she needed someone to be strong for her when there was no one else left.
He remembered being five and she would stare aimlessly off into the distance. In her bedroom, she would look out the window and across the land, playing gently with the curtain tassels as she retreated into a silent space. On walks around the grounds, she would hesitate too frequently at the wooden bench under the tree.
“Let’s sit here for a second, it’s such a shame to waste this beautiful day.”
Then she would go some place else in her thoughts, he imagined, quite like he did when granny would read him a story. Perhaps she was telling herself a story, he could remember thinking.
She rarely caught him staring.
“Yes, my darling?”
“Why do you look so sad all of the time?”
“I can’t be sad, darling, I have you.”
They sat in the rocking chair in the nursery, the old wood creaked as she held him, he drifted silently to sleep, clutching her wrist like a hymn. She played gently with the ring on her left hand, rubbing the tip of her finger over the smooth gold before his eyes closed.
“Reggie, what are you doing?”
He looked up expectantly in fear and quickly slammed the box shut.
“Nothing mama, I promise.”
Her eyes twitched rapidly and her arms hung heavily as her hand absentmindedly picked at the side of her light blue day dress. He held his breath a moment as the shock on her face melted into a smile. It didn’t reach her eyes.
“It’s okay darling, just please don’t go poking through my drawers without permission.”
He nodded obediently as she sat lightly on the edge of the bed, smoothing her dress as her finger tips drummed against her thighs. She gently pulled the wooden box from him and lifted him into her lap as she opened it.
Scattered about, he remembered, were some yellowed letters bound together with a string of ribbon, a picture frame, some stray photographs, and a toy dog.
Her fingers stroked the tattered pieces, brushing lightly against them like valuable heirlooms. She pulled out a crinkled photograph of a man.
“This was your father.”
His curiosity drew him in as she handed him the picture. She stroked the side of his hair, pulling it gently behind his ear. She smiled into his cheek as she kissed it, choking back on something indecipherable as she held his face too tightly against her parted mouth. Her breath was hot, her lips were wet.
“You have his eyes. One day you’ll grow up to be as handsome as he was.”
MATTHEW REGINALD CRAWLEY
Only when he was old enough to sound out letters did he actually make the connection.
It was a half cloudy day, fresh flowers had been picked from the garden. He ran his hand in between the grooves of the cold, gray stone. He looked up at her stoic face. Even at a young age, it was at that moment that he realized his mother didn’t really believe in god. Only time would confirm what he had suspected.
“Mama, is that my name?”
“Yes, my darling, it is."
"Now come on, it’s almost time for lunch.”
“Did papa fight in the war?”
“Yes, darling, he was a captain, actually, a very good position, you should be very proud of your father.”
He nodded ponderously.
“Why do you ask?”
“I was just wondering, mama doesn’t talk about him very much.”
She smiled sadly. “I suppose she will in time, my dear.”
He walked to where she sat on the sofa, plopping himself by her feet. He played with a frayed bit of her stockings.
“How did he die?”
Her face fell for a second. She closed the book in her hand.
“There…there was an accident.”
“What kind of accident?”
“A car accident, my love.”
Blue eyes found each other, she looked upon him with pity, an emotion he only identified later as the pieces came together and his memory searched through backlogs of distorted time. Sometimes as children, we don’t know when to stop and start.
“What was he like?”
Granny hesitated a second. “He was a good man.”
She paused. “And more than anything, he loved your mother very much.”
He had only nodded quite plainly. Because understanding, like contentedness, takes awhile to catch up.
He mostly remembered hating the uniform; he disliked formal wear enough as it is, but the belt was uncomfortable and the cap made his hair stick out at odd ends. Regardless, mother told him that he looked very grown-up in his new outfit, though he didn’t feel it. She came into his room as he was being dressed in the morning. She smoothed the green fabric of his jacket to lift out any spare wrinkles.
She promised to walk him to the station after he said his goodbyes to the others. A hug for Sybil, kisses for the grandparents. That sort of thing.
A few officers were already on the platform. He hunched over slightly in nervousness as he didn’t spot anyone else his age.
She was fidgety; she held his hand gently in hers, the cold leather of her gloves made him more nervous for some reason.
“And you have everything?”
He chuckled softly. “Yes mama, for the hundredth time.”
They sat on the platform bench. She turned him towards her as the whistle sounded.
“Now just remember to write to me at any time, any time at all.”
He looked at her nervous state in bemusement. He smiled at her reassuringly. “Mama, I’ll be fine, trust me.”
Be strong for her, he told himself. It was a mantra, a prayer.
“I know you will, my darling.” She hesitated a moment. He saw a tear in her sad smile before she pulled him to her and clung fiercely.
“Be brave, my boy.”
He clutched her a moment longer before she pulled back and rummaged in her coat pocket.
“Take this, you’ll need it.”
The toy dog.
He looked up at her auburn eyes tinged with mist. He turned the memento over in his hand, quite sure what she meant.
She told him to be safe and to come back as soon as possible, holding his hand in a gentle grip. The firmness of her index finger gathered around his thumb betrayed her composure.
He glanced from the toy in his gentle clutch, then to their joined hands, and finally upon her solemn, gathered face.
Be strong for her.
The whistle sounded once more.
“I've got to go," he whispered.
She smiled tearfully as she gripped his fingers one last time. She pulled away.
“Of course you have.”
He tucked the dog in his pocket and joined the others on the train.
He had wanted to love her forever, as he wished his father could have. She was a pillar, a touchstone, a poem.
Maybe he could have done better as a child. He could have hugged her more, tried to understand more.
But understanding only comes in time, and in time, loss.