Vanilla Memories

As I made my way through the living room earlier tonight, en route to the front porch so I could turn the sprinklers on, a familiar scent made its way to my nose.

There’s really no reason it should have been in the air.

When I was around 6 years old, I remember being sent home from school on occasion with order forms and small catalogs. I can’t remember if it was a fundraising thing or for something else, but I do remember often selling candles in little tins.

I could always count on my parents and grandparents to purchase something so that I wasn’t turning in a blank slip. One year, my grandma ordered a vanilla-scented candle in a square tin about 4 or 5″ high. I remember seeing it each time I’d go to her house; the familiar pattern would greet me. I can still see it in my mind’s eye today — the tin had a cream-colored background, and a pale green lattice pattern trimmed the top and bottom. Soft turquoise and pale pink butterflies adorned each side.

Year after year, the candle hung around. (She must not have lit it very often; I noticed each time I took its lid off to smell it that the wick never got any shorter.) As I turned the sprinklers on, more memories came back to me. I remember when my grandpa and grandma drove over in their new car during the early 80s — my grandpa had purchased a sporty white Mazda RX-7. They rolled into the driveway, and as I glanced over at it — empty in the evening darkness — I could picture the car there as though it was yesterday.

Another favorite memory of them that we all have is when they’d come over on Saturday mornings and sit around the kitchen table chatting with my parents. They’d usually bring donuts, as there would often be a pink box generally found at small mom n’ pop shops on the kitchen table. In time, my brother and I would wake up and make our way into the kitchen to join them. Looking back on it, and now that I’m the age my mom was when I was 5, I imagine those mornings when just the four of them sat visiting — before my brother and I were awake and monopolizing their time — were exactly what my mom and dad needed after a long week of working and taking care of kids, pets and home.

My grandmother had been a big smoker, and the end of her life was unfortunately dotted with oxygen tanks, labored breathing and assisted living. One Christmas break when I was home from Michigan State, I knew she wasn’t doing well. I meant day after day to go over to see her, knowing that she probably didn’t have much longer, but visiting her room where she’d live out the rest of her life was difficult. It was at a place that was next door to a school I’d attended when I was in grades 6-8. At that school, we were assigned a senior friend to visit each week. While it was a really nice facility, complete with individual apartments — if a resident was able to live on his or her own — the heaviness in the air, the smells, the sounds and everything about that place meant one thing to me: nobody there had much time left. The visits we’d make in junior high were difficult. I had no idea that within 10 years, my own grandmother would be living there.

Towards the end of my holiday break, I squeezed in a hair appointment because my roots were getting pretty shabby; fresh highlights were a must before flying back for the spring semester.

The phone rang while I was at the salon, foils on head, and I knew she had passed. It was, in fact, the news that came through the line. Devastated isn’t the word that begins to describe how I felt, coupled with selfish and avoidant. Selfish me couldn’t bring myself to go over to see her any earlier than I felt it was absolutely necessary to do so, and I’d missed my opportunity entirely.

I believe she passed away on her wedding anniversary; my grandfather — her husband — had passed in the late 80s, and she spent too many years without him. They were a magnificent couple. I really think that what they say is true: sometimes people wait for a certain date to roll around before they’re ready to pass on. I think my grandma waited for her anniversary, and wanted to give my grandpa the best anniversary gift ever: her joining him again.

All of these thoughts ran through my head in the 30 seconds or so I had stepped on to the porch, turned on the sprinklers and walked back inside. I expected the familiar smell in the living room to be gone by the time I came back in, thinking that I either had imagined it or mistaken it for a different smell.

It was still there. And it was the scent of that old, well-known vanilla candle inside that butterfly-adorned tin. It lingered just long enough to where a thought crossed my mind. Maybe, in my room full of cranberry and pomegranate scents, vanilla had paid me a visit as a reminder that although she’s gone, and although I wish quite often I could’ve redone my own actions during the last days of her life, she’s only as far as a memory.

Tonight I am thankful for the years I had with my grandparents — my dad’s parents — even though they were too few in number. I don’t know that I’ve ever really forgiven myself for not making time to see her before she passed, but the memories I do have of her — and of them both — are the most divine, heart-warming ones a girl could ask for.

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