He cut the grass, and then it rained. And then the sun came out and the blazing heat resumed. It smelled just like my grandmother’s house during our vacations in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My grandmother lived in Miami Beach. I have lived in Florida for almost 15 years, but it has never smelled like Florida to me until that very moment.
Every summer we would go to sleep-away summer camp in Vermont, as the children of a working divorced mom. After that we always went to our Grandma Jennie’s house in Miami Beach for a week or two.
My grandmother made these amazing cookies, crunchy and not too sweet, that she kept in a hall pantry closet and doled out two at a time to my brother and me. For special occasions she made what our family calls the “cherry cookies”, very labor intensive and very yummy. I make both sometimes, generally as a gift for someone in the family as much as a gift for myself. She always made them in the shape of our initials, T for me and P for my brother. I continue that tradition, it makes them taste more like memory. I have never quite duplicated how they tasted when she made them. Like New York bagels, I think it is the water. Maybe just the taste of her fingers on the dough.
On those gloriously free summer days in the Florida heat we would go out in the afternoon sun showers and dance on the lawn in our white cotton 1950’s underwear. We would walk every day and in the little neighborhood park we would stand at the flagpole where she taught us to pledge allegiance with our grubby hands over our hearts. We would stop at the crest of a walking bridge over a canal and look for dolphins and rainbows. We would go down to the sea and she would hold us on her lap in the ocean, bouncing with the waves, and she would sing to us “By the Sea”. That melody still comes to me occasionally unbidden.
My grandmother was an amazing woman. She lived to be over 100 years old, retaining her faculties and her home well into her nineties. When her neighborhood became predominantly Cuban, she went to the local senior center and learned Spanish so she could talk to them. When she did not feel safe to drive, she walked about four miles to groceries and back. She was extraordinarily self-sufficient, her husband having died one summer in his sleep when we were little and we were there. I went to Miami Beach once in my free wheeling hippie days with a ridiculously tall boyfriend with ridiculously long hair. It was Christmas time, although I don’t recall that she celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas, and we just turned up at her door. We were welcome, of course, because with Jennie you never ever judged a book by it’s cover.
I have long though of her as the single most influential woman that has been in my life. Not to negate my mother’s influence, of course. And I deeply regret that in my unconscious twenties and thirties and my insanely busy forties I did not find the time or energy to be more in touch with her. Life lessons, learned too late and generally unheeded by the young coming behind me.
It is useless to regret but some regrets are unavoidable, they teach us not to make the same mistakes again. But the lessons, they are to be cherished and taken to heart. This amazing woman had standards of behavior that were clear and important, but she also accepted everyone for exactly who they were regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, appearance or anything else that might make them different.
In that moment when my lawn smelled like Florida at my Grandma’s house so long ago, I hoped that I had become half the woman she was. It is good that the bar is set high.