It’s odd how a taste, a smell or an action can stir the senses into recalling a memory. The zinnias in my garden have that effect on me, as does biting into a peach or rubbing shoe polish into old leather. All these things make me think of another summer, when I was a little girl, with my grandfather.
My grandparents lived in Ottawa, Ontario. We visited them every summer for two weeks. It was the only time my Canadian mom got to see them. I remember how she’d cry in the car each time we left to go back home. She’d cry until we crossed over the border back into New York State and then she’d stay quiet throughout the 10-hour ride home to Connecticut.
That summer, for whatever reason, my parents decided to let me stay with my grandparents until it was time for school. They would come back for me at the end of August. Maybe it was to give me my first experience away from home. Maybe it was to give my mom another visit. I don’t know the reason why. I was never told. I was nine years old.
On this summer day, as I cut zinnias for a fresh bouquet, I can actually see myself walking hand-in-hand with my grandfather. Our walks were ours alone.
He was a cobbler with his own shoe repair shop. I thought that was pretty special. It became a ritual for me to meet him there at the end of the day to share his walk back home. I did this all by myself. I walked one block down Second Avenue, then took a left onto Bank Street and walked two blocks more until I reached a storefront with a large plate glass window. Looking in I could see him standing behind a worktable, a dark apron covering a blue work shirt with sleeves rolled up showing sinewy arms. His hands were large and his fingers were long, with fingertips stained black from his work.
I’d open the door and breathe deep the smell of leather and shoe polish that filled the small room tinged with cold fluorescent light. Behind my grandfather were shelves from floor to ceiling filled with neat rows of shoes and boots in all sizes and colors, made to look new again.
My grandfather was tall. He would look down at me, his blue eyes peering over the edge of silver-framed glasses. A smile would soften his angular face and, in a low voice he would say my name with a hint of an accent. “Kalinka. Is it time already?” (The nickname he called me, which was a variation of my name, is Russian and means “red juniper berry.”)
He would wipe his hands on his apron and then take if off and carefully hang it on a peg in the corner of the room. Next to the apron was a metal circle of keys. He’d take them down and prepare to lock up. He didn’t say much but that was fine. I was content to just sit there on a stool by the customer counter and watch him as he put his work “to bed.”
After locking up, we would always stop at the fruit stand outside the small grocery store next door to his shop. Peaches were in season then. He’d let me select enough to fill a yellow mesh bag. He’d weigh the bag and then pull out some coin from his pocket and help me count out the exact amount to pay the grocer. (It was my grandfather who taught me how to count change. He always said to start with the quarters.) Then he would cradle the bag in the crook of one arm, take my hand, so small, in his big one, and we’d start our walk home.
Sometimes we’d walk a different route from the one I’d taken, through a park that had several large circular flowerbeds full of zinnias in different sizes, shapes and in brilliant colors – the flowers that were in bloom that time of year. I loved to run around the perimeters until I got dizzy. My grandfather would quietly laugh – his voice was always soft and low – as he watched me. “Come Kalinka, it’s getting late. Your Nanny and our supper are waiting for us.”
Then we would continue on our way with me trying in vain to match my steps with his long, slow stride. We would always make it home just in time – 6 o’clock – for supper.
Afterwards, we would sit together in green wicker chairs on the long veranda of my grandparents’ house until it got dark, listening to the quieting city – eating peaches.
As I arrange my fresh-cut flowers this serene summer day, I can almost hear the sound of his voice. “Kalinka, will you be coming to meet me at the shop tomorrow? ”
“Yes, Bompa. (My name for him.) And let’s go to the park again. I want to see the zinnias.”
It is a satisfying memory, so sweet in its simplicity. Why it has stuck with me all these years, I don’t know. It represents but one small fraction of the whole of me, recalled every time I taste a peach, sniff polished leather, or pick zinnias from my garden.
To this day, I love that he called me “Kalinka.”