The first memory Ben has of his grandmother’s house is of the smell. She made her own granola, and grew her own roses, and did things like boil a bit of water, some cloves, and a few snips off of a vanilla pod in a small copper saucepan. Years later, when he is twenty and a college junior, he will walk into a girl’s apartment that smells like clove and vanilla and he will seduce her out of her skirt. He has to find out if her skin smells that warm, too.
His grandmother’s house, and his grandmother, were like cinnamon pastries: gooey, warm and inviting. In that early memory, his grandmother appears as she always was: a soft cushion of white cotton t-shirt, dove-gray hair, and tortoiseshell glasses.
Ben’s mother’s form is with him in that first memory, but her body is vague and the lines aren’t clear. He remembers dark, high-waisted blue jeans, her straight black hair kind of rippling down her back, the cigarette between her thin fingers. He doesn’t know if that was the last time that he saw her or one of the handful of visits before she moved to Alaska, but her presence is so inconsequential in the memory that he doesn’t give her much thought.
But wait. There was one more memory he had of her before that. The two of them are sitting in the grandmother’s back garden, on a two-person swing covered in red and gold cushions and pillows. The garden was always cool, even in summer, and was choked with pines and pine needles and small raised beds of moss-covered boulders. His grandmother was most likely inside the house, washing dishes by hand or peeling and chopping vegetables for that night’s dinner. Ben’s mother was a small woman; her feet barely scraped the ground below the swing. She was crying, and Ben was sorting through a brown paper lunchbag of olive green army men in his lap. He didn’t like the sound of his mother crying, and he couldn’t find the soldier that was holding the bazooka.
It must have been soon after that when his mother left. Ben’s grandmother explained that she was going up there to find work, and would call for Ben to join her soon. From the time that Ben was five until he was nine he didn’t see his mother at all, and barely talked on the phone with her either. The cost was high, the time difference daunting. He came to see his mother as a young, eccentric aunt, and his grandmother as his mother. She filled the role more neatly.