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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The scent of a memory

Even over the smell of the food, I smelled him as he walked in the door. You don't think you will ever forget the smell of a man once they are gone forever, but sadly one day you do. Until it walks into a restaurant and gets in line behind you. I breathed deeply twice. I bit my lip to stop the tears, as I turned around to see who it was that smelled like that.

He was probably about 70 years old. Little bit shrunken, like older people get. Nice looking guy, glasses, old guy cap on his head. But that smell, he smelled just like my grandpa. I just smiled at him and turned back around. The baby cooed at him once, possibly waved, as it is his favorite thing to do. I am pretty sure he said something to Harrison, but I couldn't tell you what.

I wish I could have asked him what cologne he used. Wouldn't have mattered though, as I know it was a combination of things. His Cologne, Zest soap, Listerine, Certs breath mints. Grandpa; he smelled like grandpa.


Where are we going this week, he'd ask me. Where do you think silly, I'd say. Let me guess? How about Paulie's, you know Paul would love to see you? No grandpa, no Mexican food, Hamburger Hamlet. Oh how could I have not known that, he'd say, sighing.

Every other Tuesday night for two years, that was my dinner choice. Every time, we had the same conversation. Their hamburgers and fries were to die for, their shakes couldn't be beat; but best yet, they let you draw on the table. At five years old, there is nothing better than drawing on the table while on a date with your grandpa.

You know, Melissa Annie, he'd say; one day you are going to want to go to a real restaurant and then I will be the one wanting to draw on the table and we always have to come here.

Grandpa, even when I am eighty-ninety-two years old, I will always want to come here.


I was six, maybe seven the first time I got fresh with him. You better watch it girl, or I will snatch you bald headed. He growled a bit as he said it. I apologized instantly and he was fine after that.

What that exactly meant, I never knew. But he said it too all of the grandchildren when they got smart mouthed or said or did something rude. What I did know was I didn't want to know what it meant.

I heard someone else say that their grandfather used to say that. Not sure where I was, nor who said it, but it didn't bother me. I bet their grandfather didn't growl when he said it.


At ten, he taught me how to shift the gears in his car when he was driving. As I got better at it, he'd say every time I got into his car, you shifting or am I? Well that was a silly question to ask a ten year old. I always shifted. He'd tell me when and I got to where I could do it without even looking.

At twelve, he took me into a school parking lot on a Sunday and let me have my first attempt at driving. You tell your dad about this and I'll snatch you bald headed, he'd say.

Grandpa if I told dad about this, he'd make you stop. I want to drive, this is between you and me.

Not many twelve year old children can say they know how to drive a stick shift.


In the summer, when I was fourteen, I ran away from home. I tried to go to Mexico with some friends. We had parental issues, or so we thought in the moment. Everything would be better in Mexico. At the border, they made us call someone to come and get us and I called grandpa. He drove the two and a half hours to get us. Let us have it too, how dumb we were, how badly it could have ended, how disappointed he was in me. That last one hurt the most.

He told us all that you can't run away from small problems and you shouldn't run away from the big ones. Told us our secret was safe with him this time, but next time he'd not be so nice. I never forgot his disappointment that day.


At sixteen, I made an off handed comment about the AC not working great in my bedroom. I came home the next day from school and he was installing a ceiling fan in my bedroom. My mom just shook her head at me and said, I wish I had someone who would drop everything for me like this.


From him, I get my love of good red wine, fresh seafood and great salsa; the joy of storytelling, reading a good book, the love of movies and the ability to cut a person down with my words. That last one, he could have kept.


He told me stories about flying in the Korean war. He told me about growing up with his brother Paul, how Paul never matured past the age of three, even though he lived to be twenty-seven. He told me about the mistakes he made in parenting when my dad and his siblings were kids. He told me about working as a radio guy back in the early sixties. Told me about his granddad, who took them (his daughter and grandchildren: my grandpa and his baby brother Paul who were six and one at the time) and escaped Poland right before it was invaded by the Germans. He told me how much I reminded him of his mom; my great-grandma Annie.


The best compliment I ever got in my life was from him. I can't share it, it's too sentimental, but I never forgot it and I never will.


He was a grouchy old guy, but he always had time for me. When email was new, he and I both had an email account. I used to get emails that had "Yippee, Squeee, Happy" as the subject. That was how much he loved email. It was a joyous event for him each time.


He's a grouchy, pain in the ass curmudgeon and I'm never speaking to him again, I said to my dad on the phone. I was 18 years old and had just had the worst lunch date in my life with Grandpa. I'd told him that Logan and I were getting married and he spent the next half hour telling me how I shouldn't do that, I'd forever regret it; before I finally got up and left the restaurant.

I called him an old fool as I left and told him he was not welcome at my wedding. And Daddy, I mean it, he's not welcome. I was seething as I said this to my dad.

Oh you don't mean that, honey. You are angry, you have every right to be angry, but you have to see his side of view.

No, I can't. He's wrong about me and he's wrong about Logan. I am not mom, Logan is not you. We won't wake up and regret this one day. If I'm wrong and we do, then whatever.

I know that and you know that, but grandpa doesn't. Time will change things. Don't worry about it Melissa, he'll come around.

I am not rushing into this. I love this man, he is my soul mate.

I know. I support you in this and one day your grandfather will too. Just remember you are his first grandchild and the only granddaughter. (At the time this was true, although two years later, my Aunt and Uncle gave him is sixth grandchild, the second granddaughter.) To him, you are like his child. One that he did right by. One that he didn't make the mistakes with that he made with us.

Dad, you are my father, not him.

Dad just sighed and tried to calm me down. He swore it'd go away, that in a few days I'd forget it.

I never did though. The things he said and the things I said changed our relationship from that day forward. He didn't know me like I thought he did, if he'd say those things to me. I always loved him, but our relationship was never the same. I never really let him know me again.


Then came the call. July 2003. Grandpa's been in an accident, my brother said. In those words my heart stopped for an instant. He was coming home from Aunt K's and he got hit by a semi-truck. He's in the middle of nowhere Oregon. Dad is on his way up there now.

The semi didn't kill him. He got so lucky that day. A few broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and some bruising from the seat belt. But the scans they did of his abdomen looked off. They thought they saw something in his liver. The doc told him to go home and have his primary care physician do an MRI.

He put it off, going in. He never liked doctors. Didn't like enclosed spaces, since he'd been hidden in a trunk off and on for days as a child, when they escaped from Poland. Eventually my dad made him go see the doc. Mid-August maybe.

Stage four. Colon cancer. By the time they find colon cancer, it has generally spread to all of your organs. It was in his liver, his pancreas, his lungs. Nothing they could do except send him home with a script for pain meds and the number for hospice. Three to six months if you are lucky.


October 20th was the last time I talked to him. He was doing okay, better than expected. He still got up and left the house every day. Still went to my uncles shop and gave everyone hell. Still went to his favorite restaurants and flirted with the waitresses.

We all had plans for Sunday brunch. We'd started doing it again every week, just like when I was a small kid, since his diagnosis.

Out of the blue, my phone rings. For a second I didn't realize it was him. The cancer had gotten into his stomach, so he had stomach acid that was damaging his vocal cords and his esophagus. His voice was changed, a strangers voice.

I am so proud of you, of the woman you've become, he said. I want you to always know that. To remember this forever, that I've always loved you. That I've been proud of you since the second you were born. I need you to know that I'm sorry for doubting your and Logan's love.

I know grandpa, I told him. it's okay. You don't have to do this now. I will see you in three days. We can talk then.

I was busy with Morgan in that moment. Trying to get her to stop climbing the walls, to take a nap, something. The day to day stuff with a 22 moth old child.

No Melissa he said, you never know how much time is left. I may be unable to talk by Sunday. I want you to know this now, just in case. I need you to know that I love you and I love Logan and I adore that spitfire of a girl you gave me as a great-grandchild.

Okay then. Well I love you too grandpa I said. I've been proud to be your granddaughter my entire life. And Grandpa, I'm sorry too. I was a young fool. Not about marrying Logan, but in thinking that your opinion didn't matter. In not listening and explaining and instead going all defensive.

I love you baby girl, was the last thing he said.


The next day my uncle found him on the floor of his apartment, unconscious. He never again gained consciousness. The last nine days of his life were spent on a vent in the ICU at UCLA Medical Center. He passed away October 30, 2003.


I remember all of this and a million other things while eating my dinner. Who knew one smell could bring it all back? The sadness has passed in some ways. Five and a half years does that too you. You are supposed to lose your grandparents, it is the natural progression of life. Doesn't make it easy when it happens, but you know it is going to happen. He was my first. I've lost the other three since then. The sadness of the two I lost last year is too fresh. When I think of them, I only remember the end.

But with him, I remember the laughs. The dates. The movie marathons. The trip to Vegas in his RV, with my dad and brothers when I was five. Week trips to the Grand Canyon. Days spent looking at boats in the Marina, looking at animals at the zoo, exploring Grifith Park. The letters I have from my weeks spent at summer camp; letters full of jokes and stories about home. The man who taught me to tie a cherry string with my tongue at four years old. The curmudgeon who I respected and loved more than most people.

One smell and it all comes back. The smell of a memory.


Amazing Greis said...

Wow, love this post. I don't remember smells, but with my Grandfather M&M's bring back the memories. We never lived close enough to see him frequently, but when I did see him he always had a bag of M&M's in his pocket. When we visited him in Miami, we always walked to the corner store to buy M&M's, it was our thing. I love M&M's and when I eat them I know that he is eating them along side me.

Thanks for sharing your story.


Jaden Paige said...

I teared up. That was a GREAT post, Issa. :)

Would-Be Bonus Mom said...

I teared up, too. I love this post. I am losing my beloved grandmother to dementia at this moment. And right now it just hurts to see her, hurts to try and talk to her on the phone, knowing that this person, this childlike old woman who pouts and throws temper tantrums to make even the most raucous two year olds cringe, is not my grandmother. I hope to have the clarity of mind to remember her as your remember your grandfather someday.


Just Breathe said...

What a beautiful story. Thank you so much for sharing. I never knew my grandpa's in that way, you are a very lucky girl.

Becky said...

more crying for me today. such a nice post.

Kari said...

That was BEAUTIFUL!!!

It's so true about smells bringing back strong memories, that happens to me too.

What a wonderful memory you will forever keep of your Grandfather and how much you both meant to each other.

anymommy said...

Thank you for sharing your memories. You had an incredible relationship with him and it is so lovingly portrayed here.

Mrs. Chicken said...

Beautiful, my girl.

Kirsten said...

Amazing. It's incredible how a smell can literally assault you with memories sometimes when you least expect it.

What great memories you have of your grandfather.

becky @ misspriss said...

That was really beautiful. It made me cry. I so wish I had known my grandparents longer. Only one of them made it to my adulthood and I didn't get to see her much in later years.

EatPlayLove said...

I had a very limited time with my grandfathers, never having known either of my grandmothers. I always wonder what my memories would be like if they were alive, thanks for sharing.

J from Ireland said...

Wow, how lovely. What a fantasic relationship you had. What a beautiful last conversation, it made me cry.
My own special Grandmother died 2 years ago and I think of the good times we had together too. I just found out I was pregnant the day she died. My daughter was born on her birthday so she shares something with her which means alot to me.
Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written.

These are wonderful memories to have. He sounds like a character, and a great grandfather.