Elsie never knew her father. When Elsie turned five, Terese, her mother, took with a case of wondering fever. She left her daughter with Elsie’s Uncle Peter and Aunt Sophie to live on their farm. Elsie loved the farm.
Elsie loved waking up early in the morning and milking the cows. She loved slopping the hogs, and she loved the sounds they made as they ate. She loved the sleigh rides across the countryside. She loved planting the seeds and watching them grow into food. She loved the coloring of the leaves each autumn. This would have been heaven if her mother had been with her.
Each year on her birthday came a letter from her mother. It wasn’t a letter so much as a journal. Each journal began with “Dear Elsie, my love. I miss you so much.” And each year Elsie became more sure those words were not true. Then the journal shared her mother’s adventures. By her fifteenth birthday, Elsie no longer read the journal when it came.
The journal told of her mother’s sand castle collecting, for Terese called herself a sand castle collector. Not that she made a sand castle and then slipped it into a case. That would have been impossible. She made the sand castle on some faraway beach. Each time she went to the beach, gathered sand, buckets of it, and carried thm to a point the high tide wouldn’t reach. As she built the castle, she filmed it, then, like a Tibetan Buddhist monk, destroyed it.
For Terese, it was the pleasure of the process of building what she called her “sand castles”. At Brighton Beach, it was Buckingham Palace. On the Makena Beach, it was the house of King Kamehameha. On the Rhine, it was Bavarian King Ludwig’s castle. At Sochi, it was the Tsar’s Winter Palace. On the beach at Sanya, she made a copy of the Forbidden City. She’d even gone to the sand dunes of the Sahara. There she built a great pyramid ten feet high. The winds had wiped it out.
But it was her latest that was her masterpiece. At Valras-Plage, she built a miniature Versailles. Pictures of it were in all the French papers. When she destroyed it, there were several thousand people on the beach watching. Television cameras broadcast it all over France. So sad was it for the French the President of France declared a national day of mourning. That was three days before Elsie’s sixteenth birthday.
On her sixteenth birthday, a journal did not arrive for Elsie. The mailman did not bring it. It did not come by FedEx. It did not come by UPS.
Shortly after the evening meal, a car drove up to the farmhouse. A tall, thin woman got out of the taxi. The driver set her two suitcases on the ground. She paid the driver, and he went away.
Aunt Sophie opened the front door to welcome her sister. She called to Elsie, “Your mother has come. Your mother has come.”
For all those years, Elsie had dreamed of this day. Until now. The disappointment weighed down on her, and she was in no mood for her missing mother. She walked upstairs, closed her bedroom door, and went to her bed.
For three days, Elsie lay in bed, only allowing her aunt to enter her bedroom. She developed a fever. The doctor came. He shook his head and told Terese, Peter and Sophie the bad news. “She is dying.”
“Is there nothing we can do?”
“I’m afraid not.”
After the doctor left, Terese looked at her sister and said, “What have I done?”
Peter said, “You’ve done what you’ve done.” There was no malice in his voice, just tears. “Now you must do what you must do.”
“And what is that?” Sophie asked.
“God knows but I sure do not.”
Terese stood up. “I have to go up there and save my child.” Then she marched slowly up the stairs.
She knocked at the bedroom door. “Elsie, this is your mother. I am coming in.”
From inside the room came a weak voice. “Go ‘way.”
Terese opened the door. Her daughter lay in bed, her hair spread out on her pillow, her face pale as death.
Terese turned and left the room and went down to the kitchen. She made her mother’s chicken soup. Like her mother, she put in a little of this and a little of that and a little of the other. But the key ingredient was her love.
Several hours later, she walked a bowl of the soup up to her daughter’s bedroom. She sat down beside her daughter and forced the first spoonful of soup into her mouth. Elsie resisted, then swallowed. Terese gave her a second spoonful, and she sang a lullaby to her daughter. Then a third and she told her daughter of the beaches where she had built sand castles. As she told her stories, Elsie felt a little better.
Several days later, Elsie was almost recovered. Terese and Elsie sat out on the back lawn of the farmhouse.
“Why did you destroy those sand castles?” Elsie asked.
“They weren’t you,” Terese answered.
Elsie gave her a curious look. “They weren’t me?”
“You see,” Terese said, “I had to build those sand castles. I had no choice. Something inside me told me they were not enough. You were the real castle I had given birth to.
And you were so permanent.”
“So why did you not come back?”
“I couldn’t. I didn’t deserve you. When you were born, I knew that. When I left you with your aunt and uncle, I knew that. Building those castles was my way of coming to understand that a mother doesn’t earn a child. A child is a gift. Versailles taught me that.”
Elsie reached over from her chair and squeezed her mother’s hand.
“And you know what? I would sit on the beach, looking out at the sea. As I watched the sun set over the sandcastle, the colors were unbelievable. And the wonder of it all was your face written in those colors. The wonder of it all.”