I thought of the gardenias

MY grandparents moved recently from their home of over 50 years. They had talked of moving off and on for a year or so. The house had easily accommodated four children growing up. It had since been descended upon by grandchildren as well. Now most of the grandchildren were grown; the house was too big for just the two of them.

When they finally left I was expecting it, but I did feel a bit strange. For some reason I thought of the gardenia bush outside the porch in the back of the house. One of the special parts of going to visit my grandparents was driving up the long, steep driveway, which curved to the left at the top, then pulling to a stop, opening up the car doors and stepping into the fragrance of gardenias. The bush was right there by the side of the stone path, its flowers glossy white against the dark smooth greenness of the leaves.

I passed all this musing off as a nostalgic twinge and went about my business. But the image was persistent. I ended up taking a farewell tour of the whole house in my mind's eye. I traipsed through all the rooms, lingering at the lavender chaise longue in the bedroom, peering all over again in amazement at the stacks of old comic books in a closet. I went again into the red coolness of my father's old room on ground-floor level, down into deeper coolness to the Ping-Pong table in the basement. In the den, a box of chocolates still rested on the table, next to the peppermints. The small clock in the hallway near the staircase chimed on the quarter hour. I poked my head into all the nooks and crannies, the game closet, the bathroom with the angled mirrors where you could see down an endless corridor of images of yourself.

Then something else clicked into place. I hadn't written my grandmother in months. I'd received a greeting card, a letter with a clipping she thought might interest me, a Christmas present - still I hadn't written.

Now it made sense. I hadn't written since they had moved. I was still picturing my grandmother at the old house, doing the thousand things she had always done, perhaps puttering around the garden, cutting camellias and gardenias to give to friends or put on the breakfast table.

But she was no longer there. She was in a new place, an apartment I had never seen. I did not know her address. I would have to look it up in order to write. And because I couldn't really place her anywhere, I hadn't written.

Had I so attached my grandmother to her house that I wasn't able to see her ''out of context''? Did I think that she was no longer the same person without the same surroundings in which to express herself?

I can still see her pulling chilled melon out of the big white icebox in the kitchen, home-made cake out of the bronze-colored bread tin. But is that the essence of my memories of her? The ways in which she served me, looked out for my comfort - turned down the sheets when my cousin and I spent the night?

If it were, I think the persistent image in my mind would be one of her in the house. But there instead is that gardenia bush in the back yard. It pulls all the other memories together. The scent settles down over the house, a symbol of her hospitality, generosity, eye for beauty - and love.

I finally did write to my grandmother - partly because I felt I had to, but also to remind myself that she has an identity all her own. Her house didn't define her; she defined it. She imparted to it her unique sense of what a home should be, just as I'm sure she's doing now in their new apartment.

When I visit in spring, perhaps I'll bring some gardenias.

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