An essay of place

Last Thursday I had an assignment due for one of my classes.  It was to be an essay about a place, and being that there is no more story-chocked place in my life than my apartment, I wrote about my home.  I’m feeling fairly happy with the way the piece turned out (although I have to admit that if any of it feels familiar that’s because some bits of it were inspired by entries I’ve written here in the past) so I thought I’d share it.

I live in an apartment full of ghosts.  Sometimes out of the corner of my eye I will catch my grandmother, making her way from the living room to the bathroom, wearing a cashmere sweater and pantyhose.  Once in a great while, I will turn the corner into the kitchen to find my great-aunt Doris standing at the counter, making Onion Olé, one of her infamous hors d’oeuvres.  Younger versions of my mother show up on the living room couch, despite the fact that she is alive and well in Portland, OR.  Ninety-eight year old Aunt Sue, wizened but still wearing her black wig with the dramatic white streak, reapplies coral lipstick in the foyer mirror.  Grandpa Sid, my grandmother’s second husband, can be found napping on the davenport in the den.  If you caught him like that when he was living, he would have sworn that he was just resting his eyes.

My maternal grandfather bought the apartment in 1965.  The building was full, all the units had been sold, and his name was third from the top of the waiting list.  One afternoon, he walked over from his office on Broad Street, to introduce himself in person to the woman who was in charge of the waiting list.  She was so charmed by his sweetness and lack of pretense that when a unit opened up on the 20th floor, she offered it to him, skipping the two names on the list ahead of his.  He and my grandmother planned to move to the city from their big, suburban house when their youngest son graduated from high school in the spring of 1966.  My grandfather died four months before their move, bringing my mother home from college in Pittsburgh and my uncle back from Vietnam.

It’s not an elaborate or fancy apartment.  There are two bedrooms, one bathroom, a long, skinny kitchen and a sizeable living/dining area.  I’ve made a few changes in the years I’ve lived here, however it is essentially the same as it was when I first crossed its threshold at three months old.

I’ve moved some furniture around, giving the small pink loveseat from under the window to my cousin for her apartment on the 9th floor.  I put one of the leaves into the dining room table and turned it on an angle to add a little flair.  I ripped down the wallpaper in the bathroom intending to paint it a nice mellow apricot color, only to discover that the walls were bright orange.  My mom had a bout of cabin fever during the winter of 1967 while she was stuck at home trying to beat a case of mono.  One morning, while her mother was at work, she snuck out to the corner hardware store and bought a quart of orange paint, which she spent the rest of the day messily applying to the bathroom walls.  My grandmother said nothing at the time, but several months later, had someone come in to hang wallpaper.

Last month, I pulled a collection of short stories off the shelf in the living room.  It fell from my hands and snapped open on the floor, to reveal a crisp bookmark from Borders and a signed yellow credit card receipt from the February afternoon in 1995 when my grandmother bought it.  As I worked my way through the book, I was careful to leave the marker between the pages where I had found it, using the receipt to indicate my own progress, not wanting to lose the place where she had left off.

The apartment has smelled the same for as long as I can remember. When I was a child and we’d come to visit my grandparents, I would take a deep inhalation of breath as we walked across the threshold, because it was the smell, more than the sights, sounds or people that really let me know that we had arrived.  It’s not an unpleasant smell, but not one that is easily articulated either. It has a little faded perfume, combined with wood, carpet, furniture and building. It is familiar as the long pink couch and glass coffee table that have sat in the living room since before I was born.

My presence does make a scent impression on the apartment.  My shampoos, scented oils and cooking let the air know that I live here these days, as opposed to my grandparents.  But, when I go away for a while and then come back, the smell reverts and I spend a split second looking around, checking to see if my grandmother is coming down the hallway, her perfectly manicured hands held aloft, gold bracelets ringing gently to announce her, in preparation for hugs.  I’ve come to accept the fact that when it comes to the aromatic signature of this space, my grandparents’ 35 years here will always trump my measly half-decade.  I don’t mind though, because it is the wisps of their scents that make it feel like home.

Hanging in the living room is a Danish Modern bar that runs the length of the wall to which it is bolted.  Teak with a black laminate top, my grandmother thought it was so sleek and modern when she bought it in 1966.  It was a world away from the heavy, dark antiques she had grown up with, which are just the sort of things my mom and I love.  The interior of the liquor cabinet smells of candy-covered chocolate mints, bourbon and old wood.  Whenever we would come to visit, as soon as adult backs were turned, my sister Raina would make a beeline for the cabinet, to surreptitiously slip into the After Dinner Mints, Almond Roca and deluxe Godiva assortments.

When I inherited the apartment, the contents of the bar came with it.  My grandparents entertained frequently and took pride in keeping a well-stocked liquor cabinet.  One night, sometime after I became the sole inhabitant, a friend and I sat down to do an inventory of the booze. We tasted or smelled everything.  We threw out the syrupy kosher wine, some congealed liquors and a bottle of homemade Manhattan mix, labeled in my grandfather’s shaky handwriting.

Recently, I leaned down to slide open the door in order to put a wine glass away, and the entire door came off in my hand.  I stood, blinking in shock, that this unit of furniture, a fixture for my entire lifetime was falling to pieces in my hands.  I sat down on the floor to examine the damage, and realized that the frame was falling off.  It seems four decades of bottles and glasses had become too much for the nails and screws holding it together.  The damage was not beyond my ability to repair, but I was inordinately saddened by the bar’s decline, almost as if it was one more piece of my grandparents that was slipping away.

One morning last July the ghosts were noisy and made their presence known.  The scent of a peach crisp I had baked the day before hung heavy in the air, and as I stumbled sleepily from bed into the hallway, my olfactory senses struggled to identify the aroma.  Instead of remembering the crisp, my memory reached back 20 years to my childhood, to the summer Saturday mornings when my grandfather would make pancakes for my sister and me.

As I walked down the hall to the living room, I expected to see younger versions of my mom and grandmother sitting at the table, sections of the newspaper in front of them.  My mom would have one foot folded up, her left hand curled around a cup of hot coffee.  My grandma would be wearing large blue-framed reading glasses that she would pull off as she looked up to talk to me.

My grandpa Sid would be standing at the stove in the kitchen, wearing casual pants and a v-neck tee shirt.  Raina and I loved his pancakes because they were absolute opposites of the nutty whole-grain ones our dad made at home.  These were made of Bisquick and water and he always cooked them in margarine, which left the edges crispy and laden with a near-buttery taste.  He served them to us on glass plates embossed with patterns of fruit.  A restaurant-style dispenser of store-brand Mrs. Butterworth’s would be within reach, a thrilling contrast to the dreary authentic maple syrup that an uncle sent every Christmas, direct from Vermont.

I hesitated as I walked towards the end of the hallway, not wanting to dissolve the memory of those mornings.  After a pause, I stepped out into the living room, and confirmed the fact that I was no longer 7 years old and that there would be no grandfatherly pancakes for breakfast.

3 thoughts on “An essay of place

  1. Mrs. Chili

    You didn’t ask for a teacher’s opinion, but I can’t resist.

    This is beautiful. You pull in a variety of sensory images and you tie them all together in a way that is evocative and identifiable. While you didn’t overtly express any particular emotions, the images that you call up – the grandmother with her arms raised in anticipation of a hug, the grandfather making pancakes, the importance of social occasions – all speak eloquently to how you feel about the ghosts with whom you now share your home, and the people they used to be.

    This is A-quality work. Thank you so much for sharing it.

  2. Dodi

    I’ve been saving this to read until I had time to enjoy it. It was worth the wait. Scent memories of my Great-grandma’s house were strong while reading it. I could feel the cabinet door fall off in my hands. Very nice.



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