In Search of Lost Relatives

On the bus today a lady sat next to me wearing a faint lavender perfume that took my nasal cavities for a light speed ride straight back to my childhood.  It smelled exactly like my grandmother’s perfume.

It was one of those intense, palpable memories that you (pretend to have) read about in the novels of Proust. Unlike big P I can’t use writing to recreate the organic phenomenon that is memory — that would be too much work for me to write and for you to read. But I feel kind of compelled to talk about it because my grandmother has been dead for 10 years and this was the strongest impression of her and the longest I’ve sat and thought about her since then.

So let me put this in context.  When I was a child I would visit my grandparents’ house in the tranquil green  English countryside — an absolute clichee, I know — but this was a place where time was too lax to pass as such, rather it kind of just gurgled gently forward as in Winnie the Pooh.

I realize now that this was largely because British children’s television was nowhere near as diverse and sophisticated as its American counterpart, prompting me to experience a complete lifestyle change whenever I was over there.  I would get my fix of TV mostly through old VHS’s (Dad’s Army, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean, etc.) but they never had the same engaging power over me as the American stuff.  Besides, my grandparents had a giant and very personable labrador retriever that needed my companionship.  I couldn’t help going outside, to play or go for a walk or simply to read. My ferocious allergies and creeping boredom and chidish itch for constant stimulation would all dissipate after a while, and I would briefly enjoy the country life.

As it should be, country life was punctuated at regular intervals with tea and biscuits and trips to the village shop to get candy.

(For those of you who haven’t been to the UK, it’s safe to say that the ratio of the quality of British candy to American candy is approximately equal to the inverse of the ratio of the quality of British children’s television to American children’s television. That is, British candy will blow your mind.)

It was in this impossible world that my grandmother would take me for walks on the public footpaths through endless meadows and fields, regaling me with the battleground deeds of Robert the Bruce. She would allow me to accompany her to the ancient churchyard in the village, which she would tend to while I ran around oblivious. She would even indulge me with spry games of hide and seek around the garden, where the potting shed and the enormous cedar trees were the most tempting, and hence the worst, hiding places.

Beyond gardening and cooking and tea making and child rearing and all the rest of the vast array of stereotypically feminine skills that she seemed so effortlessly to posess, my grandmother was a very strong and unique person. She drank and smoked heavily and swore — she enjoyed watching cricket and rugby — she read voraciously about obscure and exciting things like medieval history — and these traits added tremendously to the air of mystery surrounding her household.  The first chapters of “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe” will always remind me of that place…like the peace and otherness was all part of some strange literary adventure waiting to unfold.

There was one other time in the past few years that I remembered those days so clearly — it was in my apartment in Beijing (of all places) where the whirr our little stand-up washing machine and the miasma of tobacco smoke in the living room would occasionally resonate with my memories of sitting at the kitchen table with my grandmother, reading or talking or just being silly, with the endlessly comforting wash cycle buzzing in the background.

Now even as a kid I was aware and quite thankful that this wasn’t my real life. If it had been, I would have been faced with many unacceptable corrolaries: the necessity for British schooling and the accompanying British sports, the boredom, and the afore mentioned lack of Nickalodeon just to name a few.  No way.

But nostalgia always wins in the end…and today on the bus I finally realized that my grandmother was the mistress of a realm that I can never go back to.

Incidentally, how old was T.S. Eliot when he had Prufrock proclaim that bit “I grow old, I grow old…”?

He was 23.

<sigh>

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One Response to “In Search of Lost Relatives”

  1. David Says:

    Yeah, but Eliot was a dick. I’m glad you’re you.

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