It’s not my usual pattern, but two nights ago, I took a shower before going to bed. (In case you are worried that I do not bathe, I’ll tell you I generally shower in the morning.) Eric had added a fancy new bar of soap to the other 97 shampoos, conditioners, exfoliants and body washes that comprise our bathtub. I picked up the soap, lathered it. I liked the smell, it reminded me of something, but it took me a second to place it.
I love soap. I mean, it’s nice that it cleans a person, but it also can leave behind a pleasant fragrance. For me, and I don’t think I’m alone, a lot of memories are tied to fragrances. Like rose water always makes me think of my high school friend Missy. Both chlorine and suntan lotion remind me of long ago summer afternoons spent at the Riverside Park Municipal Pool. Night blooming jasmine makes me think of those months when I first moved to Los Angeles. Dolce and Gabbanna cologne makes me think of my first big love, the one I took so many years to get over.
It took me a second, but I realized this soap reminded me of the soap my grandfather always had in his house, something called Zest. Remember Zest? I mean, I could be wrong about this, but I don’t think I am. It was Zest, Zest in the kitchen, Zest at the bathroom faucet, Zest in the bathtub. Always Zest.
In the house where I grew up with my parents, I remember using a lot of soaps: Irish Spring, Dove, Dial, Ivory and sometimes Zest. If I begged enough, my Mom would buy me Coast. Coast was my favorite. I don’t know why I loved Coast so much, I just imagined that it was what people who spent a lot of time on yachts smelled like. I did not love Zest, nor did I hate it. Zest just was. And like I said, Zest is what always was at my grandpa’s house.
I really only knew two grandparents growing up. My mom’s father died when she was a baby and my dad’s mother died when I was not yet two. And while I always felt a kinship to my mom’s mom, Grandma Sue, a bond over Scrabble and books and reading and writing letters, my Grandpa was always a mystery.
He was a farmer. When we’d visit, he’d let me go out to the garden with him. He’d pull up young carrots and wipe them off and let me eat them fresh from the garden. I’d ask him how the watermelons were doing since they were my favorite fruit but it seemed we always had to wait almost until the end of summer before the watermelons would be ready to eat. I used to have a tomato scented candle and I loved it because it smelled like my grandfather’s garden.
In the years before I was 7, when we moved from Kansas City to Independence, in part so my Dad could be closer to Grandpa, we would drive down to the farm for weekend visits. I remember my Grandpa would fry us hamburgers for supper and on Sundays, my aunts and uncles and cousins would convene at Grandpa’s for a roast beef dinner. Tuesday night, after my shower, as I was trying to fall asleep, I wondered who prepared the roasts for those feasts. Was it Grandpa or did Aunt Kay leave church early to get a head start on the meal? I don’t know, I just remember running around in the yard, climbing the septic tank and after eating, all the men (and boys) going fishing.
If my math is right, my Grandpa was about 64 when my Grandma Avis died. When he died, more than once, I heard my Dad say that he didn’t think he ever got over losing Grandma. He never remarried, never started a new life with another woman. Tuesday night, as I lay in bed, I wondered if I had solved the mystery of the Zest. My first thought was that he bought it because that’s what she always bought. And then I went just a bit further, maybe he always used Zest because it reminded him of the good times, when the children were young, before Avis got sick.
When I looked up the definition for zest, the first one I came across was “great enthusiasm or energy.” Of my grandfather’s 7 grandchildren, I am the only one too young to not remember him in the years before he was a widower. While I only remember a stoic, serious man, maybe in his life before, enthusiastic and energetic could have described him. I don’t know.
I do think energetic and enthusiastic are words that could be used to describe me. It’s part of my undiagnosed mania. My life is always either wonderful or terrible, nothing in between. I’ve never been called stoic even once in my 46 years. Sometimes, I think, oh man, I’d KILL to be stoic, which, you know, is a very unstoic thing to think or say.
Last night, I lay in bed, still thinking about my Grandpa Carl and my Grandma Avis, their love story. When I was little my Dad would always say the best fried chicken he’d ever had was his Mom’s. If it bothered my Mom that he would say that while we were eating her fried chicken, she gave no indication. These were the handful of years right after Avis had died and I suppose it was my Dad’s way of saying, “Boy, I miss my Mom” without having to actually say it. My Dad inherited more than a little of his father’s stoicism.
I wonder what my Grandpa would say if I told him that modern version of Zest in my bathtub cost $20 a bar. (In its defense, it’s a big bar.)
There is something of my grandfather in me. I hope so, anyway. He’s been gone for nearly 25 years now, all I have is old pictures and memories and the stories my older relatives share with me. I try to make the connections.
I mentioned briefly an ex I had that, once we broke up, it took me years to get over him. There was a point when I truly thought that I never would. But I did, eventually.
I know that in the culture we live in, there is a lot of value placed on moving forward, starting anew, evolving. I suppose that is for the best, all things considered.
But I have to say there is something beautiful and touching, albeit, heartbreaking about how my grandfather never started anew. My Grandma was a ghost who was always there in that house, a ghost who always clung to my Grandpa. She was never far away. Every hymnal in the pews of the country church our family attended bore the inscription, “Provided by the family of Avis Barnhart, in loving memory.” She was everywhere. When I was 12, my parents and I went to Hawaii with my Grandpa and although he had a good time, it was said and it was understood, this was a trip he should have made with Avis. And it was also understood that, in a way, she was there with us.
When I smell anything gardenia fragranced, whether it be a soap or a perfume or a candle, I remember my two trips to Hawaii. It’s always so bittersweet because a fragrance can bring back some wonderful memories and also make you ache for what is no more. But I like the idea, and really, I know it’s just an idea, but I like to think that that Zest might have kept the memory of Avis alive to Carl. That on days after working hard on the farm, he’d come inside, lather up with his Zest and momentarily at least, get whisked away to the happiest days of his life. And when his hands were clean, all the dirt washed down the drain, he’d go about fixing a hamburger or two for himself. And trust me when I tell you, those hamburgers were the best hamburgers I’ve ever had. I can smell them now.