She was soft, pearly pink. Or at least that’s how my father’s mother’s ghost looks to me now as I sit half-asleep by the tree, drifting slowly – like snow – into the Christmas memories that made my childhood shimmer.
Her kitchen was warm and always smelled like savory-sweet baked ham, simmering in the pink iron oven. Mamaw grew up in the south where love is served up in huge helpings of comfort food, and her cooking made our small stomachs rumble with anticipation. We were young, and always hungry.
She had three antique refrigerators too, all pink to match the stove, built into the wall and set high above the counter (just out of our reach) like magician’s cabinets. They hadn’t worked in years, but they made wonderful storage containers and – when we teetered clumsily on the squeaky kitchen stools to spring them open and rummage their clean white insides – they smelled faintly of mint and rubber.
Straining under our eager feet, the stools creaked loudly, announcing to our parents who were clustered over coffee in the next room that we were up to something. But we were quick. We filled our arms so full of strange playthings that we could barely scramble down from our perches and flee our protesting parents to examine our stolen treasures more closely.
Huge balls of blue, red and yellow rubber bands; curious little books of postage stamps; sidewalk chalk and erasers; fancy linen napkins for every special occasion, photographs of our parents grinning broadly in brown leisure suits, sideburns and funny hairdos; chewy caramels with crumbly sugar centers, white plastic eggs that once held Nude Leggs® panty hose; 8-tracks that blasted bluegrass, gospel and funky disco music, and packs upon packs of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum in shiny green wrappers.
Sometimes we found money, too, rolled and stuffed into clean, soft cotton socks and hidden away for a birthday present, a rainy day, or the next Great Recession. Mamaw firmly believed that a gal could never be too careful, but my cousins and I knew nothing bad could happen at Mamaw’s house. Bad juju would jump back with a “yip,” tuck its tail, and run when the first blast of honey-ham love smacked it square on the mouth as the front door swung open, scalding the cold and scaring away trouble.
And besides – no one and nothing could sneak into the mason-stone fortress our Papaw had built with his bare hands. Mamaw kept a leather string of sleigh bells on the doorknob year around that merrily announced every hungry mouth (and heart) that came calling. That sound meant so many things: that Papaw had just come home, that Aunt Debbie had finally arrived with a huge pan of Mississippi Mud Cake or, best of all, that my cousins were about to explode into the kitchen like joy-bombs gift-wrapped in fat plaid coats – and the chaos of pure joy times seven children was about to ensue.
Sometimes, when the last of my aunts, uncles and cousins had trudged out into the snow for the short drive home, Mamaw would draw a hot bath and wash and comb my long hair. The tub was pink porcelain and deep as the ocean, warmed by a piping hot pink radiator that pinged and hummed on the opposite wall. Mamaw hummed with it: slow, sweet hymns that were sometimes sad, sometimes so happy I wanted to cry. While the snow squalled outside, I quietly steamed like a littleneck clam in a broth of bubbles, love and hum.
These hours even smelled pink – like the sweet, warm scent of a puppy’s belly or the seashell and roses smell of a beachside cottage. Mamaw’s linen closet was stuffed with luxurious scented soaps, tucked between the layers and layers of thick, comforting cotton, so that every time we washed our faces or wrapped in a big towel after a bath, we felt beautiful and new.
Sometimes, when I couldn’t fall asleep in the king-sized guest bed nine sizes too big for a child, I would follow a slice of light down the dark, carpeted hall to find Mamaw sitting at the kitchen island. The stools that raised such a racket when my cousins and I used them as ladders didn’t make a peep when Mamaw perched on them, talking quietly with my mother and flipping through her dog-eared recipe cards.
One evening, I picked up her hairbrush – pearl pink with a tiny red rose on the handle – and tried my hand at smoothing the tangles of her day. As I carefully brushed the silvery-soft short curls that framed her face, I remember how young she looked with her hair swept back and dogwood tree blooms on her nightgown.
But she wasn’t young.
Too few years later, we lost her. People, no matter how much we love them, are not evergreen. It is their imprint that stays. Even now, nearly thirty years later, one whiff of ham snaps me back to the warm, safe womb of my grandmother’s home: the kitchen that fed all hungers; the taste of buttermilk biscuits rolled in arthritis-worn hands; her faint trace of Tennessee accent, her smile and her hymns; hidden treasures, deep bathtub and sugared-ham, soap-satchel scent – the essence of abundance.
These carry on in broad brushstrokes of perfect, lingering pink.