Alberta had wanted to walk from the Principal Hotel to the base of Edinburgh Castle and then along the winding road to the top of the great cliff. It had been a mistake. The ups and downs of the trek had tired Jennifer, but had exhausted her mother. The uneven conditions of the alleys and pathways had made for precarious walking, leaving Jennifer to reach for and steady her mother on more than a few occasions.
They talked frequently along the way but concentrated mostly on putting one foot in front of the other in order to get to the base of the great castle. There were clouds coasting through the increasingly pale blue sky but mostly the sun was permitted to shine freely over the ancient city.
At last, they made it to a tea room close to the roadway entrance that climbed, sometimes dangerously, up one side of the castle and down the other. They both knew that a well-earned break was necessary, so they settled down to Earl Grey tea and a smattering of pastries and jams. Jenny pined for her usual morning coffee but entered the spirit of the moment and ordered the same flavoured tea as her mother. Having departed early in the morning, they arrived at the shop shortly after it opened. They had the place largely to themselves.
The great castle itself towered over everything around it, a dark and looming presence. Even the brilliant sun couldn’t wipe away the shadow of the cliffs or the reminder of a darker age when division, war, and conquest had placed a pall over the lives of ordinary people.
Recalling her thoughts of the previous evening regarding Alberta’s purposeful move into her past, Jennifer sought to pursue that past by asking: “Did your aunt and uncle live near the castle, or farther away?”
Drawn and slightly stooped from the lengthy walk, Alberta, nevertheless, perked up at the inquiry. “They lived on Chesser Avenue for a time, near the old Corn Exchange. The smell from all the corn filled entire neighbourhoods, but we got used to it. Then uncle Stanley got a wonderful job as a supervisor of some kind at Holyrood Palace. That came with a house on Princess Street, in the Old Town. He had been a wounded officer from the Great War and the government at the time worked hard to find suitable employment for those maimed and mangled from all that carnage. He never talked about it, but always walked with a limp, and he was friendly to everyone.”
“Princess Street – that’s Edinburgh’s main avenue, isn’t it?” asked Jenny, warming to the subject.
“One of the most beautiful thoroughfares in the world, especially at this time of year. We crossed it a couple of times this morning on the way here, but it was in the less busy, less touristy section. We’re now in the thick of the most popular location in the city.”
“Do you remember much of it?”
“All of it. I always have. Those were the days when adults thought the world might be coming to an end, as the German forces threatened to invade at any moment. They were always serious and full of a certain kind of dread. But, Jenny, they were marvellous in the way they just soldiered on, keeping life as normal as possible for the children. I think it was us that gave them hope and kept focusing them on the future. As children, far away from home, we were blithely unaware of all that – other than the distance that separated us from our families.”
The conversation went on for the better part of 90 minutes, during which time the air got warmer and the room filled with visitors. For Jennifer, it was an education. She learned things about her mother that a hectic life in Clerkenwell never allowed for. Too young to go to school, Alberta had journeyed over the fields of the Meadows and Holyrood itself. Back then, there were no security issues, only the need for children to be careful that they didn’t fall or get lost. Alberta knew all the alleys, shops, and famous landmarks. She even knew if anyone from the Royal family was in town on a brief visit to build up national morale. One moment, in particular, stood out.
“I encountered a young woman in a bakery on Royal Mile – the most famous part of Princess Street. She was with her younger sister, and they were looking for some special kind of tarts, which the shop didn’t have because of rationing. Instead, she bought some scones with raisins, and, as she was leaving, she reached into the bag and handed me one, which I downed without chewing. She smiled at me, shook my hand, and then the two of them started walking towards Holyrood, where the Royal Family always vacationed every summer. A man in uniform scolded me for the manner in which I devoured the scone and told me that I should have curtsied. ‘For what?’ I said, rather too boldly, I think. ‘Everyone is to curtsey when they speak to either Princess Elizabeth or Princess Margaret.’ That kind girl was about to become the Queen of England and I hadn’t thought anything of it.” It was an amazing moment of serendipity that Jenny was determined to pen into her journal that evening.
In truth, Alberta’s fatigue eased her passage into the past. It was a difficult thing for Jennifer to distinguish between what were the urgings of dementia and what were merely the fond memories of a remarkable older woman in her right mind. What she was hearing in this quiet interlude were things she had never heard before. They memorably filled out aspects of her mother’s life, helping to explain what had contributed to her healthy personality and broader perspective.
Alberta Alexander had spent her earliest years away from home, in terrible seasons of war. She had been gifted with a remarkable setting upon which to build her young life. How tragic it is,Jenny thought, that here I am, almost 50, and I’m only learning some treasured things about my mother in the final eclipse of her life. Why is life always like this, always playing catch-up when it’s so late in the day?
Ten minutes later, they began their slow ascent. Alberta’s years of walking prepared her, even better than her daughter, for the upward trek. They would stop every few minutes, always looking up at the massive stone structure that dwarfed everything around it.
What they were traversing was an 800 million-year-old extinct volcano, though few realized it. There had always been a royal castle on it since the 11thcentury, and it owned the distinction of being one of the most attacked castles in the world, enduring despite 26 different sieges. It was truly impressive, becoming Scotland’s number one tourist attraction.
The sun had brought out other visitors, all making the same trek and rubbing the back of their necks after craning them upwards to look at the imposing structure. Alberta and Jennifer stopped for lemonade partway up, and peered below to the ancient city and its most famous street.
“They call this cliff Castle Rock,” her mother noted. “As a wee girl, and if we were lucky enough, someone would give us long, cylindrical hard candies called Castle Rock and we devoured them. I think the whole city knew we were separated from our families and they attempted to fill that vacuum with their own brand of generosity, which was immense but humble. If you look off into the distance there, at the end of the Royal Mile, you’ll see Holyrood Castle, where Uncle Stanley worked.
Eventually, they made it to the top, but instead of touring the military buildings, Alberta asked that they just sit along the wall looking out over the massive cliffs and the entire city beyond. Jennifer purchased sandwiches and tea from a vendor and joined her mother.
They were silent for some time until Alberta reflected: “Every evening, weather permitting, we gathered down there on the sidewalk closest to the castle and watched as a lone piper walked these battlements up here, dressed in full Scottish regalia, and playing soulful tunes. We watched him walk from here to the far corner over there, and then back. And we cried – O how we wept. I think the adults broke down because of their history and their concern that there might not be a future. We younger ones cried because everyone else was, I think, but also because we missed our parents. But perhaps more than anything we collectively sighed at the sheer beauty of the tone and the notes. Something primitive was calling us back because we needed that pull as we faced our own dark hour.”
Jenny had heard of the piper, but never in such beautiful language. And then the allegory struck her. Just as that previous generation had permitted themselves to be drawn back into the deep mysteries of their past so they could endure the present and hope for the future, so too her mother had permitted the dementia to tug at her memories and emotions as a way of holding on to who she essentially was. Jennifer realized now that her mother likely had figured this out already and had let go of the mooring of her thoughts, permitting herself to be pulled along by the currents of a mystical past. And just as the piper had consoled and given meaning to the residents of the great city, so Alberta discovered deep roots of strength from somewhere her family would never comprehend.
With the sun moving farther to the east, the air took on a distinct chill, and both women agreed it was best to hail one of the cabs from a station located partway down the descending road. Alberta had a dream-like quality in her gaze as she stretched her neck around to look at the various sights drifting past her. Jennifer considered asking questions but thought better of it once she realized what an eventful day they had shared.
Once back at the Principal, Alberta announced she would forego dinner and, instead, go straight to bed, even though the clock only showed 7:20. As she started to undress, Alberta suddenly reversed her routine and proceeded to put the clothes back on, including her sweater. Her daughter watched it all transpire, willing her mother to catch the error and get ready for bed. After a few minutes, it was clear that intervention was needed and she rose to help her mother reverse the process. With her jaw firmly clenched, Alberta, at first, merely stood ramrod straight, complicating the process for Jenny. Then she crossed her arms, making the removal of the wool sweater impossible.
“Mom, come, it’s time for bed. Let me help you.”
Alberta said nothing, not even indicating she had heard anything. When Jenny tried again, she got the same response, only this time her mother looked prepared to start pushing back. Jenny could see the confused expression on her face, and felt a surge of compassion. This was the way it was going to be in the future, she realized, and instead of provoking a reaction, she lay on the far side of her mother’s bed and merely smiled at her.
Things remained this way for some time, the perplexity on Alberta’s features slowly fading. At last, she smiled back at the prone form on the bed and simply laid down beside her daughter. Jenny kissed her on the cheek. “Good night, Mom. I love you – very much.”
“And I love you more than I can possibly say, which is quite something coming from a journalist,” Alberta answered. Her voice was assured, calm, and emotional. She’s back,Jennifer thought – the spell has passed. It was likely that her mother had no idea what had happened, but it was enough that they were reunited once more in the same time and with welcome clarity regarding their relationship. They embraced until Alberta nodded off.
Two hours later, Jennifer rose and pulled her journal from her bag. With a steady hand, she began putting down on the lined pages the rather stunning things she had discovered about her mother in the last few hours – Princess Elizabeth, Holyrood, the piper on the wall, and the Caste Rock candies. These would be treasures in later years. She found herself wishing she had children to pass them on to, but a failed early marriage had removed that from the possibilities of her life. There was Trevor, from work. She had been seeing him for six months, but who knew where that would lead. Regardless, all her energies right now needed to be placed on the sleeping form in front of her, and if that meant the romantic relationship with Trevor died from lack of attention, then there was no other choice.
But now, as she looked at Alberta, she was beginning to realize that a romance of another kind was emerging – the knowledge that the woman before her was not only amazing, but a person of great heritage with a rich past. Jennifer was all in now, determined to see this to the end. She had expected it to be brutal, as it is for every caregiver, but something about the depth and determination of her mother was pulling her into a broader and more meaningful kind of existence. With a smile on her face, she understood that she was falling in love with Alberta Alexander all over again.