My Mother, My Daughter and Me
Copyright ©susan Tarr
It’s not that I’m usually strange. No one has ever told me I am.
But this isn’t a normal afternoon.
I’m in the supermarket (with my daughter) and there is a very faint smell, just enough to alert my senses, tweak my memories. It’s not a bad smell; it’s a lovely smell. It reminds me of the comfort and the softness of my mother’s hands. That would be fifty years ago. Sixty? More or less? Half a century. Doesn’t it sound a long time when you put it like that?
(A cane basket over one arm, me dragging on the other, the bow on my best dress undone now.)
This smell lived in the safeness of her arms. It is a pleasing smell.
(The grocery store at the top of our steep street, my little legs pumping along like a railway hand cart. We call those things jiggers.)
To be pursuing an elusive smell through the aisles of a large supermarket could be considered strange, but I feel compelled. My journey takes me past detergents and toilet paper with packaging that insists they are scent-free, so I know they are not what I smell.
I sniff the air, and detour past the bakery with its taunting aromas.
(A Vienna loaf bound in a strip of white printers’ paper.)
The bakery is one place sure to confuse me and turn my focus to what they are serving for lunch and what I’ll be given. I wander further along the aisle and seek the fragrant air. It is a comfortable smell, a smell of security and love. My mother smelled like that, I think, but I’ve already had that thought.
(Wooden scrubbing board. Hard bar of yellow sunlight soap. Little blue bag. The old copper lit from below. Dad’s homebrew lining the wall shelves, the little bottles that stood like soldiers. Fizz and pop.)
I stand in front of the cereal display for some time with a box of cornflakes in my hand
(Weetbix and hot milk; a sprinkle of white sugar like winter’s sleet melting on top)
and I consider whether or not I will put the box into my trolley or put it back on the shelf. And why do I have a trolley when it is empty?
My trolley and I continue to seek out the smell.
Walking for hours, I am grateful for the trolley. Then I arrive in the potted plants’ section to find this aisle is a dead end.
(Ah, small packets of seeds: sweet peas to climb the wooden dunny and bright carrots to be thinned out after they sprout. Straight rows of plumed green. Next are the radishes with their frilled red foliage. Perhaps some Derris Dust for the cabbages, dear. Those white butterflies are making a right mess.)
I wonder briefly what is beyond the high wall with the racked plants. Here the smell is stronger. It is not overpowering but I hesitate to call it perfume. It is a scent, like a quality soap or talcum powder. It’s a pleasant personal smell.
I glance around the mirror-lined walls. With all those plants, the area has the feel of a tropical garden. I fondle the leaf of a chrysanthemum.
(A yellow chrissy to brighten Nana’s room? We can take it to the hospital this afternoon, lovie.)
It is strong and glistens with drops of moisture reflecting broken light.
Another woman is seemingly taken with the array of blooms, and we each gaze at our chosen plant.
(Would Nana prefer the darker red? Perhaps we can get her that one for her birthday. One can never have too many flowers, my love.)
(My daughter is occupied with a group of young people.)
How are these plants watered? Will an automatic sprinkler system turn on at dawn and then off twenty minutes later?
(Fetch the watering can, darling. The plants are looking a wee bit sorry for themselves.)
I reach out. I stroke the strong green leaf once more.
(Best we hose those tomatoes in the glasshouse. They are growing at such a rate.)
In my room, the flowers are plastic. Or silk. I sometimes wash them in the hand basin.
I notice the woman’s increased interest in the foliage, and I admire the clarity of the glass.
(A wet page of newspaper with a spot of meths will do just fine.)
The image is sharp enough to show age spots on the woman’s hand; a hand no longer weathered and worn from gardening and scrubbing clothes, or the caustic burns of an oven cleaner.
Socks. Now where did that thought come from? It is years since I’ve washed men’s socks. I used to peg them on the line in pairs. Not because they might be lonely, but so they could always march together.
(Wooden dolly pegs. Oh, the line has broken again. But there’s no rush. The fine weather has set in.)
I am pleased my new friend doesn’t race in every direction leaving me bereft in her wake. Now there’s a word. Wake. As in a ship’s wake? In this context, I wonder what it means. I’ll check once I get home. If I remember…
(Home – the long steep street. Gabled. Verandahs. Adirondack chairs. Swing. Plum trees and gooseberry bushes.)
I choose a pink chrysanthemum to put in my trolley. My eyes fix on a stand of Blitzem. I’ll grab a box after I have spoken to her about her scent, though I have no garden now. (My daughter just reminded me of that. You don’t have a garden now, Mum, she said. You won’t need the Blitzem.) I’ll need to word my greeting carefully because she, this friend of mine, seems frail. I don’t want to approach her with a comment about her smell, offending her and stunting our friendship before it even starts, a friendship to surely last beyond this shopping trip.
My eyesight is not as it once was and the reflections of plants are confusing me. I steady myself to reach for the Blitzem, for the snails, you see, determined I will talk to her once I’ve put the box next to the chrysanthemum. In my trolley.
My new friend, because that’s surely what she is, and at our age time is not something two women dither over, reaches her hand also. I glance in the mirror – two old ladies after the same box. I smile at her. It has been so long since I’ve had a friend, and I suppress a giggle.
She notices my giggle. A smile escapes her mouth and she raises her hand to hide it. Yes, I think, she is shy also. Perhaps she would like a new friend, one she will feel comfortable with.
I am overcome with a desire to stroke her hand. (And to introduce her to my daughter. Now where has she darted off to?) But the anticipation of that first touch sends me down a path to my own first touch…
(Oh, yes, my darling sweet sixteen. Is his name Malcolm – or Brian? He’s biked along a country road this day. It has its own smell, the heat of the sun on mown hay, of the yellow gorse flowers, and the flax stands. Malcolm – or Brian – arriving in the dust. He smiles at me and touches my hand…)
I have traced the elusive smell to this woman and she appears to be as I recall my mother had been. I know without a doubt I will like her so I approach her to tell her how her scent makes me feel, how I hope we will be friends. Just for this short passage of time. And I reach beyond the potted chrysanthemums with their delicate flowers and glistening drops of water, beyond the Blitzem – to touch my reflection.
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