1) The genesis of this was a writing assignment way back in the prehistoric era of my college education. We were to take some innocuous childhood memory and craft a piece of fiction around it. For me it was the stink of Rohm and Haas (see A Smellable Memory). It is a good exercise to practice with.
2) I used this story to explore and use four different voices. There is the narrator talking about his childhood experiences who introduces the story and each transition of time and circumstance. There is the speaker as a preteen experiencing his first meeting and impressions of Belle. The mid-teen speaker's observations of life as affected by Belle. And finally the speaker as an adult.
As is my typical style, there is the inevitable twist; this one is more implied than stated, so you have to use your imagination as to what is going to happen.
You know how to send your feedback, email if you can, or comment at the end.
How funny it is that the simplest thing can dredge up long forgotten memories. A whiff of some unidentifiable stench and suddenly I’m back in our old ‘62 Nova station wagon, crammed in the jump seat, face to face with my bratty little sister.
The rhythm of the road and the choking exhaust from an engine that always ran too rich usually inspired our best fights, but that long forgotten day we rode in silence. The thunder of unspoken angry words, ricocheting against rolled-up windows, kept us silent with eyes forward. Mom and Dad were mute in the front seat.
We crossed the Burlington Bristol Bridge. That’s the smell. The Rohm and Haas plant. It’s that acrid chemical smell; that’s what I remember.
We were going to get Grandma Belle. My mom’s mom. She was retiring or something like that and moving to an apartment a right near our house. I didn't like this and I was really confused. Why were we helping this strange old woman move almost right next door to us?
This is a woman, who had decided, after-the-fact, that she did not want a husband or a daughter. This is a woman, who celebrated New Year's 1933 by filing for divorce and abandoning her child to be raised by a hard working barber and his full time mistress, Four Roses Whiskey. This woman, whose entire contribution to my life had been nothing more than a few sporadic birthday cards that occasionally included a gratuitous check for $5.00. This woman was going to be part of our family. This stranger was supposed to be a Grandmother.
Grandma Belle had never been around our family. The only time we heard her name was in whispered voices through a closed door. Every time Mom and Dad talked about Belle, Mom cried. Everything I knew about this lady, I learned by listening through a door or through the wall of the bathroom that was next to Mom’s bedroom.
I knew that Grandma Belle had got divorced from my Grandpa Jim when Mom was really little. Dad said it was because she didn’t want a daughter; he said she hated all women. I knew that Dad said Grandma drove Grandpa Jim to drink and it was the liquor that made Grandpa sick and die. My Mom always said she loved her mom; Mom said she had a “good heart.” “Grandma Belle is gonna change,” if we all show her how much we love her. Dad said Belle would never change; he said Mom was lucky that she hadn’t turned out to be just like Belle.
The Nova broke free from the purring metal grates of the bridge and regained its rhythmic ka-junk ka-junk of the concrete highway. We drove south along the Delaware River towards the City of Brotherly Love. Belle was retiring from the Navy Home where she had been the head maid; Superintendent of Housekeeping. What an accomplishment, right? I keep remembering new reasons why I didn’t like this lady.
Dad muttered something that was dampened by the drone of the road noise, Mom’s shoulders shuddered and I saw her wipe away a tear. The car slowed, turned and stopped beside a guard house. A sailor, dressed in white-on-white with a little Popeye hat, asked several questions, checked his clipboard, saluted, and raised the candy striped barricade. Our Chevy lumbered forward into a surrealistic world; a realm of perfectly manicured landscapes, parading uniformed seamen and whitewashed barracks constructed in perfect two-by-four-by-eight dimension. Everyone obeying strict military pomp. I remember my juvenile disappointment that there were no boats. This was the Navy Home, for Pete's sake, there should be boats!
The woman that opened the door didn’t look like I expected. She was really tall and stood straight and stiff. Her hair was the color of sand and pulled into a tight bump on top of her head. She was kind of fat, but kind of hard at the same time. I was thinking about how my other Grandma, my real Grandma. She was soft and cuddly; I liked hugging her. Everyone was always hugging Grandma, even Grandpa. I couldn’t see anyone ever wanting to hug this woman; Grandma Belle.
The place she lived looked like a prison cell or a room in one of those crazy people asylums. It was small and the walls seemed like they leaned in. She had like no furniture, just a really narrow bed, a little desk and chair, a dresser, and an ugly old cane chair with black arms and legs; that chair had an extra bright yellow cushion on it. The room didn’t have any tables, or lamps, or pictures, not even a TV, and there was no bathroom. It was bright, but not from the little window high up on the wall, but by two bare fluorescent lights hanging from the yellowish ceiling. Everything looked neat and clean, but scary at the same time.
I could tell by the stench that the old lady was a heavy smoker, but the ashtrays on the desk and bureau gleamed with oiled polish and no cigarette litter had been left in view. Other than the smell, the only evidence of her nicotine habit was the slight tinge of amber that defiled the ceiling and walls.
Belle stepped aside in a stiff gesture inviting us in. My mom took the cane chair, my dad sat at the desk, and Grandma sat on the edge of the taut blanketed bed. Not so much as a curious glance was cast at me or my sister. We sidled in and crouched low along the baseboard. My sister, Mary kept looking at the open door like she was readying herself for a quick escape.
“Mom, these are the children.” I remember Mom’s voice was pitched too high, soft and trilled with a strange vibrato. It trailed off like she was going to say something more but didn’t.
“Yes, I could tell from their pictures. At least they’re well-mannered kids. I guess you’ve raised them okay.” This was said without any gestures. It was as though she was talking about something far removed from her tiny room.
“Bobby,” she turned directly to my father, “You look good. My daughter looks good. You seem to be doing just fine. But tell me about this room that I’ve rented.”
My father tapped a Winston on the desk, flipped open his Zippo and initiated what could only be described as a smoking orgy. It was as if there was some sort of morbid race. The three of them looked like drowning swimmers fighting for the safety of a life raft. For several minutes there was not a breath taken that was not drawn through smoldering tobacco.
By the time my father started his answer, his Winston was more filter than tobacco.
“Belle, I think you’re going to like your new place. It’s a hell-of-a-lot bigger than this place and one whole hell-of-a-lot more like a home.”
That was the way that I met Grandma Belle, but it’s not the way I remember her.
Belle gathered all of her worldly possessions, packed them loosely in a small green hard-sided Samsonite, and climbed into the second seat of the old blue station wagon. The five of us rode home in stiff silence, back through the smell.
Her new apartment house was awkwardly notched into the southwest corner of a New Jersey cornfield. It would never look like it belonged there; it was an architectural defilement of prime farm land; a blemish against Nature.
Mom and Mary ran up ahead to unlock the door. My dad led Grandma Belle by her arm like she was gonna fall. I had to bring her suitcase with stern orders to not to let it drag on the ground. It was like we were in some kind of parade. My mom even made a trumpet, “TaDaaa,” when Grandma Belle walked into her new home.
Belle stood in one place, not smiling or frowning while my mom and my sister ran around from room to room, from this thing to that thing, gibbering and giggling about all the time they spent shopping and color matching and arranging and cleaning and painting, and “Isn’t this just the best, Mom?”
The apartment did have the warm feeling of a home. A small entryway opened into a suitably large living room. My mom had furnished this with a sturdy rock maple sofa upholstered in browns and tans. She raved about how well it worked with the gold carpet and the butterscotch walls. There was also a large side chair and a rocker dressed in the same material. There were three end tables and a coffee table, two tall lamps, a big beefy bookcase, and the grand prize, a huge 23” Admiral color console TV.
To the left there was a galley kitchen. It opened to a light, airy breakfast nook furnished with a maple dinette that could easily seat six. I remember my first thought of that table, “Oh no, we’re going to have to eat here, too.”
The bedroom was done in dark walnut and decorated in royal blues. It contained a queen size four-posted bed, and a matching chest of drawers with bright polished brass pulls. There was also a dainty dressing table with its own chair and a row of lights mounted over the mirror. Mom was especially proud of the two Victorian figurine lamps she had found for the night stands.
“Bobby, you were right. This is a whole hell-of-a-lot better than my dorm room,” Belle’s voice was graveled and harsh.
Grandma Belle crisscrossed the suite and glancing with approval at everything. She seemed to lose a little of her stiffness as she entered the blue tiled bathroom. She turned on the light, studied herself in the vanity mirror, pulled the pins from the bun on top of her head, and shook her hair free.
It was the summer of 1964, and Grandma Belle retired.
I can’t tell you whether it took a day, a week, or a month, but her sand colored hair went suddenly gray. Her pressed white uniform was discarded for a pink flannel muumuu, her military like regimen was replaced by meticulous idling, and her preoccupation with sanitation and defiant independence was well forgotten. She made herself helpless and hapless.
Mom went like every other day to take care of her. She had wash all the dirty dishes, take out the trash, do the laundry, run the vacuum, and even flush the nasty toilet. Dad begged Mom not to go so much, but Mom said she was obligated. Dad said she was obligated; she was obligated to care us and her own home. But Mom always went anyway.
My mom put up with some nasty stuff. She would have to give Grandma Belle a bath and clean up the sofa after she had had one of her accidents. Mom scrubbed her dentures and washed the smelly clothes. Grandma never thanked her; I guess she figured Mom was obligated.
While Mom took care of Grandma Belle, my sister took care of us. She had to keep our home clean, and Mom expected perfection. Our house was never to stink from being unclean. “You must learn proper housekeeping, young lady. Someday when you have a husband, you’ll thank me.” Mom always said, “Boys need to know their book-work, so they can get good jobs, but girls need to know their housework, so they can take care of the boys.”
For Mary, it more than just her chores, it was dealing with Mom when she came home from Grandma Belle’s. The slightest thing wrong would bring screaming insults. She had to listen to long fits and tirades. When Mom was mad, she would rail about how Mary should never have even been born, that she was a mistake, and sometimes she would say she was disappointed that Mary wasn’t a boy. Once she even said that Mary was too stupid “to do a good woman’s work. A woman must understand her responsibilities, and you never get anything right.” Most of the time the tantrums would go until my sister fell on the floor crying, “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m sorry honest!” My sister was never hit, but she was pretty beaten up regularly.
On the days that Mom didn’t go to Grandma Belle’s, things were a bit better; our lives sort of went back normal. We could almost be happy like before, but we all knew there would be tomorrow.
Grandma Belle lived a long time.
She lived long enough to know of my Father’s death, and she was displeased that my mother would not come on the day of the funeral. “Bob’s in a box. What the hell does he need you for? I got no food to eat.”
She lived long enough to know that I had graduated high school and moved (or should I say, escaped) to California. “He was the only one of you that was any good. Why’d you let him leave? Now you got no man to take care of you.”
She lived long enough to know that my sister married. Her husband Tom owned a successful lumber business and had built them a nice house overlooking a sod farm. What a great front yard. Grandma Belle never sent them a wedding gift. Her only comment was: “I hope she’s got a good man, Lord knows, she’ll need one.”
Grandma Belle lived so long that Mom started to feel less obligated.
It was in the spring of 1982 that I flew home. Tom had called to give me the news, I was going to be an uncle, and I wasn’t going to miss that for the world.
New Jersey was still bleak and gray from a long winter’s hangover, but there was life in the air and glee in my heart. My little sister was going to be a mom and nothing was going to break my mood.
“No, I’m not going to visit Grandma Belle,” I had to argue with my mother. “No, I am not obligated. And while we’re at it, I don’t think you should go either. Your daughter is about to give birth to your grandchild. Let the old biddy stew in her juices for the day. You need to be with your daughter.”
I didn’t go to Grandma’s, but Mom was still obligated.
The baby came and she was beautiful. Tom needed to stay with Mary, so I was the one who called Belle’s apartment. I guess I rambled on and boasted too much about how beautiful and miraculous and wonderful and healthy and how “Mom, you should have been here.”
Everything I said was being dutifully repeated to Grandma Belle, but without the enthusiasm. I could hear in the background those familiar coarse grunts and hisses of the perpetually displeased old lady.
I took a big breath. My stomach gurgled with acidic bubbles; I winced in both mental and physical pain. “Mom, there’s more good news, for you and for Grandma. Mom, they’ve named the baby, Belle.”
I had argued with my sister, but I lost. Mary said she owed it to them.
My mom said that Grandma smiled. Looking back, I don’t know, I think there must have been something more, because Grandma Belle never smiled.
She actually sent a card of congratulations. It included one of her infamous bank checks for $50.00. She had addressed it to Tom. Grandma Belle never met Baby Belle.
In the autumn of that year, Grandma Belle’s heart just stopped. Belle was finally dead, and the next day, my mom retired.