A FRAGRANCE OF OLD SUMMERSBy Joan Stephens
Catherine had put it off for as long as she could but here she was at last, squatting in front of an old leather carry-on trunk that had to be at least a hundred years old. A month or more had past since her father’s death, and this was the first time she had been able to step a foot into the Connecticut house.
The rest of the house was as neat as a house could be that had sat unused for a year, but the attic was dusty and cobwebbed. Cutting her mind adrift--this was the only way she could get through the pain of rifling through his things--she had gone through his personal effects and clothing, keeping only those things that meant a great deal to her. What couldn’t be used Below would be given to the Salvation Army.
She had saved the attic for last, and now she wondered what her father had treasured so much that he had saved them in an almost indestructible trunk. Undoing the leather straps, she unlocked the chest and lifted the lid. With a gasp of pleasure, she breathed an “O. ”The medium-sized trunk was filled with reels of old 8mm movie film. She had forgotten that he had taken reels and reels of pictures of their life. Most of the film in the trunk was filled with pictures of her mother plus several reels that were taken at their cabin by the lake. All of them were neatly labeled with date, time, and location and ended abruptly with the year of her mother’s death. Charles Chandler had put away his camera and never used it again. There were other boxes of film but none in as good a condition as the film in the trunk. She closed the lid and, straining and muttering to herself that she wished Vincent was here, she manhandled it down the stairs and out the door to her car. Then perspiring and winded, she came back for the rest of the film. Returning to the empty feeling first floor, she called the Salvation Army and requested a pickup and a date for her to be there when they arrived.
On her way home, she stopped at a photography shop and left the trunk of films to be transferred to three hour videotapes; then put the rest of the reels in her basement storage compartment for transferal in the future. A week later, on her first free Saturday in a month, she picked up the tapes. The trunk full of films she took to the basement then hurried to her apartment. Dropping the bag of tapes on the dining room table, she fixed herself a bite of lunch. She was eager to watch the tapes but hesitant at the same time. The loss of her mother had been devastating and twenty years later she still missed her. Now with her father’s death only a month earlier, she wondered if she had the strength to relive all those happy times at the cabinknowing how soon that happiness would be shattered. Late at night as she was about to fall asleep, she often wondered how different her life would have been with the strong encouragement of her mother, and she felt she would have been a more independent woman.
Her apartment needed a good cleaning and the afternoon was perfect for it. It was just the excuse she needed to put off viewing the tapes until after dinner. Later that evening, Catherine was settled in front of the TV screen. There were so many tapes that she knew she could never watch all of them in one evening. She selected the one with the earliest date, her parent’s first year together and the first year at the cabin; one in the middle when she was about five; and the very last film her father had taken, the last year of her mother’s life. Pushing a button, the blue screen came to life. Her mother’s silvery laugh washed over her causing goose bumps to rise on her arms. Rubbing them briskly, she hunched forward over her knees avidly watching her young mother proudly show her the shining lake in front of the family cabin. Catherine’s baby eyes crinkled with laughter as she waved chubby hands at the man who was taking the pictures.
Deeply immersed in the past, she was staring so intently at the pictures of her laughing mother that she didn’t hear Vincent’s light tapping. Still, she felt a loving warmth wrap itself around her heart. Pausing the tape and without looking, she patted the love seat beside her. “Sit beside me, please,” she murmured to the concerned man standing behind her. He glided around the couch and settled gingerly onto the cushion next to her. Being inexperienced in the ins-and-outs of the furniture industry, he hoped the tiny--to him--couch would hold his considerable weight. It held.
Half-turned toward her, he asked, “Are you all right?”
The troubled look on his face brought a soft smile to her face. “Oh, Vincent, I’m so sorry. I haven’t done a very good job of keeping my emotions under control tonight, have I?”And she reached up a soft hand, gently caressing his whiskery cheek.
Ruefully, he shook his head. “What has upset you so?” he asked, taking the hand that she had placed on his cheek into his own. “Can I help?”
Nodding back at the TV screen, she said, “Yes. You can sit with me and watch my Dad’s home movies. ”
“Home movies?” he questioned and glanced at the TV, seeing the laughing image of a young woman who looked remarkably like the woman beside him.
Catherine chuckled. “My Mother gave my Dad an 8mm movie camera with sound recording for their first Christmas. He used the camera to film everything: starting with their first year together, then my mother’s pregnancy–he would have filmed my birth but at that time they didn’t allow fathers in the birthing room–the day they brought me home, all my baby milestones, every birthday, Christmas, Halloween, dance recitals, our times at the cabin, you name it he filmed it. In fact, every two to three years he had to get a new camera. ”Then Vincent felt the sudden onrush of sorrow that came over her. “Until Mother died, then he put it away and never used it again. ”
“Your father loved your mother deeply,” Vincent said as he turned her around and pulled her back against his breast, his arms closing about her.
“Yes, they were a joy to watch. ”With another swift mood swing, she glanced over her shoulder at him with a mischievous grin. “Can you stand to watch a chubby baby girl grow into a gangly, awkward ten-year-old?”
He matched her playfulness. “Surely you don’t mean the little girl who grew up to be the woman I love?You malign her; I’m sure. ”
Giggling, Catherine pushed the rewind button. When the tape came to a stop, she started the tape. The figure of her mother showing her the deep blue lake sprang to life. Catherine took a deep breath and leaned once more against Vincent. He rested his chin on the top of her head and viewed the first year of the couple who had influenced and guided the early years of the woman now reclining in his arms. Once again her emotions soared up and down. Only now, he was there to sustain her.
It was late in the night, well past when the last tape had run its course. Vincent had had the rare privilege of watching the growth of a beautiful baby into a self-possessed five-year-old, and the final years of Catherine’s mother’s life. He knew, at last, who had given her the strength and capacity to love that she possessed.
Vincent had watched her mother closely, noting the similarities in their mannerisms. In the last tape he observed the slow decline in the lovely woman as the time approached Catherine’s tenth birthday. Almost the entire reel of film had been devoted to this birthday as if Charles Chandler had wanted to preserve this special day for his daughter. It showed an ill but lovingly determined woman who wanted to give her daughter a birthday she would never forget. Vincent could feel the sorrow that encompassed the woman sitting curled up in his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder, tears seeping from behind her lids.
“I missed her so much when I was growing up,” she said softly.
“I know you did,” Vincent offered, “but you had her for ten years, and she set you on the path that your life has taken. You couldn’t have accepted me as you have without learning that from your mother. She was a loving and giving person, Catherine, and she loved you very much. ”
“But I needed your reminding,” she sniffed.
“Maybe, but I think you were already dissatisfied with the course of your life and needed only a little shove to change it. You would have eventually returned to your mother’s values. ”
“Conceivably that is true but I’m so glad I got the ‘little shove’ from you. ”A scene on the TV screen caught her attention. “Oh look. This is when I fell into the lake with my Sunday clothes on; I didn’t know he had filmed that. I look like a drowned puppy. ”She laughed happily, squeezing him around the middle; he joined her, chuckling at a very damp young Catherine wearing a droopy, soggy straw hat. She was precious.
The last shot on the last tape was a lingering loving shot of Catherine’s mother’s face. Catherine released a deep sigh. “I had forgotten all about these films,” she said, looking up to find his sapphire blue gaze resting on her. “You know, I could almost smell the scent of pine needles and crushed fallen leaves as I watched us take that last slow walk along the lakeshore. I read this line in a poem–I’ve forgotten which–‘A fragrance of old summers. ’Somehow it fits what I’m feeling right now. ”Vincent smiled. “Ah, Catherine, you are blessed with such memories. What wonderful times you had, and how wonderful that you have these reminders of them. ”
She nodded then snuggled into the hollow of his shoulder. His arm slid around her, pressing her even closer to his warmth. “I’m so glad you got to see them. I’ve got a lot more to watch. Will you watch them with me?”
“I would be delighted. I’ve learned much about you tonight. ”
With a grimace of regret, she replied, “I only wish I could know more of your childhood. ”
“That, my dear,” he replied drolly, “can only be told in stories. Of course, there are Elizabeth’s pictures. ”
“So there are,” she agreed. “I love seeing you as a tiny baby or a little boy. You were so cute. ”
“Cute?” he snorted. “At one time, I was all elbows and knees, ungainly as a Great Dane puppy. Father despaired that I would ever become coordinated. ”
Catherine laughed delightedly as she envisioned this most graceful of men as an awkward, lanky teenager. “Oh, I wish I had known you then,” she said.
“And I’m just as glad that you didn’t. I wasn’t a pretty sight,” he expostulated.
Kissing him softly on the cheek, she whispered in his ear, “I’ll bet you were adorable. ”
A wave of pure love swept over him, and he shook his head in wonder at this woman he loved as he pulled her even tighter against him. It was difficult for him to accept but he knew that she would always see him as beautiful. Nuzzling into her hair, inhaling the light floral scent of her shampoo, he thought the fragrance of old summers would always be the fragrance of Catherine herself.