It had been with her always, the empty frame propped up against hotel lamps and small collections of bedside reading. It had been wrapped carefully between layers of travelling linen before being tucked gently into suitcases, moving between cities, between decades, between lives.
'A memento', she had answered on the rare occasions anyone was afforded an opportunity to enquire. 'A memento of things past.' A hallow smile, a sighing change of subject. That's all anyone ever got.
It was more than a memento, more than a mere trinket laden with just enough sentiment to stay off retirement. No, Helen had learnt long ago that sentiment could only go so far; the souvenirs of a lifetime spanning the length of her own had to be sparse. There was no room for meaningless minutia in a live that stubbornly, unchangingly, drove on.
The frame had been a gift, an engagement gift presented not at the well attended, perfectly fashionable garden party John's mother had arranged, but rather the night before in the dark quiet of her bedchambers.
Her father had knocked gently on her door and, upon entry, shyly diverting his eyes from his daughter in her long white nightgown until, feeling affectionate pity for him, she donned a robe. It had been many years since he had entered her chambers, upon later reflection, in fact, she could not remember the last time he had. Shuffling gently forward, he joined her, perching lightly on the edge of her bed. His presentation had been thoughtful but unceremonious. Her father had purchased a length of lace – a beautiful lace that he had, no doubt, taken great care in selecting, wanting to please her. But in true Gregory Magnus fashion, the lace and its contents had been constrained by an abandoned fraying string he had found littering the drawers of his study.
She smiled at his bumbling attempts. He had said many times over the years that this was her mother's arena, but Helen had always appreciated his loving attention. Holding the gift in her hands, she kissed his rough cheek and smiled her thanks; she would miss him greatly when she and John moved into their own house.
Pulling on the string, the lace fell away to reveal a small gilded frame. Its ornate edges curled around the glass, enclosing the joyful faces captured within. It was her parents wedding portrait, the one which had always sat by her father's bed. Helen looked up at him, slightly confused. Why was he giving her this?
He placed tentative hand over hers and, slowly, began to explain. "We had our love Helen, your mother and I. We, we were very happy and we had much love. But now – now it is your turn. It's your turn to be happy, with your John." Patting her hand once more he nodded gently and stood up. "I will always love you, my little Helen."
He smiled at her once more and left her alone. She understood. And tomorrow, under her mother-in-law-to-be watchful eyes, she and John would sit stiffly for their own portrait. They would capture their own images, their own happy faces, and she would place it between the glass sheets of her parent's frame.
It would be an eternal reminder of their joy, one that, like her father before her, she would carry with her always.