Every now and again, I happen to catch a faint whiff of something like apricots or peaches, some sort of skincare product, likely worn by a woman of advanced age. It’s subtle, unimposing; it doesn’t announce with intensity the presence of its wearer.
I don’t find the smell something that attracts me to these women. The smell is a trigger, giving me the chance to savor the soft, similar scent of my grandmother’s skin.
Instantly, I am transported, back in time to one of those rare days in my childhood when either my grandmother came to visit us, or we her. When she’d come into town, my parents always gave up their bed to let her sleep more comfortably. I, in turn, gave up my bed (to no one) to sleep near her. She was a treat, and I liked being close to her. She smelled good – something like apricots and peaches, although I’ve never been able to specifically identify the specifics. It was her.
There was just something about my grandmother, a woman who had a knack of making every single person around her feel special in some way. With ten children and an already burgeoning list of grandchildren (with more to come after her death), everyone felt her affection. Her ability to be kind and generous knew no limits, her boundless love spreading through us all.
I still see us, sitting in our backyard, her in a lawn chair, hunched over some makeshift table. She’d play cards with me. Only me. Of all the people she had chosen, in that moment, I had her undivided attention. The game, I can’t recall, but the feeling, that I do: cared for. Appreciated, She enjoyed spending time with me because I was her grandson, and I absolutely adored her.
Grandparents are also quite good at spoiling their grandchildren, and my grandmother was no exception. I wasn’t the kind of child with perpetual desires. No pony ever made it on my Christmas list, or remote-control car, or Lego set. My adulthood is the byproduct of an unadventurous and relatively desire-free childhood. Wanting for few things, I rarely asked for something, and consequently, was rarely told now. Taking grandma to Toys R Us, however, was a story altogether different.
Down some numbered aisle, I had the notion that I wanted a toy – a very specific toy. Someone of my age can recall these particular toys, even if my inaccurate description doesn’t do them justice: a tube to be filled with water with thin plastic “shelves” on which items like rings or tiny balls would rest. At the base of the tube lay a button and when pressed, air would pulse through the toy causing the items inside to shift. They were quite popular. I had to have one, but mom said no.
Grandma, however, did not.
Retrospectively, the joy likely came less from the toy itself than it did from watching my grandmother overrule my mother seeing my mother as someone’s child. Now, as an adult, I see with my own mother what she probably did with her own in this moment: being a grandmother means you get to do the things that mothers and fathers do not, and that makes you remarkably cool, and incredibly idolized.
“Don’t open it in the car,” my mom instructed. Grandma already handed me the pieces.
“Don’t fill it up yet,” she said when we walked through the door. Grandma was already at the sink.
The irritation on my mother’s face was only slight. The joy on my grandmother’s, spreading cheek-to-cheek with a rosy glow, was immense. A singular, shallow memory persists, yet it is clear as glass, perfectly transparent and extremely delicate.
The funny thing is I can also still recall her voice, a warm blanket of comfort, though I cannot recall anything specific being said. For years after her passing, I remember hearing her voice on a typical-80s answering machine message wishing happy “birsday” to me, the first syllable thick with her accent. To this day, I still possess a bow from a gift she bought me as a child, and a greeting card from my first birthday. I still see the way her letters looped on that card – Care Bears, wishing me a something sweet.
But the smell, somehow that’s what gets me.
Science says that smell can trigger memories and emotions, and there are rare but welcome occasions that I am taken back to those times. It may not be the actual scent at all, but rather a ghost-like essence conjured up to trigger a particular association so as to remind me that our loved ones pass, but never really leave us. What I have are my forever memories, and sometimes, she says hello with her scent. My favorite ghost smells of apricot and peaches, and visits me far too infrequently.