“A grandmother is like an angel, who takes you under her wing, she watches over you and she’d give you anything.” ~ Anonymous
“Tell me the story; I can see from your eyes, you have a story to tell. Did someone break your heart?” “Yes,” I replied. “Did you break another’s heart?” Lily asked. “Perhaps,” was my reply.
It was Tuesday, the beginning of five days together. Enough time to talk and wonder, squeezing moments from time, stretching the days into nightfall. We are good at this game, Grace mused. For Lily and I never seem to have enough time together. We seize upon the moments we have. Grace knew that soon Lily would fall captive to the lulling music of time’s tempo, believing the moments plentiful, lasting. Soon, their moments together would be fewer and farther between as life interrupted and others vied for Lily’s precious time.
Grace wondered, what is it about time’s force? In youth, we embrace summers that seem to last forever until we spin and turn to face the winter of an older, unrecognizable self. When did time pass me by? Our allotted time, almost spent, the clock winding down, until we realize what a fleeting commodity time is, how we’ve misused it, wasted precious moments, falsely believing, we had time banked, a foolish notion of forever. Perhaps, that is what I was guilty of, making you wait, believing that I had enough time in a world where I wished time to stand still. You? You were guilty as well. You threw us in the ditch. Who does that to one’s children?
Lily passed the turnip to Grace for chopping. They were making soup, something warm to thwart the penetrating chill in the winter air. God knows, the child hardly knows what a turnip is, Grace thought. Let alone a frost.
Lily, my beautiful child. When Grace first laid eyes on the child, momentarily she beheld the face of one so familiar, her grandmother, Alice or English Alice, the name Grace’s mother used when speaking of Alice. For the child, named Lily, held the essence of Alice, beauty captured in appearance and passion for all things found in nature. For flowers, insects, and strays surrounded and found Lily, wherever she ventured. Similarly, Alice, enchanted by beauty and at one time vulnerability, until she turned her back on every living thing that evoked those qualities from her being. Viewing the likeness of Alice in her granddaughter’s face was a pivotal moment for Grace and she resolved that this child would never muse over the puzzle of abandonment, the missing pieces, or a missing grandmother.
The pot simmered upon the stove top and Grace’s thoughts wandered back to a time many years ago, a time filled with whispers of hope and promise, when time possessed a particular suspended quality, as if frozen and still. The story of her birth.
Once upon a time, or so the story is told, in a town in winter, Grace Elizabeth Smeaton, arrived on earth. It was a bitterly cold morning. Feathers of frost clung to the windowpane, offering an opaque and shimmering view of the world outside the glass. The world beyond the stark walls of the hospital room appeared enchanted, Father Frost had returned to the land, waving a wand true to winter style. The scene, dressed in white and glittering with ice, offered up quiet elegance to the morning light. This gift was a suitable ornament for a wee bit, a winter sprite-like creature’s birth. Grace, so named after her mother’s aunt, and Elizabeth, after one of her mother’s given names. The hospital that housed the child’s mother was also known as, Grace Hospital, the simple setting, fitting, as patience and mercy abounded within the walls and within the nature of this fresh child.
Grace, a name fit for a child who would pass through life in a polite and willing way. A tiny, swaddled babe, whose rosebud lips, suckled the air. “A Gerber babe with the full face of a cherub,” crooned Gracie, the namesake aunt that dropped by to view the new-ness. Grace’s paternal grandmother, English Alice, would reluctantly appear to stand crib side; “If you had, had a boy, I wouldn’t have come,” were the malevolent words uttered from the pursed lips. Shocked, Grace’s mother thought, the witch. For who does not celebrate the birth of one so freshly pressed, so innocent to the stories?
Alice, perfectly coiffed, her bouncy, marcel waves set, a blue wool coat buttoned tight and leather gloved hands to protect her from life’s touch, leaned over the crib, blowing a cold wind that would seem to follow Grace throughout life. Apparently, English Alice, had standards, and the baby girl was scrutinized under her piercing visual inspection. Even Alice had to admit that there was something superior about the child created from inferior beginnings. Clearly, Alice was relieved to view a baby girl in the crib, as the thought of a little boy was too much to shoulder. Alice had known the heartache brought on by troublesome, little boys that grow up and rarely return. For now, Grace had passed the test. For you see, English Alice had a heart and she held to hope, a hope for love.
Home was a simple, yet elegant Craftsman style house in the heart of the town, owned by Grace’s maternal grandfather, James. A tyrant within the walls of his home, James’s rages were merciless when directed toward his daughter, Grace’s mother, Marge. Grandfather James had agreed to allow the new babe to stay in the room off of the kitchen, the one with the view of the cherry tree. As well, he needed a housekeeper, his only daughter, Marge, could earn her keep by performing household duties. For Grandfather James, also held on to hope, hope for Marge’s forgiveness and love.
Grace’s parents, Marge and Roy Smeaton, were young, bruised souls clinging to hope and promise. Theirs was the hope of improved worth in life and the promise of a brighter future. Love wouldn’t be their strong suit for both parents had scars on their hearts, left by the sins of their parents. However, the couple wished for love, to believe in it, to awaken its tender affection for another. Grace Elizabeth was their beloved, a small gift from the universe to humankind, their hope for love.
The room with a view of the back property would prove the finest choice of room, as a large, magnificent cherry tree grew just outside the window. Grace would spend hours observing the solid shape centered in the yard, its strong, constant presence a comfort to the child. Days passed in wonderment as the cherry tree changed with each season and with each change, its boughs brought new gifts to place within Grace’s expanding world. One season, when Grace turned seven, the tree offered up a robin’s nest, the small bent twigs intertwined. Woven among the twigs, was a shiny piece of tinsel, a glittery thread blown free of the family’s Christmas tree, a forgotten gift of love.
Upon awakening, the tree would be the first image Grace viewed, the twisted boughs reaching out as if to hug her at dawn. “Come play.” In the darkness of night, the tree boughs swayed and tapped lightly upon the glass of the window, whispering, “we shall cradle you to sleep”; and in moments of sadness, as Grace pressed up to the bark, the tree would shelter the despondent child.
It was a beautiful setting, the home tucked, snug and safe, under a blanket of warmth, knit by threads of hope, promise, and love. Grandfather James’s temper and outbursts mellowed to a quiet grumble, even English Alice began to smile. Time slowly moved forward, the seasons continued to bring change and Grace’s pleasing qualities polished the family’s predictable world.
Just as every fairy tale has good and evil, every life will have a piece of each, some lives more of one trait or the other. A sinister, cold wind had followed Grace and the child would need to learn how to survive the brewing storms ahead. The solid cherry tree would stand stoic and strong, reminding Grace that change is inevitable and storms weathered, if you choose to face them.
“I don’t understand,” Lily spoke. “Why would English Alice speak such words to your mother?” To understand my grandmother’s simmering anger, I shall need to continue the story.
My grandmother, Alice was an unusual woman, set apart from others, behind the reserved façade, were secrets kept close to the heart. We didn’t speak much about family. It just wasn’t done, wasn’t considered polite for the time. However, I sensed that one did not ask, wishing now that I had asked Alice to share about herself. I wonder: was she happy once upon a time?
A picture tucked behind glass, inside a pocket watch portrays a young Alice, a tender smile, head turned toward a man, Charles, my grandfather. The tilt of her head, the turn of the eyes shows clearly that in that shuttered moment, she was in love. Did Alice lose love? A collected book of poetry, later discovered, suggests profound sadness clung to Alice’s soul.
Certainly, never a public woman, Alice remained secluded, tucked away from most everyone. Excepting the sisters. The sisters formed a coven that encircled her. I recall the relative’s puzzled expressions, their lowered voices as they chatted about Alice.
“Charles just showed up with her one day,” an auntie mused.
“Who doesn’t visit their family?” said another.
The relatives had a point.
I recall a well-meaning relative, her face aghast when I mentioned that I hadn’t seen my grandmother in
“Get in the car! We’re going for a drive,” were the confident words.
The woman’s blonde hair bobbed about as she opened the door to the back seat.
“Hop in, honey!”
We drove until my grandmother’s house came into view. When the car pulled to the curb, I sat patient and still in the back seat. The plastic covers were warm and I felt my legs sticking to the seat. The relative knocked on the door. Minutes passed. She continued to knock. No one came to open the door.
“I think she’s in there,” the relative snapped as she started the engine.
Yes, Alice was home. From my vantage point I could see a shadowy figure standing behind a sheer curtained window, My grandmother. Peeking out from the attic room. The curtained fabric moved just enough for our eyes to briefly meet.
We were kept apart for several more years. That is, until one afternoon in early winter. It had been ten years since I had last seen my grandmother, Alice. I was seventeen, independent, and newly licensed to drive. Passing through a local shopping mall, my eye caught a glimpse of a woman. A woman whose face I immediately recognized. My heart skipped a beat. It was my grandmother, Alice, her marceled waves intact, every hair in place.
This chance meeting would be the beginning of our renewed relationship. Was the meeting really a chance encounter or did the universe have a predetermined plan for us? Perhaps, you would say, an act of hope occurred. A chance for renewed hope presented itself on this afternoon or was it merely a coincidence that we crossed paths? Perhaps there is a plan for us sent forth from the heart of the universe upon our birth, a blue print with a map to follow.
Alice was born in early autumn . The pleasant English countryside was awash in colours of orange and bright green, the trees and their turning leaves, resplendent in the sunlight. Baptized, Alice Sophia, October 3, 1894, the wee, pretty daughter of Joseph Weston, a local cabinetmaker and Emma, registered on the birth document as, “housewife.” Emma was Joseph’s second wife, Alice her only child. Alice was the youngest of five Weston girls, beginning with the eldest, the beautiful Priscilla, then, Miss Mary or Molly, to her sisters. There was Jane, also know as Jenny or Geordie, Ellen, and the maverick, Lizbeth, who would marry four times. The family lived in a comfortable, terraced home at 33 Bond Court, Newcastle on Tyne, England.
Newcastle on Tyne is a metropolitan borough in Tyne and Wear, in North East England. In Alice’s time, it was a bustling borough. Trade centered around wool, coal mining, lumber and ship building. The town of Newcastle on Tyne owed its name to a castle built-in 1080 and the borough’s location to the fast flowing Tyne River. The proud residents felt it to be the best looking city due to its neoclassical style of architecture or Tyneside Classical as it was often referred to. It was a style derived from classical Greek and Roman architecture. Of all the boroughs in England, Newcastle on Tyne was a lovely, picturesque and royal borough for the Weston sisters to live within.
Joseph had wished for a son, however his wish was not to be. He had hoped for an heir to teach the fine art of wood craftsmanship necessary to acquire exquisite pieces of furniture. Instead, fate provided him with five daughters to support. Joseph’s carpentry skills were highly regarded in the town and people of means, sought his time and exquisite furnishings. Wood working was a lucrative craft that allowed Joseph to provide a satisfactory standard of living for his tender wife and sweet daughters. Still, overworked and exhausted, the volume of work left little time in a day to spend with his family. That was unfortunate, as fate would have it that Joseph would have precious little time to spend with his youngest daughter, Alice.
Emma, an amiable, pretty woman, with a gentle sweet nature, enjoyed her chatty, curious daughters and taught them well. Daily lessons involved rituals of etiquette, hand sewing, Bible studies, singing, elocution, and handwriting. Wee Alice was a stellar student and at the age of six, patiently learned to read and write at her eldest sister Pricilla’s side. In her heart, Emma worried, as there was something peculiar about the serious, Alice. The child appeared withdrawn, was uncomfortable outside the gardens of their home, and avoided the gazes of friendly neighbors, at times, refusing to speak. Alice was too day dreamy, too lost in herself, thought Emma. Perhaps, it is due to the fact that she is the youngest, Emma mused.
The truth was that Alice was a sensitive soul, often lost within herself and uncomfortable in social situations. The young child found herself gazing through the windows to view the world beyond, imagining the castle in the borough, climbing the stone steps from the riverside to the castle door. Alice wanted to visit it one day, live in it. For Alice felt herself royal or better than the common standing of her present situation. Alice had dreams and she wondered what it might be like to fulfill them.
Afternoons were spent walking along Benwell Lane to the gardens of Adelaide Terrace. “Come along, Wee Alice! Keep up.” The gardens were a delight to the senses and in the spring and summer; the sisters played amongst the flowers, and sought shelter under the magnificent maple trees. There, in the gardens of Adelaide Terrace, Alice and her sisters would explore the park grounds and study the language of flowers, a pastime that Alice eagerly looked forward to each day. “Tell me again, Mama. What is the language of roses?” “Love, Wee Alice, love.” “Roses speak the language of love!” Alice would always choose the prettiest, the reddest of scarlet rose to pick for her mother. When sad, little Alice would gather up branches of dead leaves and hand them to her mother. Always protective, Emma would encircle the child in her arms and hold her close to comfort. It was a comfort, as Alice, possessed an anxious disposition, was easily frightened and worried while outside, beyond the safety of the walls of home and often feigned illness and displayed a morose nature when life did not go as planned. Used to the company and protective nature of her older half sisters, the dependent and dreamy Alice would not venture forth without the security of the sisters by her side. Alice came to rely on this sisterhood of support.
Theirs was a contented life and Emma felt fortunate to have food stores in the pantry and an allowance to run the household in a satisfactory fashion. Little did Emma know that a bitter wind was blowing and a chill would descend upon the household at 32 Bond Court. That is, until December 1,1903, when frost sealed the date of her beloved Joseph’s death. At that moment, life changed for the sisters and their despondent mother. Little Alice was frightened and fretted over her distraught mother. Alice learned that the heart is a fragile beating organ and a piece of her heart stopped beating for a brief second, enough to form the beginnings of a scar that would thicken over time. For now, Alice knew the dark depths of heartbreak.
The sister’s education plans were put on hold as Emma sought employment to ensure that the necessities such as food, and a roof, remained over the family’s heads. It was not an easy life and expectations would be lowered. No longer could the sisters wander the lane, frivolously explore the language of flowers, or entertain any thought of finishing school. Priscilla was placed in charge of the younger sisters’ daily care. Fortunately, a lonely widower, Mr. Alistair Edwards, of 5 Adelaide Lane, was in need of a housekeeper. Ever resourceful, Emma would struggle to make ends meet on a meager salary, working as a domestic servant for Mr. Edwards and his son, William.
Once again, the chilling winds of winter would return, this time for Emma, and paid servitude would be short-lived. In 1909, six years after the death of her beloved husband, sweet Emma Weston, passed over, leaving her grieving daughters to fend entirely for themselves. Wee Alice had dealt with earlier heartache upon her father’s death, however the death of her mother, changed Alice’s heart. A bigger piece of it hardened to the whisperings of life. Alice began to realize that one must be careful with one’s heart, protect it, learn to switch it off so as not to feel too deeply for another. On. Off. Done. Still, humans aren’t as simple as light switches and the emotional part of Alice’s soul continued to feel the loss of love. The scar thickened.
By 1911, out of necessity, the Weston sisters were all employed throughout the borough of Newcastle. Mary worked as a waitress, Priscilla and Elizabeth, as domestic servants, Ellen, a box maker for the Bullman Paper Factory, Jenny and Alice, as box packers for the same factory. Jenny and Alice had the job of packing postcards for sale into the cardboard boxes. Alice, now fifteen, studied the whimsical drawings on the postcards and smiled as she read the quips and quotes beneath. Occasionally, tuck a postcard into her dress pocket. Once home, Alice would pin the postcard to the wall. Gazing at the cards, Alice would wonder and dream, traveling to the sights depicted. Some moments she would fall asleep imagining the heartfelt words of a suitor, carefully scripted onto the reverse of the postcard. Every morning, on the walk to the factory, Alice would gaze into the millinery shop window admiring the trimmings on display. Where would she go to, what would she do, wearing a hat so fine?
Alice knew that she wanted more than the monotony of packing boxes of Bullman postcards, in fact she felt entitled to more. These seeds of change crept into Alice’s mind and lodged there, where they slowly took root, forcing Alice to look for and plan an escape to a place where possibilities and dreams could come true.
Every Sunday, Alice and her sisters would walk along the shaded Benwell Lane until it became Adelaide Terrace, headed to Saint John’s Cemetery. Evergreen trees lined the cobblestone path and the cottage gardens brightly bloomed. Lily of the Valley and Lupines were glorious in the awakening spring and in the quiet of winter, the red holly berries were resplendent against the dark green variegated leaves. Once the sisters rounded the Terrace bend, the parsonage would come into view.
It was here that the sisters would pass through the wrought iron gate at the entrance and follow the winding path to their parent’s grave. It was located at the end of a tree-lined lane, where, to the right of a small pond, a humble row of wooden crosses stood tall against the weathering changes of time. Joseph and Emma were buried side by side. Two wooden crosses stood side by side and a small bouquet of red roses lay beneath.
The sisters would gather round the cross forming a united circle of hands. Priscilla, always fashionable in a hat adorned with silk flowers, would lead the sisters in prayer, her whispered breath, “Our Father who art in Heaven.” The words of the familiar prayer gripping Alice, “lead us not into temptation,” for Alice held a secret.
Alice was led into temptation, forming a plan to leave her sisters far behind in the borough of Newcastle on Tyne. Alice knew that Priscilla would sob and hysterics would ensue. The amassing postcards would be her link to the sisters, after all, she could write them letters. Shy and fearful, wee Alice, had decided that she had grown up and would bravely leave Bond Street, having had nearly enough of the box packing industry. The problem was when and how. Sensing change, Alice braced herself for the possibilities that it would bring.
The five Weston sisters continued to work and share their pay, managing to keep their beloved home at 33 Bond Court. It is inevitable that time brings change and once again, it brought changes to 33 Bond Court.
Elizabeth was the first sister to separate from the sisterhood, having found a suitor and married, leaving the number of Weston girls in the home to four. Priscilla, who continued to work as a domestic servant for Mr. Alistair Edward, fell in love with William, his son. It was decided that they would marry. Change would bring the number of sisters within the 33 Bond Court house to four. Molly, Jenny, Ellen and Alice continued to manage the house, however, it was becoming difficult to make ends meet within the middle class standards of the community.
To be continued~