My teacup is old—the kind of dainty bone china that collects dust in the cabinets of grandmothers. Five small blue roses wrap around the cup, and a small, gold-painted handle curls and wisps as if penned with a calligrapher’s quill. The type of handle that forces you to hold your pinky finger out because there’s nowhere else to put it. It’s late spring, and the warm breeze nudges its soft lips across the lilacs and blows their sweetness over me as I sit in the garden. I welcome the favoured fragrance, covering me in a thin veil, distancing my mind from the present. If nostalgia had a smell, lilacs would be it.
These flirtations with my senses make me think about my late great-great-grandmother. She was almost one-hundred-and-nine when she died, and I knew her until I was in my early teens. I imagine the things she saw over her lifetime: from the invention of the telephone to landing on the moon and every incredible thing in between.
I often wonder what life was like for her, and wish I knew what her family talked about around the supper table every night, what the rules of the house were. Did they struggle to make ends meet, or were they well-off? What were their aspirations in life? What did they hope for their children? Did they live a happy, fulfilled life? And so, on this warm, late spring afternoon on the brink of a new summer, thinking particularly about my great-great-grandmother Alice, I close my eyes and draw myself back to when I was a young girl.
Alice’s house, a place she lived for over seven decades, was once shared with her husband and children. Later, loss left her the sole inhabitant. The gray stucco dwelling had a small front porch offering little protection from the elements, it’s peaked roof raised high off the ground. A couple of handfuls of children were born and raised there. I imagine the family get-togethers, the kids playing out in the yard, the meals that were cooked in that old kitchen. Christmas mornings, gingerbread baking in the oven, snowmen on the front lawn. Spring flowers in the garden, clothes blowing in the breeze on the line in the back yard.
The inside of the house was dated even when I was a girl, but the original oak that lined the stairs and covered the floors was aged beautifully. The banister was smooth and cold to the touch. My little fingers ran along the grain of the wood, each ridge of my fingerprint studying the shallow grooves. How many other hands ran up and down that banister over the years? A lot of history was made in that house, something I did not yet possess the wisdom to comprehend at that age.
Fragmented memories push me further into the home. Nostrils flare as I recall the slightly stale aroma of the past mixed with a hint of sweet pipe tobacco. It was ingrained in the wood, in the walls. Peeling wallpaper where it met the crown molding showed a yellowed, cracked surface underneath. Old books filled the shelves, some of which had a hundred years’ worth of fingers running over their pages. The air teemed with the scent of secret knowledge.
In the living room was an old brown chesterfield with an earthy-toned knitted afghan spread across the back. We sat, I in my baby blue dress and curly blonde pigtails, her in her bright floral muumuu and black-rimmed glasses. The pink sheers were pulled back on the front window and tens of thousands of dust particles danced in the sun’s rays. A crystal vase with freshly cut, familiar purple blooms sat on the centre of the table, reflecting rainbows of light onto the dark surface. Beside it was a plate of cookies and some tea in those same fragile little teacups, and I helped myself to both.
I catch my thumb subconsciously running over my teacup’s smooth handle and I submerge deeper into my thoughts.
Alice reminisced about when she was a child in the late 1800s. Instead of cars lining the streets, there were horses and carriages. Instead of electric streetlights, gas lanterns. She told me what it was like to grow up before cars and phones were regularly owned by every household. The population was small, stores were few, and a lot of what they needed, they made or grew themselves. Her mother taught her how to sew, and many outfits she and her siblings wore were handmade. Cooking and cleaning were regularly shared between the children.
After a brief synopsis of her childhood, my great-great-grandma told me about her life with my great-great-grandpa, John.
On a summer’s day in 1906, I first met my John. That old “love at first sight” adage is true for a lucky few on this earth, and I consider myself one of them. We were introduced by mutual friends. When I saw him, my heart skipped a beat. I’ll never forget it. I knew the second I laid eyes on him we would marry someday—and I was right.
We courted for a few months before he asked my father for his blessing, which was enthusiastically given. John was a sweetheart, and everybody knew it. My parents were very fond of him. He would have loved you, my dear—he was always good with the children. It’s a shame he died before your parents ever even met.
Back then, it wasn’t as common to have lavish weddings. We were married with a small gathering of family and friends at the church on Geneva St. and had a light celebration with a nice dinner. Honeymoons weren’t quite as popular yet either, but we took a little “weekend getaway” to Niagara Falls. Not far, of course, but it was enough for us.
Our first child was born a little over a year later, and by the time he was nine, he had seven brothers and sisters. It was a busy, chaotic household, but oh, I was glad for it. John worked hard to provide for us, and we did just fine. He worked at the foundry over on Glendale and stayed there for fifty years before he retired.
We got our first automobile in 1915. They didn’t go as fast as they do nowadays, mind you, but it was still quicker than walking. Our first family outing in it was to Lakeside Park, where the carousel had just been relocated from Scarborough. You know the one—you’ve been there. (I nodded my head and smiled.) We took the kids there for the afternoon to have a ride and a picnic at the beach. It is one of my best memories. Victor, my eldest—you never met him—he would help me mind the younger ones. He liked to help them swim, and most of the afternoon was spent in the water.
I knew the place well, and my present mind quickly flipped to old scenes of my parents taking my brother and I there several times when we were growing up. It was a small beach with coarse sand and a green and white lighthouse at the end of a long pier. We used to walk out to the end with ice cream cones and watch the old fishermen reel in lake trout, plopping their flip-flopping bodies into buckets for dinner.
When John was seventy-four, he passed away, bless him. I was beside myself with grief. Losing the love of your life is almost unbearable. But I survived it. I still talk to him, you know. He’s still here with me in a way. If you are lucky enough to find a love like that my dear, you hold on to it tight and don’t ever let it go.
Most of my kids have had full lives of their own and have passed away. Burying a child is one of the hardest things a parent must endure, and I’ve buried seven of my nine. Somehow though, I’m still alive and kicking and I’m a century old. I’ve never touched a drop of alcohol, never smoked a single cigarette, no way. I eat healthy and get my exercise and I do things for myself. And I’m always, always grateful for everything that lies behind me, because it opens up the path that still lies ahead.
My grandma chuckled just then, reliving a memory I was not privy to. Then she stood and went over to an old roll-top desk. She opened a drawer and reached inside to pull out a tattered, yellowed envelope containing some old photographs. Returning to the chesterfield, she showed me the pictures.
I’ve got copies in frames in my room, but I keep these in an envelope, sealed against the air so they don’t get ruined.
In the first one, standing there in her simple yet elegant wedding dress, my grandma looked at the camera while her new husband stood behind her. His arm came around her and rested on hers. She held a small bouquet and wore a blusher veil. It had layers of lace going down to the floor, a satin sash tied around the waist, three-quarter length delicate sleeves and a high neck. Intricate appliques covered the entire gown. I supposed it was the most beautiful dress she’d ever owned. My grandfather was in a simple black suit, spruced up with a white rose and baby’s breath boutonniere in his left breast pocket. There seemed to be an unwritten rule that people followed about not smiling in photographs back then, but I could sense their happiness. The slight curl of Alice’s lips, the look in her eyes. John wasn’t looking at the camera. He was lost in a world of his own, breathing in the scent of her, his head tilted toward her hair. The slight raise in his cheekbone told me his soul was smiling.
Alice showed me photos in varying degrees of faded sepia tones and withered edges. The quality of the photos left much to be desired, but the quality of what they represent was priceless.
The last one she showed me was not in the pile, but in a frame, larger than the rest, sitting on a small end table. The portrait was of John, young and handsome. Clean-cut with smooth skin and piercing eyes, which, as I was told, were the colour of the sea. She smiled at his likeness as she passed it to me, a private exchange of unspoken words with the ghost of him.
It’s been thirty years without him and not a day goes by without me telling him “I Love You.”
I listened to my grandmother recount tales about “her John” and what an incredible love they shared, the family they raised.
In the present, a buzzing sound graces my ear, disturbing my pleasant daydream. I open my eyes to see an iridescent flash of colour as a hummingbird hovers briefly in greeting. I smile at the sight of it. “Hello, Grandma Alice,” I surmise.
As she flits and flutters, her wings seem to carry the colours in my garden away with her. My daydream greys like the photos I was conjuring only moments ago. It’s impossible for me to tell how much of that scene was based on memory and how much was my imagination working to fill in the gaps. Did I really sit beside her while she showed me old photographs and gave me advice on love? Did I really sip her tea and eat cookies in the dusty, rosy-pink living room with the old roll-top desk? I barely remember the staircase let alone what shade the sheers were on the front window. I begin to think it’s all just a wish, a dream my mind made up with bits of hazy recollections mixed in. Perhaps the spirits of my ancestors are nearby whenever I breathe in the floral antiquity of lilacs, and what I’m picturing is somehow their memories coming alive in my mind.
My great-great-grandmother was intimately familiar with so many details from the past, and now they are gone forever. This realization hits me like a punch in the gut. Our journey in this life is made possible because of our ancestors. We owe it to them to be curious about their lives, and to understand how everything they did eventually brought us into existence. All I have now are mostly partly remembered, second-hand versions of history that may or may not have actually happened. When they come directly from the source, they aren’t just stories. They’re irreplaceable, intimate, precious, real memories of the lives they lived. To share them is a privilege, for both teller and listener. What a gift to share reflections of your past with a grown child, a grandchild, or if you’re lucky, a great-great-grandchild. It gives life meaning to know that family members are interested in our experiences. It means our legacy will live on. It means we existed and had purpose.
My tea now lukewarm, I take a sip and let out a long, burdensome sigh. A weighted hiraeth surrounds me, a thick fog enveloping me like a cocoon and sparking a powerful longing for an intangible past. The burning desire to truly know and appreciate my ancestors’ lives will forever remain a mystery. Their stories are destined to play out only in my creative imagination. There is something so deeply unsatisfying about that revelation.
And so, my nose is always subconsciously on the hunt for lilacs on a spring breeze. When I catch it, I want so badly to capture it in a bottle, as if having the aroma readily available might somehow make the memories stronger. But no matter how strong the scent is, no matter how deeply I breathe it in, it’s as faint as the recollections it summons.
That old house has been gutted now. It’s been purchased three times over in the three decades since Alice’s death, and now it has been renovated by someone with a lot of money. The walls will never tell their secrets. The essence of old is smothered and suffocated with the chemical redolence of fresh paint. Wallpaper has been ripped down and replaced. The facade is spruced up with a shade of periwinkle, bright white shutters, and a wooden front porch. But when I drive by, I don’t see the newness, no. Time itself slows down, and I see only the plain gray stucco, the tiny front porch, the old gravel driveway. And for a fleeting moment, my nose catches the familiar scent of lilacs, and I can just make out my great-great-grandma waving at me from the rosy, dust-sprinkled living room window.