Runner Up: Jess Dixon
Jess is a fiction writer, aspiring novelist, and graduate of Edinburgh University’s Creative Writing MSc programme. She lives in Leicestershire with her partner, Andy, and works as a charity fundraiser.
Jess is currently blogging her Bucket List challenges at www.thirtybythirty.co.uk and is hoping to start a PhD in contemporary feminist fiction next year. She recently won the Writing Magazine Speculative Fiction prize.
You can find Jess on Twitter: @MsJessAmy and Instagram: @daysofinspiration_
The Wedding Gift
‘Mum, it would mean the world to her,’ Helen pleads.
I shift my eyes away from her accusing ones. ‘No.’
I shove the invitation card back into the drawer where it has languished for the last three months, and close the drawer so hard the cabinet rattles. My daughter watches me from the sofa, her mouth set in a hard line, a frown creasing her brow.
‘What?’ I hear myself snap.
‘You know what. You’re better than this. Since when were you so judgemental?’
The word cuts into me. ‘I’m not. What Jennifer and their friend want to do behind closed doors is their business. But calling it marriage is an insult. It’s an insult to all of us in proper marriages. What would your father say if he were here?’ I glance at the photograph of Harold on the mantelpiece. He grins widely from behind an enormous cake. That was his eighty-fifth, not long before he got sick.
Helen’s gaze follows mine and fixes on her father’s smiling face. ‘He’d tell you to get a grip and be glad your granddaughter has found someone who makes her happy.’
‘She can be happy all she likes, that doesn’t mean you can just redefine what marriage is!’ Why doesn’t she understand?
‘I can’t talk to you when you’re like this. Call me when you decide to join us in this century.’ Helen stands up, snatches up her coat from the back of the armchair, and stalks out of the living room. I hear the front door slam a moment later.
I don’t realise I have started to cry until I feel a tear spill over and roll down my cheek. I wipe it away with the sleeve of my cardigan. Helen’s words sting. I don’t want to be judgemental. I love Jennifer just the same since she… she called it “coming out.” I hardly batted an eyelash when she brought her friend over for Christmas. But this? This just seems wrong. Still, it hurts when I remember her sorrowful expression when she proudly showed me their matching sapphire rings, and I told her that I couldn’t support what she was doing – and when I recall how quickly she and Tanya left after that.
Jennifer always wanted a big wedding. ‘One day when I get married, Nan,’ she said one day, when she was about eight and I’d pulled out the few black and white photographs I had from my own wedding to show her, ‘I’ll have a long dress, so long my bridesmaids will have to hold it up so I don’t fall over it, and I’ll have ten bridesmaids because I can’t leave any of my friends out and we’ll have a massive cake and my flowers will be pink!’ Of course, her ideas have changed in the intervening two decades, but she’s still inviting over a hundred people and has spent more than she earns in a month on her dress.
It was a different time, when I got married. Back then only very wealthy people had huge parties with banquets and hundreds of guests. Now it seems everyone’s doing that. Mine and Harold’s wedding, like most of our friends’, was a simple affair. So soon after the end of the War, our families had barely any money. My dress was second hand, given to me by a woman at church a few years older than me and adjusted on my mother’s old Singer sewing machine. My flowers were picked from my grandfather’s garden, and our reception was held in the village hall. Even so, our friends and families showered us with gifts to start us out on our lives together.
Back then, people gave couples all the things they’d need to set up home together after the wedding. Pots and pans, bed linen, crockery, kettles. It’s different now, of course. Now everyone lives together before they’re married and they have bought all those things for themselves. I’ve still got the white china tea-set from Harold’s aunt and uncle, still in perfect nick save for a small chip in one of the cup handles – Helen, when she was little. But my favourite gift was the one money could not buy, the one I had not known I needed until I received it.
I sat looking in the mirror, dark brown curls framing my face, and dabbed just a touch of rouge into my pale cheeks. I was never what you might call classically beautiful, but that morning I felt radiant. Mum came up behind me, all dressed up in her best frock and a wide-brimmed hat she had borrowed from somewhere. She ran her fingers through my hair, twisted a curl around her index finger.
‘You look beautiful.’
Our eyes met in the mirror and we both smiled; me nervously, her with loving pride.
‘I’ve got a present for you.’
I watched in the mirror as she crossed to the bureau and took something from the top drawer; a small parcel wrapped in brown paper. She handed it to me and I slowly undid the ribbon. For the first time, I noticed my fingers were trembling.
I managed to get it open, and inside was a book – a simple journal with a black cover. I looked curiously up at my mother, and then flipped it open. Her impeccable cursive handwriting adorned the pages.
‘It’s all the things I’ve learned in the time I’ve been married to your father that I thought you should know too.’
I stood up to embrace her. ‘Thank you. It’s the best gift anyone could give me.’
I thumbed through a few more pages there and then, but it was almost time for my father to arrive to take us to the church. A few nights later, in our guest-house room by the sea – another surprise gift, we had not expected to be able to afford a honeymoon at all – with Harold snoring gently next to me, I retrieved the book from my case and settled down to read everything my mother had to say to me about marriage.
On several pages were recipes; the favourites she’d made for us time and time again when I was growing up. On others, her favourite Bible verses, poems, wisdom she’d picked up neatly packaged for me in her own words. I did not fully appreciate it then, but this was more than just a guide for marriage; it was a guide for life, and one that was to be my beacon and my signpost for the next sixty years.
We turned to that book so often, in times of need – whether that need was for the perfect Victoria Sponge recipe or some words of wisdom to get us through a tough patch. The one time it had nothing to offer me was when my beloved husband was dying of cancer in a Hospice bed.
I sat by his bedside, holding his hand. In his rare lucid moments, we talked about happier times. Mostly, he slept and I dozed or chatted with this or that young nurse on duty or pretended to read novels. When I knew the end was near, I brought my mother’s book with me along with my Bible. I searched my mother’s words again and again for something that would make this pain make sense, and found nothing. Of course, when she wrote it she had not yet suffered this same profound loss, and so there were no words of comfort for the one left behind.
I put it away then, carefully at the back of a drawer, expecting that it would only come out again when my family found it after I too had gone gently into my goodnight.
I haven’t touched it in the six years since Harold died. It has little to offer me now I’m on my own, I thought. But hours after Helen leaves, when I cannot sleep, I find myself getting up and going to the chest of drawers and taking it out from its safe place at the bottom of a stack of linen I never use. The familiar pages call to me. I laugh at myself to think that there could be anything in here to help me in my current situation.
What to do when your granddaughter is marrying another woman and you’re not sure how to feel about it? Hardly an issue my mother would have ever faced!
I know her words so well that I am not so much reading them as absorbing the memory of reading them. I am sure I know every line by heart, sixty-six years after she gave it to me.
Your love is the best gift you can give, she has written on one page. On another, that beautiful verse from 1 Corinthians 13 that was read at our wedding: love is patient, love is kind…
My breath catches when I flip to the page where she’s written her advice for surviving financial hardships. Of course exactly what I need to read will be right where I least expect to find it. At the bottom of her list of make-do-and-mend practicalities, she has written, Remember: it does not matter if you are rich or poor, where you live, what possessions you have. Love is the only thing that makes a marriage.
I close my eyes, but that sentence still dances in front of them. Love is the only thing that makes a marriage.
I’m not used to questioning my convictions. The nuns at Convent School all those years ago said I was “headstrong.” Harold revised it to the slightly kinder “self-assured.” I suppose now, at my age, with the world changing all around me and me unable to keep up, they’d call me “set in my ways.”
I think of Harold, of the endless love and patience he alwaus showered upon me, our children and our grandchildren, and I realise in a moment of startling clarity that Helen was right. I can almost hear him. ‘For God’s sake, Nora, she’s happy! Isn’t that all we said we wanted for them all?’
I close the book, lift it to my face and kiss the battered cover, before tucking it back into the drawer. In an instant, I know what I need to do.
I telephone her early in the morning, when I know she will be home from the gym but not yet have left for work.
‘Hello, Jennifer.’ I hope she doesn’t hear my voice catch.
Her voice is instantly guarded. ‘Hi Nan.
‘Listen, it’s about your wedding…’
She cuts me off. ‘Whatever mum said to you, you don’t have to come. If it’s too hard for you, I get it.’
‘I’ve been doing some thinking. Can you pop in on your way back from work?’
She’s silent for a very long moment. I hear her sigh. I think she is about to say no. ‘Okay. Just for half an hour, then.’
She arrives bang on half past five. The moment I open the door to her, I can see she’s in high defence mode. She does not smile when I stand back to let her in. I notice she keeps fiddling with the ring on her left hand. She stiffly accepts my hug but barely returns it. I busy myself making tea.
‘I have a present for you,’ I tell her as we sit down in the living room.
‘It’s not a Bible, is it?’ she asks with a hollow half-laugh.
I go to the dresser and take the book out of the top drawer. ‘This was given to me on my wedding day by my mother, your great grandma. You wouldn’t remember her, you were only a year old when she passed, but she was so proud the day you were born. When you were little I remember deciding I’d give this to you someday, on your wedding day. I know it isn’t for another three weeks but I wanted you to have it now.’
I realise this last sentence came out all garbled. I am so desperate to get out what I need to say. I love you. I accept you. I’m sorry.
She looks up at me, her eyes filling with tears.
‘Some of the advice is a bit old fashioned now, of course, but…’
She cuts me off. ‘Does this mean…?’
I meet her eyes. ‘I was wrong. I’m sorry I’ve been so… so silly. So backwards. You’ve found love and it doesn’t matter what form it takes. Lots of people are never so lucky.’
She wordlessly opens her arms. I hug her tightly and then kiss the top of her blonde head.
‘So you’ll come?’
‘Just try and stop me, darling. I’ll have to ask your mother to take me shopping for a new hat!’ Jennifer wipes away a tear from her cheek and suddenly I see the little girl who used to sit on my lap and play with the beads of my necklace, the child who rushed home from school to show me her A grade, the young woman who brought her girlfriend over to dinner and pulled away when Tanya tried to hold her hand, looking fearfully at me. The woman I’ve pushed away ever since she announced her engagement with my stupid prejudice.
‘You were so against it,’ she says. ‘I was sure you were going to say you weren’t coming. I told mum to stop trying with you. What changed your mind?’
I reach over and tap the spine of the book in her lap. ‘Let’s just say I got some words of wisdom from someone very wise.
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