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Sentiments from Scents

My maternal grandfather died when I was nine years old. If anyone explained to me the nature of his illness, I don’t remember what was said. There were hushed whispers about cancer for a long time, but he continued to live at home and grandma was taking care of him. If I thought much about it at all, I guess I just assumed that he would eventually get well.

Our grandparents lived mostly on one side of our house, although my grandma never took anyone else’s privacy too seriously. So I didn’t take hers seriously either. I would go skipping into their bedroom whenever I pleased to visit and talk and generally make a nuisance of myself. Grandma had potted plants all over the house and had moved a bunch of them into the bedroom so she could fuss over them without leaving grandpa alone. So it never smelled like a sick room as much as it did a flower garden. Perhaps she was giving him a little preview of things to come. Seeing grandpa so sick made me sad, but listening to grandma just made me mad. Even if he was half asleep she never shut up, ranting and raving about everything non-stop. Later I understood that it was her strange way of coping with a situation over which she had little control. But my nine-year old self wondered why grandpa put up with it. Maybe he liked the noise and it kept him rooted in this world a little longer than he would have stayed if he’d been left in peace and allowed to slip away in silence.

Ultimately it wasn’t the cancer that killed him anyway. He fell down the stairs. Terrible, tragic accident, everyone said. It crossed my mind that he might finally have been attempting some kind of getaway and if that was so, it was certainly one that stuck. He never regained consciousness and passed away in the hospital.

His was the first funeral I ever attended. It was just like a church service, except a lot more weird. There were flowers on the casket, and along the walls, and on pillars and posts and framing doorways and on tables and on the floor. I assumed they were to cheer up my grandma. They were everywhere. The room was too warm, and the smell was over-powering.

During the service my brother told me to stare really hard at grandpa’s face. If I did that and didn’t blink and kept doing it until my eyes hurt, I’d see him move. Well that was too tempting not to try, so I did it until my eyes burned. I was about to give up and kick my brother for being such an ass when suddenly I saw my grandpa take a breath. Even though I knew it wasn’t possible, it made me gasp. And take in a lungful of the sickening sweet and cloying scent of a gazillion flowers.

I felt all hot and cold and shuddery, and I tugged on my mom’s arm and told her I was going to throw up. She glared at me and told me I WAS NOT going to do that. So I didn’t. But it was a struggle. Finally kicking my brother really hard helped take my mind off it.

My whole life flowers have been something I always associate with grandma (because she loved them more than anything, possibly even grandpa) and of course with funerals. I know I’m supposed to be all thrilled to get a bouquet for a special occasion, but the truth is, the smell makes me nauseous. I like them just fine when they’re alive and growing outside in the open air. But when you cut them, they’re just going to die. I carried an artificial bouquet at my wedding. Not a good time to be flouncing about carrying something that makes you want to puke.

I understand the appeal of a great big smelly old flower arrangement, and if I get one I try to be adult about things and tolerate it.

But seriously, I just don’t like them much, mostly for how they smell. Floral perfumes and air fresheners make me gag. It’s been a lifetime since that day, but the memories remain aromatically vivid.

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