|Once upon a time...
...in front of a magic garden on a tree-shaded street lived two people in a small house. The house was of course in the very best place it could be, because it was on 1st Avenue, and could any avenue be any better than first?
A small grassy space nudged softly up to (and maybe a little over) the walkway leading to the front door of the house, which was as magical as the garden behind it. This house talked to me.
My wonderful, elegant Auntie Ah waited behind the door knowing with a special knowledge I would knock. “There you are,” she said with satisfaction, as if she had started to doubt her senses, which always told her when I was on the way. She hugged me into the house’s foyer and it gladly welcomed me by blanketing me with special air. This air was to be found only in this small house. It consisted of warm, or sometimes cool, wafts of Auntie Ah’s powder, or furniture oil and floor wax, but best of all a soft spicy fragrance I associated with her flower room at the back of the garden.
Past the foyer on the right I could see into the bedroom she shared with Uncle Art. It was a secret place – a private place, for them only. I knew if I stood at the bedroom door I could lean against the tall, heavy door with its worn glass knob and see deco graciousness in dark, looming wood tones. For this room the house saved the balm of security, cool order, white linen and soft fabrics dried outside in post-dawn sunshine. The bedroom sang to me softly, “Think of Grandma’s soft, over-washed, pretty-cotton-hankie smell, living its life tucked into her sleeve infused with scented powder.”
Just as I disliked the arrival of Christmas morning because the anticipation of opening gifts was replaced with reality, as I moved further into the house my steps slowed. I could hardly wait – but I wanted to savor. I knew as ventured in I would be misted in an invisible fog of smells like love, and tenderness, respect and hugs, and the soft slow movement of a loving hand over the head of a child who needs attention; smells like all-the-time-in-the-world, and “oh sweetie – do I see tears in those eyes? Come right here to me.” Those smells like warm cookies in the kitchen and warm little tomatoes off the garden vine weren’t actually always in the cottage. They probably weren’t always there. Well, maybe elusive fragrances were all there, just like Grandma’s handkerchief was the physical representation of the absolute, certain safety of knowing everything will be just fine.
What was the best part of the house? Every time I visited I just couldn’t make up my mind. It was filled with secrets of the kind a favorite aunt would tell about someone else in the family. It was filled with the secrets of memories shared gladly, after a nudging coax. It was filled with secrets of the kind you might find on a note with a flower pressed into a cool, worn leather-covered book. It was filled with shadows from the kind trees keeping the white-hot day outside, where it belonged.
“Come perch on a chair like a lady” the tiny front room on the left chirped to me. “You can see yourself in the gleam of furniture polish and admire the soft elegance of my arrangements.” I would look over my shoulder into the front room as I passed by, and my mind would softly reply that the time wasn’t just exactly precisely right for pretending to be grown up, pretending not to fidget on fussy furniture. The smell of Uncle Art’s pipe tobacco was just a bit too much of the front room for now, because now was about how Auntie Ah paired with the house into a contralto reverberating beneath my ribs.
The dark narrow planks of the thick wood floor squeaked reassuringly, in just the right places, lined up together into a slope. “Who says a floor of my vintage has to be flat” it grated and tweeted sincerely, inviting me to move from the dining room filled with a huge old oak pedestal table and books, books, books into the kitchen at the back of the house.
The kitchen! The secret front of the house, coolly dark and fragrant, could not possibly prepare the uninitiated for the delight of the kitchen. The kitchen poised for the lucky who made it that far into the house. The kitchen proudly spoke in a voice of modulated volume and definite certainty, “I am the prize at the end of the race. I am the heartbeat here. Without me, why would anyone even need soft ungraspable smells and glossy wooden surfaces? I am the center of the house, even though I appear to be the back of the house. I, alone, allow entrance from the house to the garden.”
RED stove screamed, “watch me sparkle in the sunshine!”
RED frying and sauce pans with jolly white interiors jazzed up with beauty marks of black chips told everyone who ever walked through the kitchen, “come back and sit at the table and have tea from a cup married to a matching saucer. We need a recharge of gossip and laughter.”
The kitchen’s floor covering was quietly aware of the cacophony of the prideful kitchen. It may have been worn through in places. On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t. It wasn’t telling. “Hmmm, clean, hmmm, clean” was its only murmured comment.
On the back wall of the little cottage, a sunny south-facing wall, was the perfect half-glass door opened whispering “pass through me onto the wooden steps so you can oversee the garden my window frames when I am closed, pretending to be a door instead of the portal to lushness I really am.”
Zummsmm. Fat bees loll around indolent heavy scarlet oriental poppy blossoms, tall snapdragons, and shrubs flowered into clouds of creamy perfume. Sometimes there were iris, or gladiolas, but always, always, always herbs and flowers growing especially to dry in the flower shed at the back of the garden next to the gate leading to the alley. The magic garden didn’t talk to me like the house and its contents did. Instead, the garden was adept with all-sensory communication. The scented geraniums would rub up against my bare legs, softly furred and redolent of cinnamon or citrus. The herbs sparkled with dewy invitation to nibble. The little paths between plantings beckoned to be trod upon just to let loose the whispered crunch of pebbles rolling underfoot. When I centered myself in the garden I was torn in two opposing directions: the huge chimes at the back door coaxed my ears with sound, and the flower shed tempted my nose with tangy-sharp-sweet-musty aroma.
After a wander through the garden (Auntie Ah always took her special visitors on tour to re-introduce them to nodding heads populating various planting beds) I might plunk down to gather a few tenacious weeds which were hard for her to reach due to birth-defect hip limitations. Those special moments I treasure still; oh, the joy of pride warming me when Auntie Ah showed her trust in me by pressing her precious tiny Japanese flower clippers into my grubby hand! Pointing to where I should clip, another flower would be added to her basket – petals either headed either to the kitchen for a bouquet, or the shed for dehydration. The favorite background sound was Uncle Art softly singing a song in French from his endless supply of tunes learned as a boy in Canada. Unconsciously, he’d further stir the air with a little lyric verse while he tinkered about doing something or other. Sometimes he worked on the fountain to add to the harmony of water droplets. My visit, though, was to the Auntie Ah house combination; Uncle Art was just a bonus to be peripherally enjoyed but not directly sought.
The length of the visit was always perfect. I was never bored by being there too long. Time to go, with a fresh flower in my hand. The radiant rightness of magic withdrew the umbra of the sensible real world. Time to go, with a balmy stirring of my heart and memory.