When I got back from California, Slim asked me what my cousin's wedding was like, and I could do no better than to say, "think the exact opposite of your cousin's wedding" which we attended in Buffalo last month.
"It was during the day, in the woods, very small, not religious, vegetarian food that the groom's mother prepared. Oh, and no booze."
In short, it was very very very lovely. (Not to say that the Buffalo one wasn't.)
My cousin, E., had a Princess cake wedding cake: for those of us mired in the northeast, a Princess cake is of Swedish extraction and can't be begged, borrowed or stolen outside of California. It's genoise, brushed with syrup, layered with jam and Bavarian cream, topped with a mountain of whipped cream, and iced with marzipan. As if it needs saying, it was a revelation. After the wedding everyone went to Nepenthe, in Big Sur.
It was funny being back. I don’t like to read a catalogue of smells. It’s an exercise in futility. But there’s no other way to talk about that house, my grandparents' house which is, now, I guess, my uncle's. The smells were always easy to remember. The outside was dust and nasturtiums. By the door, you were assaulted by generic detergent and the greenhouse smell of many house plants. The addition was the smell of plumbing, from home-installed pipes, and years of damp, and the never-cleaned deep freeze. The kitchen was rot and mildew and ancient sponges and the filthy dishpan and a dirty refrigerator, fetid meat on a rotisserie, baked-on food in a microwave, decaying paper, old deep frying, and rotten potatoes – all of it overlaid by a thick later of Comet.
It wasn’t just the house, it was the people, who’d been allowed, or forced, to develop their distinctive human smells in a way few people do nowadays. I won’t try to describe the individual smells – which were very different from body odor and not at all bad – save that they permeated everything, blankets and pillows and the walls of whole rooms, and they continued to long after my grandparents had died.
Well, I don’t know about “long;” my grandfather died four years ago. Some of the smells are the same – the dust and the decay of the yard, and the old bath mat, and parts of the kitchen. I don’t know about the bad pipes or the damp addition because now there’s a lodger who occupies the back bedroom for $200 a month. He’s supposed to spend time with my uncle, but he doesn’t. Since he doesn’t ask questions or make demands or use the washing machine, though, everyone’s decided not to make an issue of it. I've never seen him but his truck says "Yoda" instead of "Toyota" and he plays the bongos.
This trip, I stayed in my grandmother’s room, which I’d never done, and where I’d say she died except that they restarted her heart and she actually lost brain function in the hospital two days later. (As opposed to the room next door, where my grandfather actually died. For a house built in 1950, it’s managed to acquire an anachronistically Gothic history.)
The room is as she left it, except where it’s not: they threw out her clothes and her smell – which was always the faintest, since she managed a bath every week or so, and wore talcum powder – is gone. I hung up my dress on the outside of the closet door so it wouldn’t pick up the smell of the house. In New York, the dress’s print looked deliberately vintage and bold; here, it looked like a part of things. And then I tried to read the book I’d bought – a modern piece of literary fiction with the usual ration of gratuitous simile and suggestions of incest, short on storytelling and pleasure. It made no sense in a house full of the genuinely Gothic.
And yes, there were donuts, lots of them: 2 maple bars and a glazed old-fashioned. I took a red-eye back. Brought back loads of bronze animals - sure, a Brass Menagerie - which were a particular obsession of my grandfather's (he was a human magpie.) We brought back Siamese cats, a mouse, a whale, two birds, a bear, and a crab. Left a set of three herons, or cranes, because who has room for three even if they're graceful; and someone took the scorpion.