My great grandmothers house always smelled faintly of cooked brussels sprouts. I never actually saw her eat one growing up, but always imagined that she must have lived on nothing else. I would burst into her kitchen the second my parents would let me out of the car and breath in the smell that still, to this day, can take me back to green Formica counter tops and a fridge straight out of the 1950’s.
She lived in a fabulous old house that had been converted to have small apartments on the upper and lower flowers long before my parents had even met. I never knew the house as anything other than the tiny kitchen, formal dinning room, living room two bedroom, one bath I grew up with. A house that’s bathroom was so small that even as I child, I could touch both walls when standing in the middle of it. If I really wanted to, I probably could have laid on the floor and touched all four walls at once.
We always entered through the rickety kitchen door around back. Each summer, I would skip along the side of the house from front door to back and breath in the fragrant roses that my grandmother claimed grew on their own to that height with no help from her. Though I’m almost positive that I saw her prune them once, it may have been a dream.
I can remember so many moments that have come to shape odd parts of my life. Like the first time I found out one of my great aunts name was actually a mispronunciation of an English name. I had never known that I had grown up pronouncing her name with an Asian accent and had always wondered why my family insisted naming the children such strange things.
I remember setting the table for a large family dinner one night and sticking the rice paddle straight up in the rice. I thought my great grandmother was going to have a heart attack and my great aunts slapped my hands away saying, “That means death.” But no one was able to answer if it meant someone was going to die, someone had died, someone was secretly dying or if there was some other secret omen related to death that it denoted. It just had always been and my first generation American relatives were not willing to ask my immigrant great grandmother which it was.
But all of these strange parts of being from an immigrant family and the odd things that come from being only the third generation born in America, the smell of cook brussels sprouts will always remind me a stoic woman who had more fight in her than she led on, more defiance than she let you see and who might have been the most stubborn woman I have ever known.
The smell of brussels sprouts always makes me miss lime green paint that is peeling from age off of an old screen door and hardwood floors and mousetraps with actual pieces of cheese set on them. Of all of the lost relics of a generation of Americans who didn’t know what it was to waste anything, and Asian traditions that flowed seamlessly in and out of every room in an old house, tucked away in a now busy city. And how much you can miss someone who died when you were too young to build resentments and too naïve to realize they were only human.