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The Gift in the Box Filled With Loss

 


The Gift in the Box Filled With Loss

 

Going through their mother’s belongings felt like an act of bravery. Her wardrobe smelled of honeysuckle soap, and the discreet fragrance seeped into the holes in their hearts, into every tear and laceration mercilessly made by death when it suddenly burst through the doors of their happy life to claim their mother.  

Agnes was only sixty years old when she crumpled on the kitchen floor, pulling with her a big red crystal bowl brimming with punch she had just made for her younger daughter’s birthday party. The death certificate stated it was a heart attack that cut her life short, and plunged the whole family into an abyss of suffocating grief and disbelief.

Six months had passed before Ann and Beth mustered the courage to open their mother’s wardrobe and decide which items to keep and which to donate to charity. Their father did not want to stay home that Saturday and face anew the achingly fresh and unbearable emptiness his wife had left behind. He could not stand looking at the clothes she would never wear again, pearl necklaces that no longer would adorn her slender neck, and shawls the embrace of which her shoulders would not know. His daughters understood his pain and inability to touch his late wife’s possessions. He just said, “Do as you see fit.”

Gingerly, they caressed their mother’s silk blouses, tweed skirts and jackets, black pants and little black dresses, evening and nightgowns, costume and real jewelry, not being able to decide what to donate and what to keep. They sobbed and wept, and then laughed as joyous memories fell out of the boxes filled with photographs, old and faded postcards, and charcoal sketches of nature and animals their mother drew as a hobby.

Rummaging on the top shelf of the wardrobe, Ann, the younger sister exclaimed, “I’ve just touched something metal, but I can’t reach it.”

“Let me try,” said Beth, a tall and willowy red-haired beauty.

Ann got off a two-step ladder letting Beth climb it and extend her arm across the shelf.

“Is this it?” asked Beth bringing down a yellow tin box with an etching of a blue butterfly on it.

They placed the box on the floor and opened it. A small leather-bound book was in it. The first page had their mother’s initials and a crumbling pressed flower that could have been a daffodil once upon a time.

 Flipping through the pages, it became clear to them they were looking at their mother’s diary, written in neat black cursive. They forgot about the clothes and began to read losing all track of time. Each word led them to a secret world, uncovering facets of their mother’s life they had not known, and transporting them to the time their mother lived in Scotland.

In their mind’s eye, they could see the verdant rolling hills with grazing sheep, the haunted castles redolent of mysteries, they could feel the insouciance of a young girl in love with nature, a girl with her head swirling with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer one day, and moving to London. With their spiritual eye, they followed their mother to her first dance and smiled reading about her first kiss and her swooning in love with a young man, who had come from England to visit his uncle.

Beth stopped reading when she felt her legs go numb from sitting on the floor. She stood up and lay on her parents’ bed, and Ann joined her prodding her to continue reading. “I wonder why mom never told us much about her life in Scotland. And she only went back once to bury her parents,” mused Ann.

“I remember her saying she felt no attachment to her home country, and she had no one left there after our grandparents were killed in that horrific car accident. How sad we never had a chance to meet them,” said Beth wistfully.

 Beth continued to read aloud until she stopped with a gasp.

“Mom got pregnant!”

“What?” asked Ann startled.

The next few entries described their mother’s horror at discovering she was carrying a baby at the age of seventeen. The young man she had fallen in love with left her town a few days after he had seduced her. She did not know how to find him because he left without even saying goodbye. She felt too ashamed to ask his uncle to give her his address, because even if he did, what would she do with it? Go to London, knock on his door and tell him she was with a baby? And it has already been four months since he left. Perhaps, he no longer even remembered her.

She confided her secret in her mother expecting she would be disowned, banished, beaten, but her gentle mother, who had always looked frail and irresolute, suddenly turned into a problem-solver asking her daughter to swear to secrecy, and never ever mention to anyone what happened. Agnes nodded in silent acquiescence and shame.

Beth stopped reading and stared at Ann in speechless shock. Ann shook Beth’s shoulders and tried to pry the diary from her hands because she could not wait to hear what happened next, but Beth held on to the book firmly, and just whispered, “Wait…I just need a glass of water and a few minutes to process this.”

Beth went to the kitchen carrying the diary with her. Ann followed her, and after drinking some water, they both sat at the kitchen table where Beth continued reading the entries aloud.

Their grandmother had a perfect solution. As she had already promised her daughter she would enroll her in a ballet school in London, she talked to Agnes’ father convincing him to let her use Agnes’ inheritance from her grandparents and send her to London to pursue her ballet dancing dreams. Even though Agnes’ father, who was a doctor, was against any artistic pursuits outside of mere hobbies, he agreed, hoping Agnes would soon grow out of that childlike dream, and enroll in medical school following in his footsteps.

Agnes’ mother found her accommodations with a distant, widowed cousin who was happy to take a troubled girl in, and the situation also helped alleviate her own loneliness with some company. A private tutor was hired to school Agnes so she would not fall behind in her studies. Agnes was instructed to wear wide-fitting clothing so the tutor would not notice her pregnancy.

Her life began to resemble a surreal story through which she walked like an unwilling character. She went through the motions of daily routine, confused and lost. She felt she was living out a pre-ordained fate, and she resigned to it in powerless surrender. She knew her mother had already found a childless couple who agreed to adopt her baby in secrecy, and not even divulge to anyone that the child was not their own. Her mother told her how desperate for a baby the couple was, especially the woman, who began to wear padding under her clothes and announced to her family and friends she was pregnant.

Agnes had difficulty learning her lessons or concentrating on anything. She felt nauseated most of the time, and achingly nostalgic for her hometown and friends. Every letter from her friends and father gave her fast fleeting joy and she craved more of them. She also felt burning compunction for lying to her father about her ballet lessons, and the progress she had made. One lie tended to turn into an avalanche of falsehoods, she realized with remorse and sadness.

As her belly grew, she stayed more and more confined to the house and her only outings consisted of sitting in the garden and reading. She still daydreamed about becoming a ballet dancer and her mother promised to enroll her in ballet school as soon as she has recovered from birthing the baby. It was to be a gift for her silence about the birth. Her mother explained it was of utmost importance not to bring shame to the family, and especially to her father’s booming medical practice.

Her mother spent hours preparing her for the birth and coaching her, especially on how to be completely silent and withstand excruciating pain, for no one must hear her screams. The couple who would adopt the baby had hired a well-known midwife from Ireland and paid her handsomely for her travel, services, and silence. They did not dare hire anyone from London lest their secret be revealed. They paid visits to Agnes bringing her gifts of sweets, books, dainty jewelry, and even pretty dresses. The gifts elicited wan smiles from Agnes, who still felt as if her life were a bad dream from which she would wake up any minute.

The day came when she went into labour. Her mother had arrived two days before and prepared a room in the basement for her. Even if she screamed in pain, the thick walls would muffle the sounds of her agony.

The midwife was highly skillful and her nature exuded confidence. Her instructions were calm and clear and Agnes followed them panting and pushing, pushing and panting, and praying for the pain and torture to end. She whimpered, but never screamed, firm in her resolve to stay brave. She lost all track of time and felt exhaustion overcome her. She pushed once more certain she could never find another ounce of strength to expel the baby from her body, when she heard a cry. She propped herself in bed trying to see the baby but the midwife had already taken it out of the room.

“Where is the baby? Is it a boy or a girl?” croaked Agnes with a voice raspy from exertion.

“It’s a girl,” her mother replied. “Relax now. The baby will be well-taken care of. You can begin a new life now.”

But the new life began with depression. Agnes’ body healed but her soul sank into darkness. She felt as if a physical part of her had been severed off violently as if one of her limbs had been amputated. When her mother came again to visit her, she was alarmed by Agnes’ listlessness and pallor.

She packed her belongings and took her back home in hope that fresh springtime air and the familiar surroundings would coax Agnes’ spirit out of its penumbral hiding, and little by little Agnes seemed to heal, but she was changed. Her carefree spirit was replaced with an air of seriousness laced with melancholy. She no longer talked about becoming a ballet dancer, but to the great satisfaction of her father, readily agreed to enroll in the school of medicine in Edinburgh.

“Mom was such a good doctor, wasn’t she?” said Beth and began crying again.

“She sure was. Whenever I was sick, I just knew she would make me feel better in no time. Even her embrace seemed to have healing powers.”

 “Let’s read more,” said Beth choking on tears.

Agnes studied with a furious devotion, never missing a lecture, never flinching from autopsies or gagging from the vile smells that sometimes escaped the corpses under her knife. She was filled with a new purpose. She wanted to feel useful and helpful, and once she graduated, she planned to spend a few months working with doctors without borders in Africa.

All her plans came to fruition. She graduated with honours, was offered a job in a small clinic but negotiated with the owner to allow her to start six months later, for she first wanted to volunteer in Zambia.

“Remember mom’s stories about Zambia,” asked Beth. “She said the experiences were more enriching than she could have ever imagined in spite of the horrible conditions, poverty, and misery.”

 “Yes, what she found most gratifying was the realization that she was able to make a difference in the lives of so many by using her knowledge and skills,” said Ann and continued. “And she met dad there and moved to Montreal. Remember she told us that soon after they left Zambia she heard her parents were killed in a car accident. I wonder if she felt guilty for not having gone back to Scotland to visit them before moving to Canada. I also wonder what happened to their house.”

Beth continued to read about her mother’s life in Zambia and her falling in love with their dad, the head doctor at the clinic where she volunteered. She soon came to the part in which her mother expressed her devastation over her parents’ deaths a few months after she had settled in Montreal. A distant relative was the executor of their will and he arranged for their funeral. That was the last time their mother visited Scotland to say goodbye to her parents at the local cemetery. The house was sold fast and as the only heir, she inherited the proceeds, as well as her parents’ savings. She invested the entire sum into a house in Montreal, in which she and her husband raised their two daughters.

They stopped reading the diary because the pain over their loss rippled through their hearts with a renewed force. Just as Beth closed the diary, she noticed an envelope sticking between the last few pages. She pulled it out and opened it. An email printout was in it, as well as a photograph.

“A photo of our mom when she was young!” exclaimed Beth showing the photo to Ann. “I’ve never seen this photo of her before. Strange that she’s wearing a red dress. She never liked that colour. When was this taken? Her hair is long, and we’ve only known her with a pixie cut.”

Beth did not reply engrossed in reading the email. She was as pale as a ghost when she handed it to Ann.

“What? Tell me? You’re scaring me!”

“Look at the date of this email. It is dated one day before our mom had a heart attack.”

The email addressed to their mom was written by a woman named Elodie, who was expressing unbridled joy and delight over having found her biological mother, whom she would meet in Canada in the near future.

Beth and Ann looked at each other with eyes wide open.

“Elodie is our sister…she found our mom?” Beth said in a voice brittle with incredulity.

“Is all of this just a dream?”

“Let’s read the email to the end”, cried Ann.

Elodie was writing about her life, her successful career as a veterinarian, and her regret of divorcing her husband and never wanting to have children. She now felt lonely for family and could not wait to meet her biological mother and her half-sisters.

“Mom’s reply is here,” said Beth excitedly.

In her response, their mom asked her newly discovered daughter for forgiveness for never having attempted to find her, because she was keeping the promise of secrecy to her own mother. She had always prayed for her lost child, never stopping to send her love wherever she was. The trauma of the loss had haunted her through frequent nightmares, and through fear of losing Ann and Beth, but she kept those fears well hidden from her family. After the initial shock of receiving the first email from her lost daughter, she began to feel excitement over meeting her and introducing her to her family. Before she married her husband, she had told him of what happened to her at the age of seventeen, and he showed nothing but understanding. They had a silent agreement that their own children need not know about it. Soon, she would disclose the secret to them, and she had no doubt that her gold-hearted daughters would welcome Elodie with open arms.

“Perhaps, she was planning to tell us about our sister on the day of your birthday,” said Beth. “Perhaps, the excitement and the apprehension over telling us caused her heart attack,” Beth continued while the sudden tremor in her hands made her drop the paper on the floor. She bent down to pick it up and staggered feeling light-headed from the shock of revelations.

“We have to write to her,” cried Ann. I want to meet our sister. She looks like a younger version of our mom. Maybe we can go to Scotland and meet her instead of her coming here? Let’s propose that to her.”

Beth brought her laptop to the table, went into her email account, and typed in Elodie’s address.

“How do we begin? What do we say? This is all so sudden that my head is spinning.”

“Just tell her everything, about our mom’s diary, the picture and the email we found…tell her we want to jump on the first flight and meet her,” said Ann.

“No, we can’t say all of that at once…it has to be gradual,” replied Beth and began to type.

It took them more than half an hour to compose the email. When they pressed the send button, they looked at each other in disbelief. They poured themselves a glass of brandy and sat in silence. They almost jumped when the reply came soon after. Elodie’s words exuded warmth and affection, and a fervent desire to meet them.

Trying to process the sudden happenings, Beth and Ann waited for a couple of days before they wrote again to Elodie. In their email, they told her their dad was happy to learn they found Elodie, and there were no more skeletons in the family closet left to uncover. They wrote about their childhood, travels, and interests, their careers as a budding fashion designer, and an architect. They sent Elodie photos of their family home, their own apartments, their pets, and even their boyfriends.

Elodie wrote about herself, her happy childhood in England, and how she found out only a year ago she had been adopted. After her initial shock had waned, she began her search for her biological mother. It was Elodie’s father who assisted her in getting in touch with one of Agnes’ distant cousins, who told her he believed Agnes lived in Canada. Elodie said that she and Agnes had exchanged a few emails since she first established contact with her, and Elodie was all aflutter with joy over the prospect of meeting her mother and her family. When six months ago she saw the obituary online, after she had not heard from Agnes for a few weeks, she was devastated to realize she would never meet her mother. She vacillated about contacting Beth and Ann afraid to add more shock to their grief with her revelation that they shared the same mother.

Beth and Ann continued exchanging emails with Elodie for about four months before they invited her to visit them in Montreal. Elodie replied with a counter invitation proposing they visit her in Aberdeen first. She said she would take the first two weeks of June off work so that she could show them the most beautiful parts of Scotland. Beth and Ann readily agreed.

It took them only a day to sort out their vacation plans at work and find flights. They had never felt as thrilled about a trip as they were now, and their excitement showed in their trembling hands while they were trying to pack their suitcases. In a separate bag, they packed some of their mother’s newer clothes, scarves and artwork to offer to Elodie. They also split their mother’s jewelry into three parts of similar value and put Elodie’s share into a velvet pouch. At the moment they closed their suitcases, a waft of honeysuckle spread through the air.

“Did you smell that?” exclaimed Beth looking at Ann with eyes glistening with tears.

“Honeysuckle,” whispered Ann. “Is our mom’s spirit around, or did the scent come out of her clothes?”

“I’d like to think it is a sign from her telling us we did the right thing by sharing her possessions with our sister,” Beth replied.

The day came when they boarded the Aer Lingus flight to Aberdeen connecting through Dublin. Excitement over meeting Elodie the next day prevented them from falling asleep even for a few minutes. When the plane landed in Dublin, exhaustion and slumber overcame them at the gate causing them to almost miss their connection.

When at last they landed in Aberdeen, Beth and Ann just looked at each other with eyes welling up with happy apprehension they would soon meet the woman who was as much a part of their mother as they were. In silence, they disembarked and walked to the baggage collection area. While waiting for their bags to come, they received a text message from Elodie letting them know she was waiting for them at the arrivals zone.

Once they stepped into the arrivals area, they felt somewhat disoriented by the sight of the crowd waiting for passengers. And then Beth spotted Elodie waving at them and gasped in shock because Elodie looked like a young replica of their mother. She had even cut her hair short. Her embrace was firm and warm, and she smelled of honeysuckle soap. With a voice brimming with joy, she called them sisters and kissed them both on the cheeks. Her embrace felt like a touch of home, like something warm and familiar they had lost and rediscovered. It felt as if life had given them a box full of loss underneath which a most precious of gifts lay —the gift of a sister.

 

 Jana Begovic

 

As far back as she can remember, Jana has been fascinated by storytelling. Her love of reading and writing propelled her toward studies of languages and literature resulting in B.A. degrees in English and German Languages and Literature, an M.A. Degree in Literary Criticism, as well as a B.Ed. Degree in English and Dramatic Arts.

 Among her publications are academic articles published by Cambridge Scholars, UK, and the Journal for Distinguished Language Study, USA, the novel Poisonous Whispers, published by Roane Publishing, N.Y., poetry, short fiction, articles, art reviews, and blog posts featured in literary journals, such as Ariel Chart, Chantwood, the Pangolin Review, Abstract, Canada Fashion Magazine and Authors Publish (Facebook page). Her short story, Purveyors of Magic appeared in the December 2020 issue of The Black Shamrock, and her short story 2148 was published in September 2020 in the anthology Thin Places, by Broken Keys Publishing (winner of the Best Year Award in the Ottawa Faces Magazine), Sunset Rain by 300 South Media Group, and her poetry will be featured in the upcoming anthology, “As Darkness Falls”, published by 300 South Media Group. She also contributed an inspirational poem to the Thoughts and Prayers anthology published in November 2020. Sunset Rain is an upcoming anthology of short stories in which one of her pieces of fiction will be featured. Currently, she is working on a collection of children's stories and acting as a senior editor for Ariel Chart and contributing editor/writer for the Canada Fashion Magazine. She has been nominated for the 2019 Best of the Net and the PushCart awards for a piece of non-fiction and a short story published in Ariel Chart.

She lives in Ottawa, Ontario and works for the Government of Canada as an education specialist in the field of military language training.

 

She can be contacted via her Author Page at https://www.facebook.com/J.Damselfly/

  

Reprinted from Sunset Rain Anthology, published in May 2021 by 300 South Media Group


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2 Comments

  1. such a beautiful story full of spiritual power and positive message.

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  2. so much darkness in writing in this day that i am knocked over to find a positive piece of literature worth telling others about. heartfelt thanks.

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