The Lingering of a Fragrance

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 an 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.

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