Today my daughter came to clean out the rest of her room. Hearing her in the house felt good. Watching her discover things that had been tucked away was sweet. She found the tickets to her prom, a movie stub from her first date with my now son-in-law, the ever important math homework from 8th grade.
I sat on the floor and smiled as she worked, looking in yearbooks, finding clothes she had forgotten she owned and silly things from her youth. Then she pulled out a grocery sack. A quizzical look passed over her face and then she lifted the bag to her face, inhaled and smiled. She looked at me smiling and handed it to me. Inside the bag were a few scarves, a couple of hairnets, and some linen handkerchiefs with crocheted lace around the side. The scent was unmistakable. It was my grandmother’s perfume.
When my husband and I separated, I moved about one thousand miles away to the city where my grandmother and her sister and brother in law lived. My soon to be ex-husband, who was loved and adored my my grandmother was now instantly not worth the dust on my shoes. My grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. My sister and I referred to her as “The Duchess”. Behind her back of course. She was opinionated, bossy, ruled the roost and no one questioned her – EVER. She was not shy, she said what she meant and meant what she said.
My grandmother was the second oldest of nine children, the oldest girl. She helped to raise all her younger brother’s and sisters. When she was fourteen, she quit high school and took a job as a nurses aid at a hospital. It was on one of her breaks at work that one of the other girls bobbed her hair. She smoked openly there and I think enjoyed some freedom of being “grown up” and not the oldest. Her mother, we referred to as “Queeny” (again, behind her back) was bound and determined that all of her children were going to learn to play a musical instrument or sing. Her father, an immigrant from France, let his wife run the house but his word was final. My grandmother’s instrument of choice was the violin. She could also sing and harmonize. Her older brother, was one of those kind of older brothers that did no wrong in the eyes of his parents, was a charming escort to any young lady and a dice and pool hustler to any other “jokers” on the block. He played piano,accordion and sang in a band. They played on a local radio station quite frequently. He invited his sister (my grandmother) to the station and try out for the orchestra. She got in, and was 2nd chair. Her brothers and their friends kept a close eye on her because they knew how musicians treated girls as they were musicians themselves.
One day, a “cowboy band” came to the set to do a three set show. One of them was tall and broad and had piercing blue eyes, and “looked like James Cagney”. A few weeks later, she and that Cagney look-alike were married. And they were married for over 25 years. Lean and fat years, they were together, because my grandmother was a force to be reckoned with. My grandfather died suddenly in his sleep at the age of forty-eight. I was only six, and my world had crashed around me. But my grandmother did not let it shake her. At least not that I ever saw. I heard a story of my mother finding her in their bed room, hugging his pillow close and taking in the scent that was her husband.
She lived through the death of her younger brother, her older brother, her father, a son and now her husband. When my own mother (her oldest) was in the hospital, close to death in another city, a short four hours from here, my grandmother begged anyone who came into her hospital room to take her to see her daughter (my mother). But she was too ill to travel. When my mother died, they went to my grandmother’s hospital room to tell her. They said she leaned back against the pillows and looked to the ceiling. I think it was then her resolve began to give. Six weeks later, she left us.
I held that bag in my hands and looked at all the things I had seen her use or create over the years. I pictured Saturday nights, with her at the kitchen table in her pajamas and slippers; setting her hair and smoking with a coffee cup near by. The black and gold sparkled hair net went over the rollers before she went to bed. The handkerchiefs with crocheted lace were always in her hand bag along with lipstick, lotion, Winston cigarettes, a long gold lighter, a package of mints or chewing gum and a small wallet. In church I played with the handkerchiefs, making them into babies in a swing or a small puppet. The scarves were always around her neck and criss-crossed over her chest and then a cardigan sweater and then her coat were worn. We lived in the Midwest of the United States, you layer in the winter and always wear a scarf, even if it is leopard print with black and gold trim.
My daughter said, “What are you thinking about?” and I replied, “You my darling girl. I see some scattered items of the Duchess, but I see you.”
I am the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter of the oldest daughter. And who knows, there could have been more. I have one girl and one boy. My son is my oldest, my daughter the baby. I looked in her eyes and I see all she has done with and for me these past two years and I thought, “This one is a force to be reckoned with. No wonder we automatically called her “The Princess”. She has an incredible legacy.