by Ashley Baker
Every summer since I can remember, my parents, sister, and I have made the nine hour drive down to Georgia to visit my grandmother. The seemingly endless drive was a small sacrifice to make for the week ahead of us. We’d leave our house early in the morning, the dew still on the grass. Dad would pack up the car, and rearrange the suitcases until we fit the maximum amount of baggage possible into the trunk and back seat. Mom would gather the baked goods and gifts we had made for grandma, and Caiti and I would climb into the backseat and fall back to sleep.
I’d watch out the window as the scenery changed from the grassy hills of Virginia, to the two-lane highway in North Carolina, to the bridge over the Savannah. When we drove through my grandmother’s town, I’d see homeless people on the corner. I’d see women pushing their children in shopping carts down the sidewalk and dogs running loose around the neighborhoods. I could hear kids yelling outside and dogs barking as cars drove by. Chain linked fences were in front of every house; except grandma’s. Her house stuck out from all the rest. With her flower garden and “Welcome Friends” sign, her house was a place you’d want to go and where everyone was welcome.
The smell of cigarette smoke always made me feel sick to my stomach; except for when I was at Grandma’s. I always thought this was strange, since my grandfather smoked in the house and was known for having a cigarette dangling from one side of his mouth and a toothpick from the other. Ashes would be scattered onto every horizontal surface and holes were burnt into Grandpa’s shirt. Here inside their house, the smoky smell wasn’t a nuisance. Instead, it was a smell I related with comfort, laughter, and the best weeks of summer.
“Grandma’s been getting’ that pool ready for ya’ll all month”, my grandfather told us. The pool in their backyard had the most beautiful crystal water I’ve ever seen. We’d spend all day in the pool and eat cheesecake on the patio. After dinner, we’d play Yahtzee out back while we slapped and cursed at the mosquitoes eating us alive. The smell of cigarettes would linger in the air as Grandma rolled the dice in the blue plastic cup. Normally, I’d cover my nose or turn away from the awful odor, but during the weeks we were in Georgia, I’d breathe it in as if it were the fresh air back home. I’d breathe it in so I could remember it all- the buzzing of the bug-zapper, the glow of the candles, and the sound of my grandmother’s laugher.
The week always went by too fast. We’d wave goodbye to my grandparents as they stood on the porch. It was hard to hold back the tears as we drove away. I hated leaving them and the house that held so many of my favorite memories. Grandma’s health wasn’t very good and her emphysema made her weaker and weaker every year. Every time we left the house, I’d pray for at least one more summer in Georgia. I couldn’t stand the thought of every year being the last.
Easter morning we were having brunch in Richmond with my mom’s family. When my dad answered his cell, I saw the panicked look on his face and knew something was wrong. “Grandma had a pain in her chest this morning, Ash, so she’s at the hospital now. She’ll be ok; she’s going to call after the test results come back”. Tears filled my eyes as I hugged my parents and they reassured me that everything would be alright. Less then an hour later my dad’s phone rang again. This time he took the call into the other room and called my mom in behind him. When I heard the sobs minutes later, I knew what had happened. I don’t know how long I cried or hugged my parents, but I do know that I was in complete disbelief. Would I really never be able to see my grandmother’s smile again or hear her laugh? Would the next time we traveled to Georgia really be for her funeral?
We left Richmond that day. My family and I once again made the trek through the hills of Virginia, on the two-lane highway in North Carolina, to the bridge over the Savannah. This trip, however, was different. I was dreading this trip, and the sick feeling in my stomach grew with every mile further that we drove. When we arrived to my grandparents’ house, it was cold and silent. There were hugs to greet us at the door, but they were hugs accompanied by tears; not smiles. The pool out back looked still and cold and I couldn’t help feeling like the house was empty, when in reality, there were more people here at this time than ever before. The house needed my grandmother in it to feel warm and welcoming. The smell of smoke never has, and never will, smell as sweet as it did in Georgia.