The butter started to brown in the pan as I was frying eggs. Whoosh! Instant time travel, and I was back in my grandma’s kitchen about 50 years ago.
Browning butter is only one of a dozen smells that bring her to mind. Stock flowers, juniper bushes, lamb chops on the grill…even the combination of hot coffee and a certain quality of morning air one breathes in summer near the San Francisco Bay.
My sisters and I would go by train to visit her in the summers of our childhood, and stay for some weeks. Truly, I don’t know just how long we stayed, but in my consciousness those visits are huge, even if they were only a fraction of total hours and days.
The long and quiet days on our farm, where I wandered along the river nearby or read books by the hour, were certainly just as formative, but the events during those summer vacations with our mother’s mother made a more noticeable impression for two reasons I can figure out.
The first is the common one, that when you are in a new and different place, your mind is stimulated to remember a larger portion of the sensory information it receives. I’ve had this experience on other vacations my whole life. And my grandmother was a very different person from my mother. Her town, her house, the climate, were like another world for me.
From the window of our bedroom in that world we looked out at night on the Bay, the bridges all lit up, beacon lights always scrolling the sky from somewhere down below and dissolving into the darkness above; street lights, skyscraper lights, traffic. There was so much happening. At home, if you’d looked outside at night, you’d see: nothing. It was pitch black, and no sound but the dogs’ breathing.
A kitchen is another world–or universe. Grandma rarely used frozen vegetables, but sat us girls at the kitchen table to string beans or shell peas. Grandpa was at another table cracking walnuts. We would drive an hour east to buy boxes of apricots from the farm, of the sort that are so juicy and yummy they don’t ship well. Grandma used real butter, whereas we were used to margarine, because it was cheaper. Lamb chops belonged only to her world; as a child I never knew them elsewhere.
Food differences bring me to the other reason for my piquant memories: my nose. Back home, the atmosphere was permeated with the smoke from my mother’s cigarettes, and I think it deadened my olfactory receptors. When they got a respite from the fumes, they woke up and flooded my brain with news of the aromatic world. I can still bring her to mind in all her loving dedication just by thinking of Palmolive soap, the smell of the tiny backyard lawn when the sun shined on it, and the face cream she would smooth on her ever-silky skin at night.Grandma died, 103 years old, the year that my eldest child married. She passed her behind-the-wheel driving test when she was 100 so that she could renew her license, the same year she visited the house she was born in and had this picture taken.
As I said in a rhyme to her at one of her birthdays, “I’d like to write a book of her life…” She was the most important person in my life for a long time, and there are many other aspects of her long stay on the earth that make a good story.
Today is her birthday, and I only want to post this small bit. And as delicious smells are so often linked to her sweet memory, I will also share with you a bush that didn’t grow in her yard, but does grow in mine: osmanthus, or sweet olive. When it blooms several times a year, a few feet from our front door, the fragrance is like dew from a benevolent Heaven, or incense in church. I know God loves me, when I walk out the door and that smell greets me.
There’s nothing flashy about the flowers visually. They are so tiny, I never notice them until they announce their bloom by their perfume. When I first caught that scent on the air, it wasn’t coming from this bush, which had just been planted, but was on a path in our neighborhood. I said to the children, “Ooooh, someone is baking an apricot pie!” Funny thing was, a few days later they were baking pies again. Eventually I located the source of the fruity smell and realized that we also had it growing by our house.
I’m pretty sure the osmanthus is blooming this week in honor of Grandma’s birthday.