I love the smell of really old cigarette smoke. Not the kind that sticks to your clothes after a night in a pub. The kind that has been lingering for months–possibly years.
She was tall and slender and pretty. Her skin bronzed from summers spent laying out by the lake in the Wisconsin breeze. She was a mother to five and the wife of one, and an alcoholic to all. I did not know her then.
I knew her leathery, wrinkled skin, her hand holding a cigarette, her house filled with old smoke. I knew her sober but watched her deteriorate. We lacked alone time–I can only recall one time where I had her alone, all to myself. I severely crave one-on-one time with people, in order to have and give undivided attention. I often don’t feel connected to friends and family unless this regularly occurs. I had craved it with her but was to shy to ask for it. In fact, I rarely ask for this time I so desperately covet. I am not entirely sure how it happened, and it was not for an extended period of time, but I had her for maybe an hour in her living room on a hot summer day. I was 14. I remember the room was bright and I was quiet. I was not sure how to act or what to do or say next. I approached timidly.
I didn’t really know anything about her, and she didn’t really know anything about me. I wanted this one hour to bond us forever. I wanted immediate mutual understanding, and a story to tell about a relationship that would be admired. Something deep inside me knew that this was practically impossible. I fall in love fast and intensely and sparingly, but even so, this moment was too small.
Nevertheless, the curious questions soon slipped off my tongue as if I was interviewing her for her own biography. I learned simple things in that hour. Things, perhaps, I should have already known: her career as a physical education teacher, her love for sports even though in her time there were no girls teams, her love for my mom.
I feverishly held on to these basic facts because I knew her things better than I knew her. I knew every crevice of her house, since we would tend to her house during the summer while she was away for 3 months. I knew her clothes, as I navigated the walk-in closet and hid from my brother during a roaring game of hide-and-seek. I sifted through her button collection, photo collection, and CD collection. The house was a mysterious playground. The playground of a relative I longed to have known better; but whose possessions I remember fervidly.
My grandmother passed away a few months later.
She left her diaries behind. Pages upon pages of hand-written entries detailing events and emotions and grams of antidepressants. I read every word I could manage to take in through the cursive letters strung together and mixed with shorthand. And when I finished I buried a secret.
I was just like her.