Today I bought a bottle of hand lotion. Now, while that may not be earth shattering news, it was a nostalgic rush of sweet scented memories for me. Millions of hand lotions of every scent are sold each year, but for me, this one held a little magic in a bottle. I leaned down to grab a bottle off the shelf at Walmart; One of the baby soft, powdery fragrances I normally gravitate toward, when something caught my eye. “Jergen’s Original Scent, Cherry-Almond Moisturizer.”
Twisting the top from the plastic bottle, I stood in that busy store and was taken back some 44 years to another time, another place and somehow, magically transported to a place where love had a fragrance.
I was seven years old when my parents divorced. I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska within the confines of a large extended family of aunts, uncles, brothers, cousins, grandparents and assorted odd folk that wandered in and out of our lives. They put the “dys” in dysfunctional, but they were all I knew. That was the ‘50’s when “dysfunctional family” wasn’t a buzz word. If it had been, my entire family would have been Dysfunctional Family Poster Children.
As soon as the divorce papers were signed, Daddy left Alaska for a little town in south Georgia called Adel, where his mother lived. At the time, none of the adults around us could tell us if we'd ever see him again. Mother married again as soon as the law allowed her. In other words, if the ink was dry on the divorce decree, it was barely dry. We'll just call it..."damp".
It was a humid, sweltering summer when we arrived in Adel. Daddy and his wife lived in a one bedroom camper trailer. Somehow, we stuffed ourselves in there. To say the least, south Georgia was another planet compared to Alaska. Nothing was familiar and life is that little trailer was strained to say the least. We had interrupted the honeymoon more or less.
It was that summer I met my "new grandparents," my Dad's mother, her husband and my step-mother's parents. By then I should have been used to it, but being a child, I didn't understand the dynamics of a "blended family. " By eight years old, I had two moms, two dads, four siblings, more grandparents than I could count and massive confusion going on in my little head.
My Dad’s Mother was in and out of our lives so fast, I didn’t have much time to get to know her. She and her husband were heading back to Dallas where the climate was somewhat less humid.
Arthur and Mattilu Flowers were simple country folk and my new step-mother's parents. They came to be Grandma and Grandaddy to me. Grandma was a chubby little woman with a plain face, frizzy hair and pug nose. Grandaddy was a tiny little dark haired man, whose eyes batted rapidly when he was excited.
Growing up in the rural tobacco farming country of south Georgia, they married young and had children young, such as people did in that day and time. Having little education, they worked hard at minimum wage jobs just to survive.
It was at their home, I learned to equate the fragrance of Jergen’s lotion to love. Grandma used it religiously. Her work-worn hands and sun dried skin would be softened and scented with only that lotion. After a bath at Grandma’s house, I would be liberally slathered with the same sweet smelling lotion and even more liberally slathered with love. It was the first hug from Grandma, when I met her, that enveloped me not only in her arms and in her love, but in that sweet aroma.
When we made that first trip to Adel, Georgia, there wasn’t an Interstate 75 running through that part of Georgia. It was under construction at the time and just an unsightly gash in the red south Georgia soil. Grandma and Granddaddy’s house was just yards from that soon to be, busy interstate highway.
It was 1958 and life flowed at a slower pace than it does now. Neighbors knew each other and watched each other’s children as if they were their own.
Summer didn’t last long and soon we were back on the road, headed back to Alaska, I had a few weeks of Heaven on earth in Grandma and Grandaddy’s Jergen’s Lotion scented home. They had another daughter, my “Aunt Peggy” who was all grown up in my eight year old eyes, at age thirteen. While Grandma and Granddaddy heaped love upon me, Peggy treated me like her own personal baby doll. Even though she was the official baby of their family, never once was there a glimmer of jealousy when I arrived on the scene. She loved me just as her Mama and Daddy loved me.
Back in Alaska, nothing was the same. While my extended family was still there, Mother was long gone. The visit we had been sent on turned into Mother giving Daddy full custody of my brother Freddie, our oldest brother, Tom and myself. Only our baby brother, David had not been allowed to come live with us. Mother had started a new family with her new husband and we were simply the collateral damage.
Tom was fifteen to our step-mother’s eighteen, so that in itself was a problem. A few short weeks after we arrived in Anchorage, Tom flew back to live with Mother and her new family. While Mother had all but disappeared after handing us to Daddy, life at home was rough to say the least. Daddy had a “problem” with drinking and our step-mother, the child bride, was now a reluctant child-mother. Looking back, I now know she was over her head with an instant family at her age. Daddy was fighting his own personal demons, so he had little time to realize what was going on under his nose.
For the better part of two years, we lived in a tiny basement apartment with one bedroom and a living room/kitchen area. With one person, it would have been crowded. With four, it was like stacking cordwood. The summer of 1960, we moved back to Adel. I suspect Daddy had heard all the caterwauling he could stand from his homesick child bride and in the end, gave up and took her home to Mama.
Life settled into a routine for me once we were back in Adel. Home during the week and on the weekends, off to Grandma and Grandaddy’s house. By then, my Aunt Peggy was fifteen and dating, leaving little time to spend with a now ten year old child. However, Grandma and Grandaddy had all the time in the world. I can honestly say that in my childhood, no one took time to nurture me as those two sweet, simple country folk did. They had no grandchildren of their own at that time, so we became theirs, no questions asked. After the constant disruptions that had occurred in my last few years, they were just what the doctor ordered.
Grandma and Grandpa Flowers kept me well entertained when I spent weekends with them. By sixteen, Aunt Peggy was married and I was the only child left to coddle. Grandma would pick me up on Friday after she got off work and take me straight to the library. She waited in the car while I picked out five books. I would stay up most of the night, reading and losing myself in some work of fiction, until Grandma would come in my room just before the sun rose and make me turn the lights out.
There were three little girls my age living near Grandma’s house. Jan Bone, Sissy Fielder and Sandra George decided to overlook the fact that I was from what must have seemed a foreign country and became my friends that first summer. Alaska may as well have been Mars for those who had grown up in that tiny, rural burg. I had my three girlfriends and someone to play with when I was there on the weekends. I’d been more or less accepted and was not as much of an oddity as thought. I walked upright, spoke English, albeit with a well defined “Yankee” accent, I breathed in and breathed out without the assistance of gills that all other space creatures had and my antennae were gradually receding.
The “girls” and I would spend mornings playing “movie star,” arguing over who would be Sandra Dee or Suzanne Pleshette, but arguing even more over who had to be Troy Donahue or Rock Hudson. During the hottest summer days, we would head for the public swimming pool and splash our day away. Back at Grandma’s house, we’d stand under her carport and sing at the top of our lungs. I had Patsy Cline down pat and the acoustics under that carport made us think we could really sing. The neighborhood dogs howling proved us wrong.
On most Saturdays, I was allowed to go downtown to the Adel Movie Theatre all by myself. If it was
on the big screen, I saw it in that little theatre. From Elvis to the Beach Blanket movies, I soaked them up.
Books and movies were my escape. Those same books and movies nurtured my imagination, leading to what I am today; a writer.
Before the movies we would always go by the little service station where Grandaddy worked. I would stick
my hand out and he would dig in his pockets, eyes rolling in mock disgust as he found a dime to give me to
spend on candy. It became a memory we laughed at many times through the years.
Saturday nights were a social event in Adel. That’s when the community gathered downtown and “walked
around the block.” From 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., people of all ages gathered there and visited. Some actually did
walk around the block, but most sat in cars and talked or frequented Clary’s 5 & 10, where a quarter would
buy you a pop, some candy and a little toy of some kind.
Grandma knew the way to my heart. She would make grilled cheese sandwiches and “cream,” a wonderful concoction of canned milk, sugar and vanilla, frozen in a metal ice tray and serve it up to me like I was a guest at the Ritz.
Sundays with Grandma and Grandaddy were spent at Antioch Methodist Church, far out in the south
Georgia countryside. If I got sleepy during church, I’d lay my head in Grandma’s soft lap and she would
tenderly stroke my hair as I slept. That was as close to a mother’s caress as I had felt in my lifetime and was always accompanied with the soft, sweet fragrance of her hand lotion.
Sunday afternoons were spent, “driving in the country.” A leisurely drive that would send us meandering through the lush tobacco farms and red clay country roads. Most of those drives ended up with us sitting on the front porch of some distant family member or old friend of Grandma and Grandaddy’s. It was always a sad time when Sunday evening came and Grandma took me back home. I wanted to snuggle into her ample bosom and stay in those lotion scented arms, but I had to go home.
Late in my teens, Aunt Peggy gave Grandma and Granddaddy their one and only natural grandchild in the form of a sweet little dark-haired angel named Dina. Even when they shared their love with her, never once did their love for me diminish.
For the eight years I spent in Adel, until I graduated from high school and moved on into adulthood, Grandma and Grandaddy were a stabilizing and loving force in my life. As the decades passed and I had children of my own, I would take occasional trips back home to visit. My older girls got a taste of their unwavering love when they visited with those wonderful people.
In the 90’s Grandaddy passed away. One of my poems was read at his service and in his hand was a small bouquet of blue flowers with shiny new dimes glittering among the flowers. Those were payment for all the dimes he’d lovingly placed in my hands through my childhood.
Sadly, after my Dad died, also in the 90’s, my step-mother and I lost touch. Because of that, it was more than a year after her death before I found out Grandma had also passed away. After countless phone calls to her home with no answer and finally a disconnect message, my older brother found out she had died.
I never got to say goodbye, but somehow she reached out to me when I was standing in the aisle in Walmart, smelling her fragrance of that Jergen’s lotion. It was as if I had been wrapped up in those comforting arms one last time.
If there were ever saints on earth, Arthur and Mattilu Flowers were exactly that. They took a child that
wasn’t their own and made her their first grandchild. The impact they had on my life will never be
forgotten, nor will that sweet aroma of love that surrounded me in their presence.
Grandma and Grandaddy....
I will always remember you and my heart will be filled forever with the fragrance of your love.
Allison Chambers Coxsey
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