The morning began with a light rain that gave way to sparsely clouded skies before the lunch hour. Alberta slept in and, upon rising, commented, “O dear, what did I miss?” She was looking at the wrinkled clothes she had slept in for over 12 hours. She had no idea how it happened.
“You were exhausted following that walk, Mom. You didn’t even want dinner, only to sleep. Remember any of it?”
Her daughter’s question received only a confused stare in response. She watched as her mother thought hard, working her way back through the hours to that moment Jenny was referring to, but it was gone – likely permanently.
“I’m sorry if I caused you any difficulty … or embarrassment, Jen. O my, I feel like I should be a little embarrassed myself.” She looked in the mirror at her image and added, “I suppose this is something I have to get used to – we have to get used to.”
Jennifer came up behind her mother, placing her hands on her still strong shoulders. “No matter, Mrs. Alexander. What is before us is what matters and that would be Holyrood Castle. If you’re ready, that is?” They looked in the mirror and burst out laughing. Alberta looked as though she had been stuffed into a suitcase overnight, her clothing in various states of disarray and her hair beyond any semblance of style.
An hour later, they entered through the doors of Holyrood Palace – one of the summer escapes for the royal family. Situated at the lower end of the Royal Mile, it was built in the 16th century, constructed more for grandeur than protection. Unlike the other great elevated castle down the Royal Mile, its lower symmetrical profile suited the beautiful gardens and trees around the estate. It was ultimately to these grounds that Alberta was drawn when they first arrived in the mid-morning.
They weren’t so much expansive as they were the perfect setting for the castle itself. Though Alberta hadn’t walked the grounds in nearly eight decades, she moved through them with a practiced precision as opposed to merely wandering. She told Jennifer of how the gardens were the setting for tournaments, hunting, hawking, and archery. There was even a tennis court and a menagerie with a range of animals, including lions, tigers and bears.
“My aunt told me of how these grounds where we stand offered the right of sanctuary for those who could not pay their debts. They found shelter here and were able to avoid prison. At one point, there were over 6,000 debtors camped here, including some of the aristocracy who had fallen on hard times.”
Especially enchanting to Jennifer was her mother’s tale of how her aunt and uncle had brought her here for Queen Mary’s annual tea and garden party. “Apparently, I shook the Queen’s hand, but I’ve never had a recollection of it. But I did see Princess Elizabeth playing in the distance, though I never got to speak to her.”
Her mother’s eyes gazed skyward, and she appeared as lost in a dream. “It was on that day that a mixed squadron of Spitfires and Hurricanes flew over in salute of the royal presence. It must have been 1940 and the war was at its bleakest. I looked at my uncle, and then at all the people around, and they were all weeping. It was our darkest hour, and even as a young girl I knew the times were precarious.”
And then, suddenly, Alberta was off in the direction of a group of trees on the perimeter. Jennifer dutifully followed, at a loss as to what was happening. Alberta entered the overgrowth, clearly looking for something.
“Ah, yes, it was right here,” she said in exultation.
“What? What do you mean?” her daughter asked.
“Oh, I don’t know if I should say. It was highly provocative, even for an eight-year-old.” She started to leave until she saw the bewildered face of her daughter. “Okay, but it’s a secret, Jenny – not to be put in that journal of yours. Promise?”
Her daughter, drawn in to the magical world of children, nodded affirmatively and waited expectantly for whatever came next.
Suddenly, eyes filled with wonder, Alberta said, “This was the place of my first kiss – right here, under this tree. Tommy St. John was from Leeds, sent up, like me, to escape the war. He was two years older. O, my, it was wonderful.”
“He kissed you and you were only eight!” Jennifer exclaimed. It wasn’t a question.
“No, honey, not at all. I kissed him.”
In a moment of what could only be poignant ecstasy, the younger woman’s eyes were alight as if she had witnessed fairies darting through the trees. She now understood that her mother had been a flirt, a tease, and that realization filled her with respect and delight. Even she hadn’t done any such thing at that age, despite having grown up in a more permissive time.
She glanced up at her mother and saw a look that was more high-spirited than anything else. This is her, my mother, as she truly was, she thought to herself. No wonder Dad fell for her so hard.
Alberta was patting the bark of one of the trees with the palm of her hand. “It was right here that Tommy suggested we carve our initials, but I wouldn’t permit it. ‘This is the King’s land I said. You don’t do such things here.’”
And yet kissing was okay? Jennifer delighted herself in thinking. Here was another one of those great contradictions of her mother – a firebrand and a traditionalist at the same time. Jennifer was just too surprised to utter a word.
Later, they enjoyed salmon sandwiches and tea at the Café at the Palace, a quaint eatery on the grounds. Alberta continued, for over an hour, with her narrative of those earlier enchanted years. They were stories Jennifer had never known. It’s funny, she thought, how you think your parents’ lives only began when you were born. It was a kind of selfishness that could only be excused because of youth.
It was during this conversation that Jennifer learned that Alberta’s parents – her grandparents – had once come to Edinburgh to visit their daughter. Her father had been one of the key operators of an airbase in southern England, while her mother had worked at a munitions factory and also assisted in getting people to the bomb shelters whenever the German Heinkel bombers appeared overhead.
“I think it took them only a moment to realize that I had settled in well up here. They seemed relieved. On the second evening, just prior to their leaving, my father took me for a walk through these very grounds, He was testing me, I think, to see if I was truly okay. I told him of my adventures, though certainly not of Tommy St. John,” she said, with a mischievous grin. “He left satisfied that I had adapted, but he was wrong – so wrong.”
“Whatever do you mean?” asked Jennifer.
“I knew how difficult it must have been for both of them, so I lied, I prevaricated, I turned my face – anything to keep him from seeing that I missed them terribly. The moment I saw them again I became terribly homesick and life in Edinburgh was never the same after that. They were such wonderful people, but they were living in a world where the curtain could come down at any time. I knew then that I should have been with them, as a family, whatever the outcome. I had a role to play, too, regarding the defense of this wonderful country, and it was to be with my mother and father, giving them the joy that only I could offer as their only child, and helping in any way I could.
“I think that’s when I really grew up. It was the bigger world that was calling me – the one in the clutches of life and death. Who was I to play among these wonderful trees when not that many miles to the south, people, like my mother and father, were living, loving, fighting and praying as though the next day might be their last. Those were the kind of people I wanted to be with. And, from that point on, I wrote them every day, begging to be brought back to London. I was so relentless that they eventually gave in, and two months later at the end of the great Battle of Britain, I was placed on a train heading south.”
“And how was it?” Jenny asked.
“It was awful … and, O, so wonderful. We were bombed every night for months and months. People we knew were lost in the rubble, and, at times, we lived more in air raid shelters than we did at home. But we were together, and I was so emotionally ready to take my place in the adult world, along with those responsibilities that come with it.”
“But, Mom, you were only what … 10?”
“Nine, actually. But honestly, Jen, I had become an adult because a darkening world demanded it. And, in the end, I believe my parents were happier because of my presence.”
Alberta looked around at the ancient building they were nestled in. “This wonderful city, these two great palaces, formed my last innocent moments before a troubled world called for my participation. I had suddenly grown old enough, through my parents’ visit, to understand the concept of duty; I cherished it and I embraced it.”
This was truly precious to Jennifer. She knew nothing like this when she was the same age, but somehow a greater cause had turned her mother into a greater person, even as a child. It was remarkable. And that sense of duty, so much a part of Alberta’s generation, became an essential element of her life as she later married Sandy, had children, and led a successful career. She had never permitted herself to be defined by those things, however. Her mind and soul were too big to be held by anything other than a bigger life.
Later, they dined in the hotel’s famous restaurant. Alberta continued on with her revelations, pausing only to eat. Her mother spoke far more than normal, and Jennifer understood that it was, at least partially, the dementia that was causing the proliferation of accounts of Alberta’s young life.
Jennifer had ordered the lamb, while her mother heartily ate a Scottish meat pie. They were sharing a bowl of traditional bread pudding for dessert when Jenny noticed something quite odd. Her mother just sat erect, her hand having placed the spoon down on the table. All conversation had ceased.
“Mom, you okay? Mom?”
It was then that the older woman shed silent tears, refusing to wipe them away with her hand or the napkin. Jennifer rose and came to her. It took only a second for her to understand what had happened – the smell of urine was unmistakable. Alberta had been wearing one of her favourite fashionable dresses – a coral-coloured garment with patterning. It effectively masked any stain that might have been obvious otherwise.
Jenny went to the waitress and explained the situation. The young woman, red-haired and deeply freckled, told Jenny to leave everything with her. Then, as unobtrusively as possible, the two women proceeded to the elevator and directly to their room.
Thirty minutes later, Alberta was in her bed, properly cleaned and outfitted in her dressing gown. Her eyes wide open, they nevertheless conveyed a saddening portrait of personal shame and embarrassment. Jennifer had tried all she could to improve the mood, but to no avail.
A short while later, there was a knock on the heavy wooden door. When Jennifer quietly answered it, she saw that it was the red-haired girl from the restaurant. “This is silly, I know, but my Mom endures a similar condition. I just thought this might help.” She handed Jennifer a plastic hot water bottle, the kind Alberta would have known so well from youth. Jen moved forward and kissed the girl lightly on the cheek.
“I don’t know what to say but thank you. That is one of the most thoughtful things I have ever seen.” The girl merely bowed slightly, and was gone.
When the bottle was handed to Alberta, she appeared not to notice, so Jennifer left it on the bed beside her. Five minutes later, the older woman reached out and brought the plastic container to her abdomen and wrapped herself around it in the fetal position. Eventually the soft sounds of singing came from Alberta. They were war tunes, Jenny knew. Her mother was as a child. The hot water bottle had done the trick.
Jennifer brought out her journal to write, but the sounds of her mother’s melodious voice were somewhat soothing to her as well. She closed the book, changed into her nightclothes, and crawled in beside Alberta, spooning her and caressing her hair. It was time to go home, she knew – to cut the trip short by two days. Jenny understood that something had altered, and that her mother was entering a new phase of her disease. Alberta knew it too, and part of the shame she was experiencing was the knowledge that she hadn’t been able to prevent this moment, for all her efforts.
Yet, as she hugged the warm bottle and felt someone’s fingers run through her hair, Alberta sang The White Cliffs of Dover in memory of her mother and father. And as she did so, Jennifer wept and sang along in memory of her very special mother.