Jennifer felt mildly worried but then saw her mother in the side garden, on her knees, preparing the earth for the summer productivity. She stood at the window and watched as practiced hands removed winter’s clutter, then softened the spring soil in order to plant the seeds in the pouch about her waist. Neither Jennifer or her brother had taken to gardening, seeing it as something peculiar to the older generation. Yet they had both enjoyed the flourish of colour their mother’s hands had wrought when summer was in full bloom.
It had been two weeks since Elizabeth Fairborough had broken the news that shifted the axis of their world. Jenny had helped Alberta unpack the contents of her now empty office when the boxes arrived a few days earlier. They spoke openly of what they were uncovering and Jenny was surprised how little value her mother placed on most of it. “Storage or toss it out,” was all she would say as she pressed on through the memorabilia.
Alberta delighted in the feeling of moist earth on her hands, even beneath her fingernails. Many loved the summer months, when flowers and plants were blooming in radiant displays of nature, but it was these moments – these precious interventions – where she felt the most inspiration in her gardening. It was always the same: cultivate the soil, plant the seed, water, weed, and water again. And, as sure as the seasons, the seeds and bulbs would mature, break their earthly confines, and stretch in supplication up to the sun for life-giving energy. And always – always – their collective yearnings would be rewarded by England’s glorious summers.
As meaningful as all this was, it was the trees surrounding her property that gave her the most satisfaction. Along with her favourite Alder Buckhorn and its beautiful but forbidden berries, there were two Aspens, an Ash, and a rather out of place Birch that, nevertheless, looked resplendent in the winter season. She discovered years ago that it was the branches of these trees that gave indication of the changing seasons – not the flowers, the sounds of the birds, or even the alteration of temperature.
Her seasoned eye scanned those branches now, picking up the faintest hints of an approaching summer – the buds swelling in moisture and emerging new life, the bark showing a relaxing pliability, and the birds flitting from one tree to the other, singing of their discoveries in choruses unheard of since the previous year. Alberta’s heart sang with them, as it always did.
Her eye caught the form of Jenny looking at her from behind the French door and she waved her out. Her daughter immediately noticed the flush of satisfaction on her mother’s cheeks. She smiled at the dirt liberally spread on her hands, her apron, and, unknowingly, across her brow.
“Well, you’ve been hard at it,” Jenny observed.
“It glorious. There’s no other season quite like this one and no other moment quite like this. It’s like all the performers have gathered, with their instruments at the ready, and they’re just waiting for the right time to create their collective magic.”
Jenny smiled at this, for being in the garden was the only time when her mother transcended her traditional upbringing and reserved manner. It was a delight to behold. She was glad she had opted to come out a bit early to witness the almost spiritual nature of it.
“I brought scones from Prince Albert’s Bakery – ones with raisins for you, and plain for me. I also picked up a couple of extras for Robin once he gets back from work.”
Alberta smiled, tenderly pecked her daughter on the cheek, and said, “Then I’ll make the tea and join you out here shortly. Can you just make sure the table is cleaned off?”
The stone tabletop was lightly covered with the residue of the previous night’s rain and she grabbed a cloth from her mother’s box of gardening tools and gave it a wipe. She looked down to see the piled smaller stones in the earth, and for the first time took an interest in their purpose.
She asked her mother about it a few moments later, as they enjoyed the sun’s rays baptizing them with warmth.
“Each one is special,” Alberta answered.
“Why is that? They just seem like stones, really.”
“Would you say the same about Stonehenge or Hadrian’s Wall?” her mother asked quizzically.
“No … not really,” Jennifer responded. “But they are there for a purpose and carry hidden meanings.”
“As do these.”
She looked at her mother and spotted a bit of adventure in her eyes. She knew she was missing something. “I’m listening,” she said.
“Well, the first is what they represent. When your father and I got married, we were provided with a marvellous wedding gift – a one month cruise around the Mediterranean, everything included.”
Jennifer knew that, other than that the costs were covered. “So these stones have something to do with the trip?”
“They have everything to do with it. Let me show you.” Alberta rose from her chair only to sit on the ground in front of the objects in question. She picked one up that was dark in colour, with a heavy grain of something running through it.
“Dad picked this up from the stony beach near where our boat was moored in Liverpool. When I asked him what he was doing, he simply said, “My grandfather was a mason and told me that every stone like this has a story. I want to make a story about us, Bertie, so I’m going to take one of these from every place we journey. When put together, they will tell the tale of the captivating love and respect we knew as we embarked together in a shared life.”
Jenny realized that this sounded exactly like her father. Where her mother was reserved, Sandy Alexander had an expressive soul living within a shy and quiet demeanour. It was always he who read the Christmas story to the family when they were young, capturing a moment in words that were often unforgettable.
“And this one?” she asked, picking a larger but brighter stone.
“It’s from Antonia, near the ancient ruins of Troy, in Turkey. Your father said he would have launched a thousand ships to find me; that’s how much he treasured me. I never forgot those words. We had a good laugh when we remembered how seasick he would get.”
They went on like this for a time, with Alberta explaining stones from Athens, Gibraltar, Rome, Ephesus, Barcelona, Venice and Portofino. She carefully put each one back with the others when she had finished with it. Then she sighed, picking up a beautiful shape of what appeared to be white limestone. It was almost luminescent.
“Ah, yes,” she said reverentially, “this one is my treasure.” Alberta caressed it with her lips and held it out for her daughter to hold.
“Santorini,” she said, almost in a whisper. Jenny had heard of it but couldn’t place it in her mind.
Sensing her confusion, Alberta clarified: “It’s one of the Greek islands, only it’s perfect. The white cliffs, immaculate houses and buildings, pristine water, and abundance of Uzo. We only had one night, staying on the ship in the bay – an atoll, really. But the impression we received from it was so thorough, so transcendent, that we returned every few years. I think it was while overlooking the moonlit water on a gorgeously warm evening that I thought my heart would literally burst hugging your Dad. It was almost a physical pain, but it was so exquisite. Whatever happens in this next while, I hope that Santorini is one memory that will remain lodged in whatever brain cells I have left.”
The introduction of the disease didn’t feel right to Jenny, so she asked, “And this stone? What’s its story.” She was delightfully surprised to see her mother’s cheeks turning red. “Come on, Mom – out with it.”
Alberta took the stone back, shifting it back and forth in her hands, and looking up at the sky. “It was a little bay – very private, really – and we would frequently go there in the afternoon. One day we got risky and decided to go skinny dipping.” She paused, putting her hand over her mouth, when she saw her daughter’s stunned but delighted expression.”
“I know … I know,” she said. “Imagine your prim and proper mother – non déguisée – walking into the water. I was mortified and so thoroughly enticed at the same time. I stepped on a small sharp piece of limestone and fell into your father’s arms. He kissed me and I snuggled into him. We stayed that way for some time, speaking of our future and the wonderful beauty of nature. It was this stone that caused the fall. Your father kept it for the treasure it is. Although where he hid it in the water I’ll never know.”
They both burst out laughing at the thought of where he would have hidden it with his clothes still back on the beach.
They sat back up to finish their tea, the magic moment slowly coming to a regrettable end.
“Mom, this is so wonderful to hear of these stones. How could it be that Robin and I never heard of this before. I mean, it’s special.”
“Oh, it was our secret – as intimacies in marriage should be. But I come out here every day and wash them off and hold the key around my neck.”
“Okay,” Jennifer interrupted, “that’s another thing. You told me that Dad got the gold chain put around it, but why a key instead of a crucifix or a pearl?”
Her mother gently pulled the key and its chain out from under her sweater and examined it. “Well, the gold in the chain is from Greece, and it’s 100% pure. If you dig your nail into it, it will leave a mark.”
“But the key, Mom – what of it?”
“Because we were on a ship, we stored our possessions in a large blue and gold trunk and had it with us the entire time. We got so generous buying one another gifts on that trip that we had no room for our clothes at the end. Your father brought a special brass lock – a sturdy looking thing – and this was the key to it. We brought it home and a lot of the pieces in it are on the bookshelves and on my desk inside. I don’t recall what happened to the trunk, but your Dad is down there and I am here with this key.”
Jennifer grew fully perplexed. “I don’t get that, Mom. What do you mean that he is ‘down there’ exactly? In the stones, you mean?”
“No, underneath them. He told me that I had the key to his heart, and after he passed, I took that old lock and buried it in the ground, here, and then put our treasured stones over it. I know it’s silly, but it reminds me of our honeymoon and somehow keeps him near to me. The stones are wonderful, the lock is him – my dear Sandy – and I come out here and think of him every day, even in winter.”
When Jennifer told her brother the story of the stones a few hours later, they both smiled at what seemed like the simplicity, the innocence, of it. “I know … I know,” she said. “But Robin, it’s so, so… beautiful. I mean, did you ever picture them bathing in the buff?”
“O God, no,” he answered, with a broad grin. “I mean, kids don’t think of stuff like that when it comes to their parents.”
She helped put her mother to bed before heading back to her flat, but just before heading out the door, she surprised herself by visiting the stones and running her hands over them. “Good night, Dad,” she said quietly, surprised at how silly it all seemed. But for the first time in years, she felt him closer to her than she could remember, and it was all due to a loving woman who kept these mementos nearby. Jenny was suddenly overcome with the thought that this same woman was about to lose such precious moments from her memory. Grief filled her, and she pulled to the side of the road and wept.