Shafts of bright sunlight pierced the shutters, illuminating the myriad dancing dust specks as we stepped into the dark room.
Mother sniffed: “ This place needs a good clean and polish.”
Her footsteps echoed softly over the floorboards and she flung open the sash windows and the shutters. I blinked in the sudden glare and my eyes glanced around the room. It was just as it had always been. Lovingly polished oak furniture highlighted by the soft gleam of brass and silverware, overstuffed sofa and armchairs; covered in faded floral chintz, and next to Grandma’s favourite armchair, a tall reading lamp and a small octagonal occasional table.
On the table, beside a glass vase of now withered roses, stood an old hand-colored photograph in a silver frame. A young girl smiled out at the world, her braided hair dark against the red of her coat. Grandma would never talk about the girl, but she had loved that photograph. I’d often seen her with the frame in her hands, lost in her thoughts, far away in a different time and place. Then, as she became aware of my presence, she would place the frame carefully back on the table, smile up at me and beckon: “Come here now Rachel. Tell Grandma what you’ve been up to.”
I’d asked mother about the photograph once.
“Who is the girl in the red coat, Mother?”
“That’s Grandma when she was twelve. It’s the only photograph she has of herself at that age. It was taken shortly after the outbreak of the war, and soon after that Grandma’s family was displaced from their home town and they never managed to collect the photo from the photographer’s shop. After the war, Grandma returned to her home town and lo and behold, there was the photograph in the shop window along with hundreds of other unclaimed photos. It was just as if it had been waiting for her all that time. That’s why it was so special to her.”
“What about her home and family?” I had asked.
“To be honest Rachel, I have no idea. She would never speak about her family or those years. I guess it was too painful for her.”
Mother’s voice cut into my reminiscences: “Well, let’s get on with it, Rachel. We’ve got a lot of sorting and packing to do and I’d like to deliver the boxes to the Salvation Army on our way home.”
We made our way through to Grandma’s bedroom, littered now with cardboard boxes, and while mother unpacked and sorted through the contents of the wardrobe, I turned to the chest of drawers. By mid afternoon we had cleared all the cupboards. Mother had put aside one box into which we packed the few personal items she wanted to keep, and the other boxes were taped and labeled for delivery to the Salvation Army.
“ Well, I think that’s it, Rachel. We’ve pretty much got everything.” Mother began to draw the curtains.
“I’ll just check under the bed in case anything got left there.” I peered into the gloom under the bed. Dust and darkness, but pushed up against the headboard legs, was a battered old suitcase.
“Look here mother.” I brushed at the dust and cobwebs coating the suitcase and perching on the bed, placed it on my knees and opened it.
Tissue paper, crackling and brown with age encased a threadbare old coat, grey and torn. As I unfolded it, a brown envelope fell to the floor.
I bent to pick it up: “What’s this?”
Old black and white photographs. Crowds of people, jostling and pushing, many carrying suitcases. Men, women and children, smartly dressed in coats, hats and gloves. As I thumbed through the photographs, mother turned her attention to the coat.
“Well I never. I do believe this might be the red coat in Grandma’s photo. ” As she tugged back the pocket flaps, a brilliant scarlet flashed at us, undimmed by wear, time and harsh light.
“Mother, look!” The photographer had hand-coloured one of the photographs. A sea of bodies, crushed together on a railway station platform, their backs to the camera. One young girl in the crowd had turned and seen the photographer. She had a tentative smile on her face, and one hand was half-raised in greeting. She wore a bright red coat. Over the shoulders of the crowd, I could just make out the name on the station sign.
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