The pinecone sat beside the ashtray which was overflowing, the butts rolling carelessly onto the once white lace doily that
covered the bedside table. Alice never meant to be one of those people who smoked in bed but in her 80th year she was letting go of what she should or shouldn’t do. Like the threads of the ancient doily, she was unraveling and something about it felt less scary than she anticipated.
Alice found herself reaching for the pinecone more often these days. It brought her back to a simpler time, a kinder time, flooded her heart with a familiar feeling of love. Though Angus was dead and buried more than 17 years now, the pinecone was always a provider of solace when she missed him. And Alice did miss him so. In the loneliness of the house, walking the well worn path from the kitchen to what was the living room, now her bedroom, avoiding the entire second floor as it just seemed impossibly empty now, she missed Angus. An ache in her body that was much more than her years, it was the loneliness.
Nearly 60 years ago, Angus walked with Alice through the thick woods of their newly purchased property. Calling out each variety of tree, each species of animal, desperately trying to infuse her with the love he had for the land. She longed for their city apartment, abandoned with every modern convenience she had come to depend on for this outrageous notion of farming Christmas trees on a 400 acre parcel. It had only been a week and she was feeling maddened by the silence, she could hear the snowflakes falling, actually hear them and this somehow made her feel crazy. Where was the constant hum of traffic? The odd shouts of passersby? But Angus delighted in it, exclaiming with wonder at the space, the quiet and remoteness of their new home. Four large bedrooms in the old country house, his eyes looked at her purposefully, a wolfish grin, as he held her close and whispered about the family they could raise here.
The first winter felt cold, and Angus worked hard to make everything just so, recognizing Alice’s anguish at being in this new foreign world. He would wake early to stoke the fires, making sure the house was cozy for her when she awoke. He would leave out a pot of tea, just the kind she liked, brewed and ready beside the bed so she needn’t even go down to the kitchen. And this went on for the whole first winter. Alice would touch a toe outside the warmth of covers and shrink back in, the floorboards still cold. So she would stay longer in bed, longer than any young woman should, that was certain. But Angus saw the sadness in Alice and was patient with her. For their second winter, he got her fine slippers made with sheep’s wool, braided rag rugs around the bed and by the sink.
Over the first few years Alice remarked at her own resilience. Soon she was waking with Angus and stoking the fires in the kitchen, allowing the bedroom fire to die out as she no longer needed to languish in bed. She was embracing the cold. Bundling up in coveralls she would march out to the wood pile and split the wood herself, Angus laughed out loud the first time he came upon her. His laugh wasn’t mocking, it was booming and right from his very heart, to see his dear wife ripping off layers of sweaters, her cheeks cherry red, her hair bouncing around her face, her own smile beaming. He would scoop her up and place a small pinecone in her hand, a token of what they were now creating together.
The Christmas tree farm became a success, each winter hundreds of families would come to choose their perfect tree. Alice delighted in setting up the warming hut with hot cider in a cast iron cauldron over a roaring fire. She would bake dozens of shortbread cookies and pile them on pretty pieces of her mother’s china, arranged on stumps. Everything was rustic and beautiful. Angus would hitch their horses, Bess and Bruce, to the big wagon and haul families out to the woods. Over time, they hired neighbouring farm kids to help tend the trees, drag the chosen ones to the waiting cars and strap them on. Alice started collecting quilts to keep the mothers and children cozy as they rode in the wagon out to the quiet woods. At the end of each day she was surprised at how much she looked forward to setting everything up again for the next day and always clucked her tongue at herself as she was tearful folding the blankets away until next winter when the season ended. She loved the farm more than she thought possible. Her longing for city life faded away as sure as the dew at dawn. When she and Angus sat out on the porch swing on a warm July evening, lemonade glasses slick with condensation, a record playing in the house behind them, frogs croaking in the pond, fireflies sparking, she felt both giddy and peaceful. Her life was nothing she dreamed of and everything she wanted.
As the years unfolded Angus would gather baskets full of pinecones as he tended to his crop. He’d sneak them into her desk drawer, her robe pocket, on the little shelf that housed the soap in the shower. He’d catch her as she found them and their eyes would lock, his sparking with a love and laughter reserved only for her. Alice would string them up for decorations at Christmas, she started to adorn wreaths with them that she sold in the warming hut during Christmas tree season. A friend of theirs made them a commemorative sign with a huge pinecone carved in it. They had pinecone designs on their mugs, little pinecone salt and pepper shakers and candleholders. On Angus’ 38th birthday, Alice surprised him with a pinecone decal on the drivers door of his truck.
Three of the tiniest pinecones, the most perfect and symmetrical, lined the window in front of the kitchen sink. Amazingly concentric, an ode to nature’s beauty, they were mesmerizing. Alice would catch her breath a moment as she looked at them, her hands sunk in sudsy water. Remembering each pregnancy and each baby she lost, the wee pinecones given to her by Angus when his own words wouldn’t come, when the tears were all either of them could share. She would take a moment, the plate she was washing suspended before her, giving herself grace around what she could not control. Then she would widen her focus, look out past the little pinecones to the meadow and forest beyond, spot the fire engine red tractor with Angus sitting atop, and remind herself that her life was rich and full and wonderful.
It was in her late twenties that two of her pregnancies were lost. And when the third happened, now in her mid thirties, she and Angus stopped talking about the wonder of children, the loudness and brightness they would bring to the farm. They closed up the extra bedrooms without discussing it, and they focused with intensity on making the farm grand. They organized winter bonfire parties for families and fishing at the pond in the summer. Alice would see Angus, crouched down to help a little boy off the wagon or a little girl pluck a juicy worm for her hook and would notice the despair in his eyes. Just a flicker, he would never let it linger, but she saw it in the furrow of his brow, the stoop in his shoulders. Once, with alarm, she noticed the tiny pinecones missing from the windowsill and looked madly through the kitchen, tearing apart the loose papers and rummaging through the vacuum bag, worried she hoovered them up. She went to Angus on the porch, only to find him staring out at the fields, three tiny pinecones lined up on his knee, his hand protectively sheltering them from the breeze.
For his birthday that year Alice gifted Angus a little shepherd puppy, bundled into a basket, a pinecone tied to a red thread on his neck. The two decades that followed, Angus raised up shepherd puppies and they never had less than three dogs in the house. His shoulders stooped a little bit less.
The last pinecone, the one that sits now at her bedside, was left in her empty tea cup. Likely she found it just as Angus was collapsing at the wheel of his ancient tractor, stubbornly riding out to the fields in his declining health. She imagined as her fingers had closed around the last pinecone and the smile spread on her lips that he felt a burst of love in his heart before the big pop as it gave out, and the last whoosh of air escaped his lungs.
She kept it with her always now, hoping that as her own heart beat for the final time that her soul would cross over, pinecone in hand, so that Angus would know it was her.