28 May 2001

I can still call up the scent of my Gran's house: lilacs and Emeraude, dust, oregano, pot roast, Aqua Net hairspray. I always want to say it smelled like M&M's, but generally it did not, because the M&M dish had a lid. It sometimes smelled of the cheap kind of chocolate-covered peanuts, though. The oregano was a surprise to me. Usually I mix oregano and basil and garlic when I'm cooking and don't spend much time on the oregano. I spilled some last year, and it all came flooding back. I stood there crying and scooping up oregano.

The flavors of Gran's house didn't change much, either. M&M's and chocolate-covered peanuts, and cashews if I got to the nut dish before Daddy did. Gran always bought day-old cinnamon rolls for us to have in the mornings. I thought they were marvelous. Lunch was pickle-and-pimento loaf or baloney, white bread, red Jello with bananas in it, and a banana on the side. The water had a peculiar, metallic taste; Gran kept a jar of it in the fridge, and a jar of orange juice, but I never drank the orange juice.

We never had dinner at Gran's. We always went out with her, usually for Chinese. Gran loved Chinese food. She loved trying new things. She had her first fish and chips when she was ninety. She'd agree to go and do just about anything new, as long as it wasn't too far away. She didn't like driving too far, even across town. But every Saturday, she got her gas tank refilled whether she needed it or not. The service station attendant pumped her gas for her. She called him "honey." She called everybody "honey," actually. She teased us when we named our dog Honey, that it was just so that she could remember it when she got senile.

She never got senile. But she was the only one who called the dog Honey.

In the front room, there were throw rugs on the floor. I used to sit on the floor while everybody talked and put the tassels on the throw rugs in neat, smoothed order. Sometimes I would braid them, but this seemed a little out of the spirit of things. There were also French doors to the sunroom, and once I made Gran a drawing for every pane of her French doors.

Gran had a mirror that -- imagine the wonder -- swiveled on its base. You could look at the floor and the ceiling at the same time with this mirror. Mother bought us one, later, but it was clearly an impostor and not to be trusted. Gran kept her mirror in the bathroom, which had a secret passageway in it, through Gran's closet to her bedroom. The secret passageway was secret in name only, and I think I was the only one who called it that. Maybe my cousins did.

Then there was The Attic. I don't know what was in The Attic, and I'd appreciate it if nobody ever told me. Mom told me once. I heard, "Oh, honey, there's just --" and tuned her out until she got to, "That's all." (I was, I think, 15 at the time.) Gran's Attic was the source of many stories for me. My favorite was that Great-Grandpa had hidden slaves there in the days of the underground railroad. I had a firm sense of how old Gran was, but Great-Grandpa, it was clear, was Older Than That. He had been dead for longer than I'd been thought of. Some people might point out that Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was not exactly a prime stop on the underground railroad. Such people should get their own family stories and leave mine alone. Mostly, though, I made up secret hobbies for Gran. She kept her paintings up in The Attic. She kept old novel manuscripts. Costumes from the plays she'd produced. Keepsakes from the admirers who had tried and failed to win her heart since Great Grandpa died. Her motorcycle gear. Everything in the world, I could imagine my Gran doing. It was all in The Attic. Which, just to add to things, had a twisty, old-fashioned, thick and spindly key. So did all the other rooms in Gran's house, but The Attic was special.

I was terrified of the paint at Gran's house when I was little. We'd learned in Girl Scouts about lead-based paints from the old days, and how they drove people mad. Gran's paint was clearly old. Certain of Grandpa's siblings had their little eccentricities. I was not taking any chances. When I went to sleep, I wrapped myself up entirely in the covers, head to toe, lest I drool on the paint and dissolve some of it. My parents didn't know this until I was in high school. As with so many things in my childhood, I thought it was obvious.

My mom draws the distinction between a baking grandma and an office grandma (although my guess is that she herself will be both, as my grandma was/is). Gran was an office grandma. She went in to work six days a week, and even at home, she had all sorts of officey things. The staple pull was a particular favorite of mine. And she had a pen which went in a little socket, which was the last word in elegance. Oh, and rather than using a roll of tape on the plastic thing, she transferred it to a heavy tape dispenser, which I believe was orange. She also had a small notepad on her desk, perfect for making miniature paper airplanes. Gran was never the kind to object to miniature paper airplanes.

She loved tiger lilies and snapdragons, and the lilacs of course. She let little girls cut and arrange lilacs in her glasses on the dining room table.

When Gran got her cataracts removed, she walked around the house on the cordless phone, marveling at all the colors she could see again, one room at a time. The doctor gave her her cataracts in a little jar, so that she could see what she'd been trying to see through. Several months earlier, she'd had a double radical mastectomy. I said, "Hey, Gran, why didn't they give you the leftovers from your last surgery?" She giggled and said, "Oh, yes, honey, I could have them bronzed and hang them in the living room."

Have a happy Memorial Day. Or, if you're Linda, a happy birthday. Or even both.

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