Mom married Dan in a small and quiet ceremony in June 1923. I had defiantly refused to play any active part in the wedding like carrying the rings, but of course I did not have any choice in the matter that was really important to me. Staying behind while they moved to Missouri was absolutely out of the question.
It wasn't that I hadn't tried. I had mustered the courage to ask Mom if I couldn't just stay here and live with my grandparents, but Mom had appeared to be truly shocked at that suggestion, tears welling up in her eyes, and I hadn't mentioned it again.
When our sparse possessions had been packed up and dispatched for transport into the new house and we had got ready for the journey west, I was told to say goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa. My heart ached so much that I thought it would actually break right there in my little chest. I clung so hard to Grandpa's beloved lean figure in his worn fisherman's clothes that Mom and Grandma literally had to prise me off him to make sure we'd arrive at the station in time.
I managed not shed a tear on the train and sat in gloomy silence all the way, refusing to speak a single word to my mother and Dan. I grudgingly accepted a sandwich from her basket when my stomach began to rumble, but the first bite seemed to swell in my mouth and I could hardly swallow, so I put it aside quickly. This earned me a questioning look from Mom, as I was normally known for my incredible appetite.
But how could I possibly eat when leaving the place where I had lived all my life was the hardest thing I had ever had to do. It hadn't been easy to leave our own house when we couldn't afford the rent any longer, but going to live with Mom's parents had made up a bit for that loss. And our old home wasn't far away, we sometimes even went to call on the Donnellys who lived there now as they were old friends of my parents'. I had loved those visits. Even if they made me a little sad, it had felt good to be there, to see that little had changed.
A few days ago I had sneaked away while Grandma was helping Mom pack up our things and Grandpa had gone out on his boat. I had wandered the half mile or so back to the little house on Shady Grove Street. I knew a little hole in the hedge at the back of the garden and had used it now to peek into the yard with the clothes line and the flower beds where Dad had let me ride on his shoulders or thrown me into the air, had held me by the legs to let me dangle upside down, had pulled his silly faces to make me giggle wildly or tickled me until I collapsed on the ground, laughing. Where he had picked single flowers and gallantly presented them to my mother with a flourish to be rewarded by an indulgent smile and a kiss. Where he had swept me off my feet and into his arms to take me inside when it was time for dinner, tucking me into bed afterwards, singing softly to me in his warm and slightly cracked voice until I drifted off to sleep.
I had brought along the treasured photograph Mom had once given me. My parents on their wedding day, Mom smiling shyly under her lacy veil, dainty next to Dad's tall, broad figure. My father dashing in his wedding suit, his dark curly hair combed back neatly. He looked fully into the camera with a solemnly proud expression on his face. There was the slightest hint at a dark beard shadow around the mouth and cheeks, and his eyes were captivating even if the sepia-tinted photograph didn't do justice to the intensely green irises that I'm said to have inherited from him along with the black unruly hair. He seemed to be returning my gaze when I looked at him, and I liked to imagine that he was watching over me from wherever he was now.
When I had mused over the photo in my hiding place behind the shrubs, my gaze alternating between the picture and the house and garden, I had felt so bereft that my legs seemed to be made of stone and a dull, persistent ache crept into my stomach, the double pain of missing Dad and of having to leave this place that held all my memories of him.
At the same time being where I had last seen him made me feel particularly close to him. They say that you don't remember your early childhood properly - vagrant, unreliable snippets at best - but I can recall exactly how he kissed me on the cheeks and forehead and seized me by the shoulders with a strange look in his eyes, telling me to take good care of Mommy. The last memory I have of him is his broad back in his uniform jacket as he walks through the front door.
Slumped into the corner of my seat opposite Dan and Mom, I could now feel the dreaded tears sting my eyes at the thought that I might not get another chance to go there. I quickly opened the brand new copy of "Treasure Island", my goodbye gift from Grandpa, to study the photo I had tucked inside. I pretended to read, hoping that Mom and Dan wouldn't notice that I was staring at the picture, seeking comfort in my father's eyes, instead of turning the pages. I had tried to read a few lines, but I was missing my grandparents so painfully that it was impossible to focus.
In fact, it was not only Grandma and Grandpa that I hated leaving behind, although that hurt most of all.
I hated the prospect of attending a school where I knew no one. I would miss my friend Thomas, a scrawny, brainy boy who graciously lent me books from his collection of adventure stories. Inspired by our reading, we kept outdoing each other with fanciful ideas, assuming the roles of our favourite heroes to fight against hordes of imaginary enemies or solve complicated crimes. Thomas had been Friday to my Robinson Crusoe, Trelawney to my Jim Hawkins, Lancelot to my Arthur, Watson to my Sherlock Holmes. I felt a little guilty now that I had always grabbed the lead in our games. But then, Thomas had always seemed content in his supporting role.
And I hated going away from the sea and the beach, my playground, my nursery. Grandpa and I had been out there almost every day, no matter the weather, ignoring my mother's protests that I might catch a cold (which hardly ever happened). The wide blue expanse nourished my dreams of sailing the oceans in pursuit of the mysterious places in my school atlas whose names seemed to hold a promise of adventure, of rich treasures to be found and exotic territories to be discovered.
I even remembered some summer outings to the seaside with Mom and Dad before he went to Europe – Mom sitting on a blanket in the sand, wearing a large straw hat, Dad wading in the shallow water with me to collect shells and stones, picking me up and carrying me back when I got too tired to walk.
Grandpa and I had gone down to the beach one last time before we left. I had picked up some shells and pocketed them, sand and all.
I shoved a hand into my pocket now, feeling the smooth and still slightly moist inside of the shells beneath my fingers. When nobody was looking, I slipped my index finger into my mouth. It tasted salty and a little fishy, and I got a few grains of sand on my tongue, but I didn't care. The taste of the sea conjured the image of me and Grandpa this morning - the fresh salty breeze making my curls fly wildly around my face, wisps of my grandfather's thinning white hair fluttering under the cap he always wore, his weathered fisherman's face with his sharp but kind blue eyes smiling at me a little wistfully.
The steady chugging sound of the train eventually lulled me into a fitful sleep, haunted by strange dreams, confused impressions of choppy seas, rocking boats, stuffy trains, bleak platforms and cold, labyrinthine, foreign rooms in rapid succession, all those scraps strung together by one recurring image of my grandfather's small figure on the seashore, quickly diminishing as a wave swept me away from the receding coastline.
I awoke when Mom softly squeezed my hand. She was sitting next to me now. "Wake up, Mick, we'll be there in a minute." I blinked at her dozily, momentarily unsure what was going on. Then it struck me again in the pit of my stomach what there meant. I was feeling hot and queasy and groaned a little.
Mom laid her hand on my forehead, brushing my tangled hair from my sweaty forehead. "It's warm and muggy in here, isn't it? I'll be happy to get out of here, too."
She just didn't understand me. I shook off her hand in frustration at the same moment the train stopped at the station, upsetting my stomach even worse. I managed to pull myself together until the carriage doors were opened, then I staggered outside, bent over and threw up on the platform.
Mom was very embarrassed and scolded me for the mess I'd made. It was Dan who took my side. "Leave him, Alice", he said, "kids often get motion sickness." He wiped my mouth with a crisp white handkerchief and told me not to worry. I nodded weakly, feeling tired and sick and lonely.
Upon arrival at the new house, I upheld my stubborn determination to hate it. I had to admit to myself that the house was beautiful with large airy rooms and elegant furniture, but it was too grand to feel like a home. It was more like some place to visit and admire, a palace or a museum, where you have to be careful not to touch, let alone break or soil anything.
I went to bed soon. Hardly deeming my new room worth a close look, I crept into the big bed, stiffly let Mom hug and kiss me good night and curled up into a miserable little ball, weary and misunderstood and so alone. The room was too large and too quiet. The unfamiliar furniture cast scary shadows in the cold moonlight. The fresh sheets on the bed exuded a faint flowery scent I didn't recognize. Everything felt alien and wrong to me.
I pulled the photo out of the book and squinted at it in the dim moonlight, then I reached for one of the shells I had smuggled here in my pocket and sniffed it. Its scent of salt and sea was a poor substitute for the warm, loving embrace I craved, either by Dad or one of my grandparents, but it was at least something from home, something to remind me that Grandpa and Grandma were there. A long trip on the train away, but still there.
My heart was still heavy, though, and the tears that I had held back all day long flowed in silence until I fell into an exhausted sleep, the shell clutched tightly in my fist, the photo under my pillow.