I think it was first her scent – a mixture of Mikado perfume oil and stale cigarettes. The combination fo floral overtones and smoke brought her to the front of my vision; my memory snapped to attention like a taut rubber band. The woman wore her hair short and she had laughter in her eyes. Blue eyes that sparkled as she smiled, and the corners of her mouth turned down. An upside-down smile, just like Mum.
She stood in front of me and all I could do was stare. How old would she be now?
She would be enjoying her retirement, reading…maybe she’d join a book club. Maybe she’d still teach sometimes, or maybe she would have moved out to the farm. She would gather my boys up on her knee and tell them horrible lies about my childhood. Horrible lies that are all irrevocably true.
So I stared at this woman, someone I did not know, I stared at her hands, the shape of them, the way her fingers tapered so beautifully. I stared at her ears, and the earrings that perfectly matched what she wore. I stared at her neck, her profile, so delicate and firm. This was a woman who had the Strength of Conviction, as Joyce would say.
I stared and stared, willing her to transform, praying that she would turn toward me, with that smile in her eyes, and tell me a story. It would be a story I’d heard before, not once or twice but dozens of times. I wanted that woman to tell me a story I knew the end to, a story with few surprises and many laughs.
But she didn’t, of course. She glanced at me, smiled briefly, and said “hello” as she walked away.
For the briefest of moments, I lost my mother again. She’d been there, so close I could smell her perfume; I could have touched her. For a moment, I could see her. But with a flicker of a smile, she was gone.
Those stories at Christmas and on the phone late at night, they suddenly got much harder to hear. Those hugs for my children became ethereal ghost whispers. As the woman walked away from me, I reached out to her. “Please stay, ” I whispered.
She didn’t hear me. I’d spoken in the secret language of mothers and daughters, the language unspoken but felt or longed for in every daughter’s heart. It is the song that blooms in every spring crocus.
She walked away, the woman I didn’t know, and with her my settled heart. How many more years will I live in relative numbness, only to be caught off-guard by the scent an unknown lady wears?