The lingering wisps of a woman’s hairspray waft over me in the produce section of the grocery store. I look up from the drippy heads of red leaf lettuce. I won’t find her. Still, I look.
Every so often, I am caught off guard by this smell. The truth is, I’m not sure what I’m smelling other than my grandmother. I breathe in her signature scent.
I am 4; she is visiting us in Virginia. I am eating a hotdog in the backyard. My mother runs into the house. Something Grandma said has made Mom sad. I tell her I hate her and run in after Mom.
I am 8. I want to go to a Bon Jovi concert with neighbors. Grandma is at the kitchen table and tells my mother I am too young. Mom sighs and says she’s probably right. I hate her again.
I am 12. I have traveled across the country by myself to visit Grandma and Grandpa in California. I am nervous, but find she is different this time. I leave feeling loved.
I am 21 waiting for her in the lobby of a hotel in London. Our vacation to England is where I return to most. We’re meeting, just us, for cheesecake and ice tea.
The elevator door opens. Grandma’s once tall frame hunches over; the top of her spine is curved. Her sun-speckled, papery skin draped in bright silks; she slowly makes her way into the lobby. Arms out a little, looking for something to hold on to, her thick snowy white curls are sprayed wild like the beach wind is her stylist. Orange lipstick stains the same thin lips I have. I stand and head towards her. As I get closer, I hear her trying to breathe. Raspy and shallow, she is known to alternate oxygen and Marlboro Reds in the same room.
Pete is her name. Mom says it’s because she was one of the guys when my grandparents were in college. She cooked for my grandfather’s fraternity, and they called her Pete.
There’s more to the story, I’m sure. I ask questions, but Mom’s not sure or doesn’t tell. She says my Grandmother is a very private person.
Back in the lobby, her gruff voice, and familiar phrase, “Hey, Kell Bell. What’s shaking?” makes me smile. I lean in towards her, help her steady herself. I inhale. “You always smell so good,” I say.
We head into the cafe, eat cheesecake, drink tea. I tell her about Clark, the man I love. She asks questions about him and what we’ll do after college. I make sure the ones I ask her are easy. I ask about her volunteer work, her friends, the weather. I wonder about the hard questions I have. I wonder about her mother and the stepmother her father married shortly after her mother died. I wonder about my mother’s childhood, the fragments of sad stories I’ve heard over the years. Why Mom often told me I had no idea how good I had it.
We don’t know each other well. This, maybe our fifth or sixth meeting, is one of a few of my memories. A handful more will come. Grandma and Grandpa will be at my wedding; she’ll move to Virginia, where Mom will mother her again. She’ll meet my son and later my daughter. We’ll eat sweets together, and I’ll tell her my stories. She will keep hers.
“Excuse me,” someone says as they reach past me for the carrots. I breathe in again. She is gone. I resist the urge to find the woman who carries her scent. I want to douse myself in my grandmother’s story. I want to know her. I wonder what would have happened if I had offered to listen.
~KGS for Poplar Grove Muse