“Imagine living for a whole century, Stella. Your grandmother was made of strong stuff. They don’t make them like that anymore.”
“ I know, Mam. I’ll never forget the day she attacked Doctor Carey about the driving license. She was so mad at him!”
“ That was typical Gran. She figured she had her license and that was it. There was no talking to her.”
I’m helping Mam sort through Gran’s things, looking for a photograph to put on the memorial card. It’s been almost a year since she died and it’s about time we got something sorted. It’s cold outside but the dining room already feels warm from the heat of the stove. Mam always lights it first thing in the morning, she says a real fire makes a home feel more welcoming.
Elbow deep in forgotten memories, we search through the dusty old shoe boxes that Gran used to keep in the attic. Mam never knew about Gran’s secret stash until there was a leak upstairs and the plumber spotted them concealed behind the water tank. You could mark it on your calendar, as soon as the frost sets in the pipe behind the bath bursts and we have a river of toiletries floating down the stairs.
Gran was a dab hand with her battered Pentax, but she’d run a mile if anyone tried to get a shot of her. That’s why it’s so hard to find a decent photograph today. I remember an old story about Grandad sneaking up on her while she was writing her diary and taking a snap. I’d love to come across that picture now, it would be perfect for the memorial card.
“ No idea why she hid these away. She was as odd as two left feet but, do you know what, I really miss her.”
“ Me too, Mam. She’d have loved your sixtieth, she always liked a good old party.”
Mam’s lip begins to quiver and I feel a little flutter in my stomach, like when I say the wrong thing to a client. At least I can smooth it over with them and bring it back to how gorgeous they look. Hairdressing can be quite demanding sometimes, they tell you all kinds of stories and expect you to understand.
I put another log into the stove and it crackles to life. Mam is looking out the window, but I don’t think she notices the dark November clouds gathering over the mountains. Her eyes look misty.I flick on the light switch and sit back down. Mam turns her face towards me, taking off her glasses and rubbing her eyes.
“ Gran’s going to miss your twenty-first too, Stella.”
“ I know, Mam.”
We get to a box labelled Precious and I feel quite intrigued. Gran always liked her secrets and I wonder if we’ll find one here. I spot some really cute pictures of Mam and Uncle Robert when they were toddlers. Uncle Robert came home for the funeral, all the way from New Zealand. I know Mam was glad he was there. They skype a lot but it’s not the same, especially at times like that.
“ Look, Mam. I recognize Gran’s scribbly writing, Patricia and Robert 1963. Wow, it’s a really good shot. Look at the way she got the light sparkling on your hair, it makes you look like a little angel!”
“ Yeah, it’s nice.”
“ Must be from the time you went to Curracloe, I can see the beach stretching for miles behind you. And look, there’s…”
“ I’m not sure, I don’t remember.”
“ Maybe we should finish for today, Mam.”
“ Yeah, I’m sick of it now. Let’s just get this box over with.”
I feel a bit sorry for Mam, but this task can’t wait much longer. I wish she would let me do it on my own, but sometimes she can be as awkward as Gran used to be. We continue rummaging through the photographs. Halfway through, I spot a fraying brownish envelope with a barely legible title. I squint my eyes and can just make out For Isobel, neatly handwritten in a faded, blotted ink.
“Hey, Mam, this one has Gran’s name on it. Do you want me to open it?”
“Might as well. Maybe there’s money in it!”
It’s good to hear Mam’s tinkly little laugh again. I lift the flap of the envelope and look inside.
“Mam, there’s loads of stuff in here, not just photographs.”
“Okay, let’s have a look then.”
I remove everything from the envelope and spread out the musty smelling contents like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s mostly old, yellowed photographs and postcards, along with a few tattered letters. Mam picks up the stiff, striking picture of a young man dressed in an army uniform. She fixes her glasses back on and reads the caption out loud, her eyes widening more with each word.
Patrick Fitzgerald, Royal Irish Lancers, 1918
“Goodness, I’ve never seen that picture before, I didn’t even know my grandfather served in the army. Mam never talked about him really. Well, he died when she was only a year old so I suppose it’s not surprising.”
“Now that I think about it, she never mentioned him to me at all. Oh, except once when I asked her how she picked the name Patricia for you. He must have been really young when he died.”
“Yeah, I think it was a hunting accident or something like that.”
Mam lifts up an old, creased letter and opens it slowly. It looks very fragile, like those ancient scripts you see in museums and dare not touch or even photograph. She rearranges her glasses and starts to read aloud. Her voice sounds breathless and jumpy, it reminds me of when she was giving the eulogy at Gran’s funeral. I was very proud of Mam that day because I know she doesn’t like being in the limelight.
My darling Estelle,
I am writing this by candlelight and it makes me dream of you, my love. You are the light of my life and each flicker of the flame makes me feel closer to you. I remember the first day we met, it was as if a star had exploded in my heart and I could hardly breathe. It took longer for the light of love to grow in you, but it was ever more beautiful in the waiting. And when I first held our baby daughter in my arms I understood at last what it is to live in grace. Everything good and holy in my life I owe to you, my darling.
I write these lines because I realize that I have wronged you badly. I thought that I was doing the correct thing by enlisting with the Lancers. So many Irish men joined due to lack of employment, but you know that was not my reason. I did it out of pride, to defend your honour, your French heritage. I remember your tearful entreaties, begging me to desist from my plans, but my stubbornness prevailed. It is a matter of enormous regret to me that I dod not heed your words and I hope that someday you can forgive me, Estelle.
Do you understand how much I miss you and the baby? You are all that is keeping me from despair in this bleak and tormented place. The nights are the worst, for it is in the darkness that the fears multiply and threaten one’s tenuous hold on sanity. These are the times I light my candle and gaze upon your image. I pity the men who do not have my good fortune, the men left alone, the men without hope.
There is a rumour circulating in the trenches that the battle will soon cease and I pray to God that this is true. I do not wish to burden you with the horrors of life and death on the battlefield, it would serve no purpose. Rather think of this soldier immersed in the light of your love and it warming me, protecting me, guiding me home to you and baby Isobel.
Your devoted husband,
“Patrick was a soldier in the British Army, but what does that matter? Why did they all hide it? Just look at the letter, he was wonderful, so in love with Granny Estelle.”
“I know, Mam, it’s all so sad. But look at this. It’s even worse.”
I point out a splotched and crinkled telegram which seems lost among the photographs.
Madam, It is my painful duty to inform you that a report has this day been received from the War Office notifying the death of Patrick Fitzgerald, Royal Irish Lancers, which occurred at Mons on the 11th of November 1918 and I am to express to you the sympathy and regret of the Army Council at your loss. Srgt John Patterson.
“I can’t believe it, the last day of the war. How cruel was that.”
“Granny Isobel must have been heart-broken.”
“The awful thing is she wouldn’t have got much sympathy around here, poor thing. Times were different then, Stella. You were looked at almost like an outcast if you fought for the British Army.”
“ Yeah, I remember Uncle Robert mentioning that when he was explaining to me about the Easter Rising. It was just after the funeral and…”
I look at Mam, her face is turning pale. She has two envelopes in her hand. These look almost freshly hand delivered and they are marked in ballpoint pen. Mam’s hands shiver as she shows them to me. One has For Robert scrawled across the front and the other has For Patricia in big, spidery handwriting. She puts Uncle Robert’s letter back on the table and rises slowly from the dining room chair.
“I think I need to read this by myself.”
“Of course, Mam. “
Mam walks over to her special nest, the wickerwork chair beside the corner window overlooking the Wicklow mountains. She pulls the patchwork blanket over her shoulders and cuddles herself into the seat. The dark clouds begin to part and a single winter sunbeam lights up the corner where she sits.
She unseals the envelope and opens the letter with quivering hands An old polaroid drops out and lands on her lap. It’s the picture of Gran, from all those years ago, the one that Grandad took. Mam puts the photograph on the windowsill beside the candles Uncle Robert brought for the funeral. I remember that night so well, taking keepsake pictures of him and Mam right there at that spot… The candlelight shining softly on their faces, echoing around the glass panes, melting into the darkness.
Mam sighs and a half-smile crosses her face. Something about her expression makes my heart skip a beat. I left my snazzy new Pen camera at home and it’s too early for candles, but it doesn’t matter. I switch off the dining room light and take the shot with my mobile. No fuss, no framing, no flash. Just the sunlight falling on Mam’s face as she reads the lifelines of her past. Someday, it will be my past too.
This short story was inspired by a quote in The Creative Cafe on Medium.
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
— Anne Frank
Poem on a similar theme: Flanders Remembrance