Archive for January, 2012

The Lingering of a Fragrance

January 29, 2012

Catherine attracted men, drew them to her like the latest model sports car, with her classic good looks, smooth lines, glossy curves, supple skin, and a powerful engine. Her scent was not that of new car though, it was a subtle hint of France that came from a cut glass atomizer. Her fragrance was only a small part of her charm. She spent a lifetime honing her skill and even with advanced dementia, she practiced her craft with precision and a depth of proficiency that was buried so deep in her psyche that it survived the disorientation.

She mesmerized.  I watched her sometimes as she cocked her head to one side, and smiled at her catch, a male visitor or a student, never another resident of the nursing home.  She gained his attention with a lipstick framed smile and then pointed at him with a manicured finger whose nail was the same hue as her lips. She’d turn her hand over and beckon with that index finger in a come-hither crook. It never failed, never. The gentleman in question, magnetized by her magic, sauntered over to her wheelchair, bowed down to her, grasping that dainty hand in his and asked her what she needed.  She tittered, pulling her free hand to her mouth and lowered her eyes only to peer out at the man from under her lashes.  Sometimes a lost look of confusion brought him to her; sometimes it seemed nothing at all drew him near.

At eighty she maintained a relationship with a man on the outside. He was ten years her senior and drove twenty miles to visit her twice a week. He carried a wicker basket covered in a linen cloth in one hand, and a cane in the other. He dressed in tweed jackets, sported a silk tie and a pencil thin white moustache.  Catherine’s face broke into brilliance when she saw him. She’d lift her hand to her hair, as if to put stray pieces back into place, turn her face up to him, purse her lips and wait for him to bend down to the wheelchair and kiss her. “I’ve been waiting,” she’d say.

He’d locate a quiet corner for two. The cream colored linen cloth covered the top of a small institutional table. Crystal candlesticks, English china plates with pastoral scenes, sterling flatware, and cloth napkins graced a table in accordance with Catherine’s station, and for her pleasure. Her ease was the sound of her sigh as she spread the napkin in her lap.  The two of them conversed in quiet tones. At times the baritone of his laughter mixed with the lilt of hers and heads turned.

Years before, she had married a shipping magnate, and although she’d been divorced from that husband for years, and remarried several times, she kept his last name, not so much because she loved him, but because the prestige of his moniker served her well in her independent life as a graphic artist, writer, and world traveler. She grew up in small-town Ohio, not well-to-do,  but through her own ingenuity and tenacity, she  built a life and a name for herself.

I met her when she arrived at the nursing home, the angriest person I’d ever seen.

“Take your hands off me,” she hissed at the young nurse who’d come to show her to her room. Catherine jerked her elbow away from the smiling caregiver.  “I’m perfectly capable of walking independently.” She’d gathered the front panels of  her coat closer to her, adjusted the purse on her arm, lifted her chin, set her mouth in a straight line, and teetered on her heels down the hallway. No matter the approach from staff members, she maintained the upper hand, not letting them care for her without suffering the consequences of her forced immodesty.

Some caregivers sneered at her elevated sense of self, others smiled in admiration at her resolve.

She was a little over five feet tall, thin, with white hair, cut in a stylish bob. Her lipstick, eyeliner and rouge were impeccably applied. She didn’t leave her room without a glance in the mirror, a hand to her hair, or an adjustment to her silk scarf.  The memory of her appearance hadn’t escaped her, nor had her sense of style, a classic elegance, everyone admired. A mink stole hung in her closet; earrings, necklaces and rings vied for attention in her jewelry box and silk stockings shared a drawer with lacy under-things. She was not too old for romance.

In the end, her words lost all coherence, but her gestures and facial expressions maintained their meaning and charm. Catherine died Tuesday.

Her estranged son wanted none of her belongings. Staff members sat on Catherine’s bed, surrounded by her beautiful things. They held small scraps of fabric that had touched Catherine and cried. I couldn’t go into her room. It was too hard.  I’d remember our chats together over cups of tea and be happy for the memory.

That evening, when I left work, I found Catherine’s small pine lingerie chest beside the dumpster. It was falling to pieces, not much more than a pile of sticks and a few drawers. I couldn’t leave it there for the trash man to pick up.

I stacked the pieces in my car and carried them home.

Bruce met me at the garage and peered into the back of the car. “What have you brought home now?” He asked.

“I was hoping you and I could piece it back together.” I said.

He sighed as he’s done before when I’ve tried to hold onto a memory. He didn’t know Catherine, but he helped me unload the chest and we spent the evening interconnecting the parts, gluing the sections together, clamping and reinforcing that which had come undone.

I was wiping off the top with a soft rag when Bruce picked up one of the drawers to slide back into its place. He stopped and drew the rectangular box shape to his face. He closed his eyes and breathed in. “Perfume,” he said, looking at me.

“Catherine,” I answered.


January 12, 2012

I had spent the entire month of December finding volunteers to adopt each of my one hundred thirty nursing home residents. I like each to have a Christmas present to open from Santa. Churches, insurance groups, home companion services, the local University offices, and kind individuals took an elder’s name, bought a gift, wrapped it, and delivered it to the facility the week before Christmas.

That last week found us sorting, arranging and organizing the main event.  My gangly teenager, in the guise of Santa, visited and handed out presents. His red suit was stuffed with lumpy pillows and his beard kept slipping off his chin.  He mumbled under his breath so old ears couldn’t hear, “Jeez Mom, this stupid suit is hot, and the temperature in this place is turned up to a hundred.”

“Shhh,” I scolded, elbowing him in the ribs. “Santa is jolly, remember?”

“Why couldn’t Ben do it again?”

“I’ve done the Santa bit long enough,” Ben, my 6’6” elf said to his brother. “It’s your turn.”

My skinny Santa rolled his eyes, adjusted his pillows, and hiked up his pants. “Let’s go and get this over with,” he sighed.

My boys are good sports, and although Ryan was game,  his “Ho, ho, ho” needed a bit more bass and volume. For a first-timer he did alright. It’s a good thing the elders love him, and have watched him grow up. They are patient, kind, and found his presentation, “endearing.” The real Santa never received so many hugs and kisses.

By Christmas eve, we were all tired. I anticipated the weekend of Christmas for the days off from work, for a chance to finally put my feet up. My last week of vacation for the year started December 26th; and I was looking forward to some rest.

Then, my Mama sprung her gift, a week’s stay ocean-front on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a four and a half hour drive south of home to the barrier island, a trip, packing, meal planning, driving, family dynamics. She couldn’t contain her excitement as we opened the box to the announcement of her surprise. How do you look a seventy-seven year old smiling grandmother who has outdone herself in what she thinks is the perfect gift and say, “thanks, but what we really wanted was to stay at home.”  You don’t. I smiled, hugged her, and spent the next few hours planning the week away.

“She’s getting up there,” Bruce chastised me later when I harrumphed about my exhaustion and plans ruined by a trip to the beach.  “At her age, you never know,” he said shrugging. “Look at this as an opportunity to enjoy some quality time with your mother.”  After a pause, he said, “You know I can’t go. I have that contract with the doctor’s office to push snow if we get a storm.”

Yes there was a contract, but the extended forecast mentioned expectation of higher than average temps and sunny days. I suppose it’s good to have a handy excuse. He hugged me. “I’ll miss you,” he said.

Mama had rented the condo from December 25-January 1.  She wanted to make the most of our time and her six hundred dollars.  “All we have to do is throw some things into a bag and some food into the cooler and go,” she said smiling, her hands clasped together in her excitement. She wanted to leave that afternoon, on Christmas day.

At least no one travels on the twenty-fifth, I thought. Smart people are home, gathered around the tree, opening presents, or sitting down to a home-cooked meal, Norman Rockwell style. Most people.

Traffic was horrendous. I envisioned clear roads, uncongested tunnels, clean rest stops. Wrong. It seems everyone travels on Christmas day and there’s no place to stop for a bite to eat except the Lucky Mart, ten miles off the interstate. They had stale ham and cheese sandwiches, cold tofu burgers with processed cheese to heat in the microwave, chips and drinks.  5th Avenue candy bars served as our holiday dessert.

It was cold at the beach, and there’s not much to do in the winter time. The second floor condo Mama had rented was nice, with a wrap-around couch, large flat screen television, state of the art stereo system, and ample pots for cooking. The sliding glass doors opened off the living area to a balcony. We each had a bedroom to hole up in when needed and mine faced the ocean. If I cracked the window a few inches and burrowed under the covers at night, I could listen to the waves breaking on shore.

Mama brought her dominos, a double set of playing cards, and her recipe book. She fixed coffee for us each morning with just enough sugar and a French vanilla creamer that made me close my eyes and breathe in deeply over the cup, savoring the aroma before letting the sweet caffeine slide down my throat. She always knew how to make a good cup of coffee.

I slept in Monday morning and lounged in my pajamas all day, like I’d wanted to do the day before. I took out the book I’d gotten for Christmas, Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, and read, realizing I didn’t have laundry to wash, wrapping paper to clean up, or a tree to dismantle. I enjoyed a big bowl of Mama’s homemade potato soup with little round oyster crackers. I wrapped myself in a blanket, tucked my feet under me, and read the rest of the evening.

Tuesday was just as quiet with the exception of a rousing game of Spite and Malice, which my mother won. She’s the competitive one.

 We spent the whole of Wednesday ferreting out the thrift stores in the area, trying on vintage comfortable clothes and eclectic jewelry that we’d only pay a dollar a piece for. Mama picked up a green plaid duvet cover for my bed at home for two dollars and I found her a whole box of canning jars with lids for a dollar and a half. We tried on silly purple hats with veils and almost wet ourselves laughing over a pair of shiny red leather, six inch stiletto heels.

“I think I’ll buy these for Mary Elizabeth’s next gathering,” Mama said holding the shoes by their spikes.  I opened my eyes wide.  Mary-Elizabeth is one of Mama’s church friends. She holds fancy teas and respectable luncheons. Her gloves are white and she dons a lace apron when serving refreshments. Mama showing up in stilettos would cause Mary-Elizabeth to go pale, maybe faint, and attempt to hide my mother from her other, more staid friends. Mama would smile, twirl and dare Mary Elizabeth and her friends to walk a mile in her shoes.  

I held the strappy little numbers by their leather backs and dared Mama to try them on. She never backs down from a challenge. She sat on a wobbly wooden rocker in the thrift store and slipped off her soft loafers. I felt a bit like her prince charming, down on my knees, buckling the shoes onto her feet. I held the hand of my seventy-seven year old mother as she stood and teetered toward the full length mirror.  Her elastic waist jeans and flannel button-down shirt gave her that very aged “Ellie May gone inner-city girl” appearance. She struck a pose with hip stuck out, hand behind head, and the two of us doubled over laughing. I had to hold onto her to keep her from toppling head first into a rack of vintage beaded evening gowns.  

The week came to a close much too soon. I hadn’t laughed so hard, eaten so well, or rested as much in a long time.

On Friday afternoon, the day before we left for home, we were drawn to the window by the sight of a hundred or more gulls and pelicans circling and diving into the water after a school of fish so large and boisterous the ocean couldn’t contain them as they fought for room to swim. The fish seemed to jump up out of the water to meet the mouths of the birds.

In all of our years of coming to the Outer Banks, my mother and I had never seen so many sea birds congregate over the ocean, settle on its surface, or dive in such a frenzy. They looked to have been shot from the sky, beaks pointed down, spiraling into the water with a splash, only to come up again, bobbing on the surface. Then they rose again to the air and repeated the exercise.  

Both of us were speechless. We stood in awe of the hundreds of white winged dots rising, falling, dipping and splashing. Then a movement caught my eye and I pointed in its direction. A blue-black hump rose just above the surface of the ocean and shone bright as the sun glinted off it. I thought it was a dolphin at first, but hadn’t seen a fin.  Then the hump disappeared and was gone, but a few seconds later a large spray of water erupted from the ocean’s surface and several feet behind it, a fluke lifted. It was a whale.  I had heard others speak of the migration of the humpbacks in December, but I’d never seen one.

“Whales!” I said.

“Whales!” Mama echoed.

We stood watching them for the next hour. Every once in awhile, a back emerged, or a fin lifted and hovered parallel to the water, then slipped under again.  They swam and spouted and waved at us as we stood side by side, watching in wonder at my mother’s ultimate Christmas gift.