framed windows that formed a corner of the tiny farmhouse kitchen and surrounded the well-used oak table where in a few years Alena and Kelly would eat breakfast with Grandpa long before the “adults” got up. Bareface, Grandpa used to call it, making them giggle and Alena smiled now, remembering the sky-blue scalloped-edged cereal bowls — whatever had become of those? Spellbound, she imagined the sound of approaching footfalls crunching the fresh snow on the veranda steps outside, the creaking of the outer door and then the shuffling as her grandfather removed his overshoes and hung his heavy winter coat on a hook. Her grandmother turned from the counter to greet him as he entered the kitchen.
“Are those cards going to get there before Christmas, Will, or did I leave it too late this year?”
“Oh, they’re all local, Pete says they will. Say, Lili, look what I got for the new baby — it’s a special stamp this year, just for Christmas. By golly, Lil, it just might make little Alena Rose a rich woman one day!” Her grandfather smiled, his eyes twinkling in that way Alena remembered so well. He gave her grandmother a wink, then sat down in his comfy wooden armchair —stacked with the colourful patterned cushions her grandmother had sewn — and began filling his pipe.
Her grandmother laughed; Alena had forgotten that tinkly laugh. “Well, maybe in 50 years, Will. Oh, Willy, can you even imagine baby Alena Rose being 50? It seems nearly impossible to picture. They’ll be on the moon in no time. William, just think — Alena will probably travel to the moon! Isn’t that the limit?”
The moon. How fitting that such a spectacular moon had arrived on this of all Alena’s birthdays. Oh Grandma, you must have imagined that ordinary people would ride to the moon, perhaps for cake and coffee in the way they might go up in the Space Needle while visiting Seattle. But they’re fighting over the moon, making their claims on the planets and stars, just as they’re still battling over what’s here on earth. I wish I could tell you the world is a better place now.
“I don’t know about the moon, but I know one thing. She’ll be just about as pretty a grandmother by then as you are, Lil, no doubt about it”
“Oh, honestly William.” Smiling, her grandmother rolled her eyes and shook her head.
Was she blushing? Alena blinked back tears. It had been Kelly, though, who had so resembled their beautiful, raven-haired grandmother. How she missed her sister, who — also like their grandmother — had died way before her time. Kelly hadn’t lived to see even one grandchild. But hadn’t Alena always loved her sister’s children as much as she ever could have loved her own? Didn’t that make her sister’s baby granddaughters hers to love now, too? Oh Grandma — of course I will give them yours and Grandpa’s love. You can count on it.
“Well, you’d better put that stamp some place safe if it’s going to survive 50 years, Will. Let me think. Maybe we’d better put it into an envelope and put the baby’s name on it, and we’ll send it home with Betty and Ron. Better not bother sealing it, though. Betty’ll just tear it open anyway.”
Her grandfather chuckled. “You know your daughter too well. Always gotta know what’s going on, that one.”
“Speaking of daughters, I hope you had a chance to talk to Gilda-Rose before you dropped her off in town.”
Alena thought of her then-teenaged aunt, Gilda, now 67 and an energetic grandmother of five. She’d enjoyed a long career as a registered nurse, so she must have rallied in school! Alena imagined her grandfather would have promised her grandmother that he’d have a talk with Gilda about her marks, but in actuality, he’d probably told his younger daughter not to worry and then taken her out for a banana split. Alena well remembered that man.
“Oh, sure I did. Say, Lil, how about we slip two bits in there while we’re at it.” Alena watched as her grandfather opened his familiar wallet — his pocketbook, she remembered he used to call it — and pulled out a quarter. “There now, brand new this year!”
“Now, William, we can’t just throw a stamp and a coin into an envelope and hope in fifty years it’s worth something. We’ve got to let Alena Rose know what it’s all about — just so she knows we were thinking about her.”
“Well, that makes sense, Lil — best you write; you’ve got a better hand than I do.”
“Oh, but Will, I really don’t have the time right now.” Her grandmother gestured around the kitchen. “There’s just so much to do, with all the family coming.”
“Nothing fancy, Lil, just a quick note’ll do the trick.” Alena followed her grandfather into the adjacent living room with the familiar oval shaped brown and beige braided wool rug on narrow hardwood floorboards where he opened a drawer in the built-in bookshelf and pulled out some paper and an envelope. There was the rounded television set in its huge cabinet on which her grandparents would have watched the recovery of Gemini Six from the only station’s black-and-white newscast that morning. An open staircase led to the slope-ceilinged bedrooms upstairs — Alena remembered sleeping in the little bed with its soft eraser-pink blanket, squeezed right under the eve where you could hear the raindrops. And the stairs — there were three different colours of carpet alternating with each step, and she had loved, at age two or three, thumping down each delightful fuzzy step on her bum.
“Now, Will . . . couldn’t you have found something prettier than that for me to write on?” They were back in the kitchen, her grandmother frowning at the plain paper her grandfather had chosen. “Oh, never mind. Just let me get these in the oven . . .”
So was that how it happened? Alena had always wondered why she’d been the only grandchild to receive such a letter which included — and this was a surprise — a three cent (imagine!) Christmas stamp and a silver quarter. No doubt her grandparents would have intended to write notes for their other grandchildren someday too, but life has a way of slipping by before those somedays come to pass. The crossed out words, the somewhat disjointed thoughts sprawling across the page — the obvious hastiness in which it had been written gave testament to a spontaneity in the letter’s creation that transported Alena in a way that a well thought out, carefully fussed over letter could never have done. Back to a place she hadn’t been in nearly 40 years she realized in astonishment — that house had been sold and torn down shortly after her grandfather’s death.
Weak from the steady stream of tears, Alena now found herself simultaneously overcome with near-to-hysterical laughter. All these years, she’d prepared herself for nothing. Nothing! And it was true — what she’d just read would have meant nothing to anyone who had read it soon after it had been written. Of course it would have seemed meaningless then. As insignificant as something done today would seem tomorrow — how could Alena not have realized that it would be this way? Her mother hadn’t spoiled her gift at all, couldn’t possibly have, because back then the letter hadn’t yet become what it was destined to be. But like a tiny, common sprout that 50 years had turned into a magnificent tree, the looking-after of the letter — and yes, her mother had kept it safely tucked away for many of those years — had allowed the passage of time to transform it into the extraordinary gift it had become. Thank you, Grandma. Thank you both.
Alena had no intention of checking for monetary value regarding the stamp and coin but her grandfather had been on to something: all at once, she had become the richest woman on earth. She would seal these treasures up within another envelope, along with an additional note she would write herself, and pass it on to her sister’s grandchildren with instructions for them to open it in another 50 years. She shook her head in amazement — how ridiculous she’d been. Tomorrow she would leave this much-loved Nova Scotia home, never again to return. Yet nothing would be left behind. Nothing that mattered ever could be. Without wiping tears, Alena headed back outside to join Hamish beneath the rosy glow of the moon.