White Shoulders Perfume

My grandmother, whom we all called “Ba,” was a many-layered person. She was Irish, and proud of it. Her people came from Galway, and, although she was born in America, she never forgot her roots. I met her when I was four years old, and she immediately claimed me for her own. She was short and stout, and smelled like peppermint and soap. When I was visiting, she often would come up behind me, wrap her arms around me, kiss my head and say, “You are my own!”

She was a gardening wizard; any seed she put into the ground flourished. If regular columbine flowers were as large as a quarter, hers were the size of a man’s palm. She taught me how to sew on her ancient Singer treadle machine. There wasn’t a garment she couldn’t make; dresses, aprons, skirts, blazers, nightgowns, and more. Anything she sewed was flawless. She also loved making Christmas ornaments out of velvet, ribbons and bits of broken necklaces or earrings. Even the packages she wrapped for Christmas were works of art—one year all her packages were wrapped in shiny pale pink paper with coppery ribbon, and garnished with shellacked oak twigs with acorns.

Animals, especially birds, were attracted to her. It wasn’t unusual to see her out in the back yard standing still, with a few small birds circling over her head. One morning my grandfather woke me up early and told me to come with him. We looked out of the pantry window, and there was Ba standing in front of her garden, her back facing us. Right behind her was a doe, her beautiful head resting on Ba’s shoulder.

Her meals were always wonderful, and her baking was outstanding. Even when I was in college she sent me “care packages” full of her delicious cookies. Her fruit pies were lumpy and bumpy and mouthwatering. Ba’s holiday meals were unforgettable: for Thanksgiving, a huge turkey stuffed with cornbread and sage dressing with all the trimmings, for Christmas Eve, her special club chowder made with oysters, clams, lobster, scallops and crab meat, along with her homemade watermelon pickles, and for Christmas day, a standing rib roast. Even birthdays were an occasion. My birthday in July meant a beautiful iced ring cake with a crystal glass of fresh flowers in the middle.

Her favorite color was pink. There was a room upstairs I slept in when I was visiting that was all done in pink; walls and ceiling, with pink bedding. It was like being inside a lovely seashell. Whenever I visited and stayed overnight, I loved being in that room. I would wake up the next day to the smell of fresh coffee, and the murmurs of my grandparents. Breakfast was always eggs, bacon and buttered toast.

Ba never learned to drive, and whenever my grandfather took her out even just to go food shopping, she dressed for the occasion. She even put on makeup, and always spritzed herself with her favorite White Shoulders perfume. How I loved that smell! Even today, that scent takes me back to those days when I sat in the back of my grandparents’ immaculately clean car, breathing in that heavenly waft.

When she died, I was able to hold back my tears because of what she had told me years earlier. She said that I wasn’t to be upset upon seeing her body; that that was only her “shell.” She told me, “The real me will be far away, up in the sky with the angels. I will always be with you, so don’t worry.”

Years later, I was attending the funeral of a friend’s mother. I was the only woman in that section of the church. Suddenly I smelled White Shoulders perfume. I leaned back, and it was just as though Ba was sitting right there, her arms around me as so many times before.

Although I missed her terribly, I knew then that she was with me still, communicating in a way she knew I would instantly recognize.




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