I’m turning a corner, ducking under low beams, rummaging through a thrift shop by myself, when suddenly, I’m not alone.
She is not really here, but I smell her scent on the air as if she has just come to lay her hand on my shoulder. Bluegrass Perfume. It’s too rare to be worn by another shopper. If you ask for it at the Elizabeth Arden counter, they may have one bottle, tucked away in the back of a cabinet. Besides, when I turn in a full circle, I confirm what I already knew. I am alone.
It’s been fifteen years since we lost her. My sisters and I called her Nana and she was ours and ours alone. We had no cousins to share her with – my mother’s only brother died in infancy – but we shared her with everyone. Our friends, our dates – eventually our husbands – all felt welcome at Nana’s house, where the living room was cooled by the constant buzz of oscillating fans, the pristine kitchen smelled of Wrigley’s Double Mint and the pink and mauve-tiled bathroom was always open for pedicures or deep late night conversation. Nana’s house even had a mascot – ChaCha, her white mop of a mutt who loved her owner almost as much as she was loved in return.
But these are all just memories now. ChaCha died and the house was sold. And after battling kidney disease for almost two decades, Nana went on to join her son beyond the Jordan.
So how is it that I come to smell Bluegrass as I’m going about my day? It doesn’t just happen in the thrift store – it’s while I’m grabbing my daughter’s towel off the floor, or reaching for an overdue library book on my bedside table. It’s happened to my sisters too. The moments are rare, but they’re real, catching me off guard each time, making me smile – and remember.
When we were little girls living far away, Nana sent us packages for our birthdays. She gave us handmade clothing, rolls of dimes and books. “I always read them first so I know there's nothing bad in them,” she said. And no matter whose birthday it was, we all got gifts.
When Nana came to visit, she flew on a big yellow plane that we called the flying banana. For a while, whenever I saw one in the sky, I thought maybe she was on it. Sometimes we would drive to Arizona to see her. I remember arriving at her house after dark and being bewildered by the hot desert air, thrilled to be given a new coloring book and to have her tuck me in with promises of a fun tomorrow.
When I was older, we moved to Arizona and our time spent with Nana was more frequent, but no less dear. She taught me how to make a cake from scratch. “Sift the flour twice,” she said. I loved watching her hands when she baked. Her carrot cake was legendary. She also taught me to sew. I thought I would just watch that first time, but she said no. Instead, she stood patiently at my shoulder while I inexpertly steered purple calico through her Viking, a sewing machine I eventually used to make my wedding dress – the sewing machine I still use today.
I’ll never forget Nana’s advice about unwanted attention when my sisters and I were dating. “If you don’t want to go out with a boy, you just tell them you have plans with Nana,” she would tell us. “We’ll take a drive around the block if we have to, just so it’s not a lie.”
Nana had this beautiful orchid tree that bloomed in the spring time, creating a canopy over the driveway that made her tiny blue house seem a glorious place. Her porch swing was one of my favorite spots to enjoy a book and a glass of sun tea. One day, too many of our friends got on the swing and it broke, crashing to the concrete in a pile of splintered wood and laughter. Nana didn't get mad, she laughed along with us.
Nana always looked so lovely. Her clothing clean and expertly fitted, her hair white and smooth, maintained by weekly salon visits. People couldn’t tell she was getting sicker – that’s how good she looked. But we knew. Two of us lived with her over the years, which was as big a help to us, struggling college students, as it was to her.
I remember giving ChaCha her baths when they became too much for Nana. We washed her with purple shampoo that kept her white coat from turning yellow. The spoiled little thing wouldn’t eat dog food, so Nana cooked for her, ignoring the vet’s admonitions. I sometimes tried to take her for a walk around the block, but always ended up carrying her home. I remember too the day ChaCha died – seeing my stoic mother crying in Nana’s driveway and then sitting with Nana in her room that night as she cried herself to sleep.
When the time came for Nana to leave her little house and move in with my parents, she was heartbroken. She was so independent, and her heart was always stronger than her body. But she adjusted well – aside from having her car keys taken away, I think. I visited often after my son was born and Nana would hold him while I cooked dinner. “Is he too heavy for you, Nana?” I asked. “No, he’s just perfect,” she said.
Nana died peacefully in her sleep when my son was less than a year old, just weeks before her second great grandson would be born. She was a gentle warrior, who, even the day before she died, insisted she would fight as long as she had breath.
We don’t build monuments for people like Nana – those who live quiet lives, heroes to a few, unknown to most. And that’s okay, I guess. My memories of her are too important for a monument – some place only to be visited on holidays. I need them every day. And I remember her every day.
But what about Bluegrass days?
I think they come because sometimes I forget the bigger picture – what it must have taken for her to create the memories I hold so dear. That she had experienced great sorrow in her life, but reflected joy. That she was sick, but didn’t let that stop her from being productive. That she was poor, but held herself with the grace and dignity of a queen. With the little she had, Nana made sure that three little girls – and then three young ladies – knew without a doubt that they were the center of her world.
I am folding laundry. I am dusting a bookshelf. I smell Bluegrass. In the middle of my quiet day, I remember that life may be mundane, but it’s never irrelevant. I remember that even when I am sick, I can be joyful – that love will conquer sorrow. I am inspired to care so deeply that my loved ones will never, ever doubt their importance to me. I am inspired to someday be remembered with a smile.