My grandmother’s apartment back in Cairo, Egypt, right by the Nile River was where my childhood in the early 1990’s started. Starting with the creaky entrance gate to the sublime backyard aromas of fresh roses. Her house was where my entire family would meet; frequently I would see several relatives crashing at her place spreading all the way from the bedrooms to the soft expandable sofa beds. Occasionally out of the side of my eye I would see my grandmother, walking from the living room to the restroom, wearing a Turkish sweater and a long colorful skirt. Once in a great while, I would walk into the living room to find my great aunt Dina standing by the huge ceramic vessels, watering the old flowers. Seventy-eight-year-old Aunt Rebecca would be sitting on the terrace fixing her black wig with the vivid yellow streak running on the left side of the wig right by her ears, and putting on blood red lipstick in front of her hand mirror. Grandpa Ali, my grandmother’s second spouse, was to be found napping on the porch by the garage. If you saw him when he was living, he would have sworn that he was just relaxing his eyes.
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My grandfather bought the apartment in 1993. The two-story building had three apartments, all of which were full. To get an apartment, you had to stay on a waiting list till one of them cleared up. One afternoon, he walked over from his workplace on Shubra Road to introduce himself in person to the lady in control of the waiting list. She was so delighted by his pleasantness and lack of pretense that once the second floor flat opened up, she kept it for him, skipping the three names on the list that were ahead of him. My grandmother wanted to move to the town away from their gigantic, suburban house after my youngest uncle graduated from college in the spring of 1991. Unfortunately my grandpa passed away four months before they relocated to the new place. My grandmother would never be left alone at that age, thus my mother went back home from the University of Alexandria where she was studying for her PhD, and my older uncle came back from Port Saeed where he worked as a civil engineer.
It wasn’t a flashy or decorative apartment. It was on the second floor, and there were three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a long but cramped kitchen, an average-sized living room, a huge porch, a backyard and garage that all three apartments shared. There have been a few changes since they first got the place; nonetheless it is mostly identical to the way it was when I was first carried over its threshold at two months old.
Throughout the years, I moved new furniture in and gave away some old pieces, including the small purple loveseat beneath the window, which I gave to my aunts close friend who lived three streets away. I tore down the bathrooms wallpaper, aiming to paint it with a luscious rich peachy color, only to realize that the walls behind the wallpaper were perky red. I learned that one morning, while no one was home, my grandmother snuck out to the hardware store a black away and bought two gallons of red paint, which she spent the remainder of the day chaotically applying onto the bathroom walls. She said nothing at that time, but several weeks later, she called a relative to come over and cover the walls with plastic. It has a complex job for me so I remember calling two of my cousins to help with priming the wall and repainting it.
A memorable event from four years ago occurred whenI was snooping around a series of old books on the ledge in the living room. One book fell from my hands and snapped open on the ground, to expose a crumbly bookmark from a well-known store that closed in 2002 , and a signed beige credit card receipt from a February evening in 1995, when my grandmother hadpurchased the book. I was shocked to discover a love poem that was written to my grandmother from a guy called ” Ehab Abo-nawaf,” and signed with a day in April of 1973 that I do not quite recall. I began looking through the pages, cautious to leave the receipt as an indicator, as I wanted to retain the page where she left off. However, I never spoke to her about it till this day.
Another feature I would never forget is the smell of the apartment. It didn’t change one bit as long as I could remember. When I went to visit my grandparents as a child, I would take a deep, long breath as I walked through the main entrance. It was the fragrance more than the view, noises or people, which marked our arrival. Most places that are somewhat significant to me have adistinctivescent that you can recall even if you haven’t visited it in a long time. The apartment had a fading smell of lumber, straw mats, and wood furniture. The scent is easily distinguished, just as that of the abandoned pink sofa that smelled like febreeze combined with cat odors and nutty crystal coffee counter that has been in the living room since before I was born. Everyone is alerted whenever I’m in the apartment due to my wide assortment of colognes, body washes, and shampoos. Whenever I leave for a while and return, the smell of the apartment deteriorates and I spend a second looking around, trying to see if my grandmother is walking down the lobby, her manicured hands held aloft, silver bracelets ringing gently to reveal her presence , in preparation for hugs and kisses. I’ve come to cope with the idea that when it comes to the aromatic signature of this space, my grandparents thirty-five years here will always trump my measly half-decade. I don’t mind though, it is the wisps of their fragrances that make it feel like home.
Hanging in the living room is a Swiss handmade glass cabinet teak with a black laminate top that runs the length of the wall to which it is bolted. My grandmother thought it was so sleek and modern when she bought it in 1989 for her old apartment. It was artistically crafted to perfection and made from mahogany wood unlike the heavy, dark antiques she had grown up with, which are the kind that my dad and I love. The interior of the cabinet smells like candy-covered chocolate mints, bourbon, and old wood. Whenever we would come to visit as children, my sister and I would spend close to half an hour just sitting close to the cabinet inhaling the smells and furtively munching on the Almond Roca, after dinner mints, and rich Godiva assortments.
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When I was there for my most recent visit three years ago, I leaned down to slide open the door in order to put a crystal glass away, and the entire door came off in my hand. I stood, blinking in distress that this unit of furniture, a fixture for my entire life, was falling to pieces in my palms. I sat down on the lemon scented wooden floor to inspect the damage and noticed that the frame was falling off. It seems like two decades of chocolate boxes and crystal plates and vases had become too much for the nails and screws holding it together. The damage was not that hard to fix, I have some hands-on knowledge with repairing items, but I was inordinately unhappy by the cabinet falling apart, just as if it was one more part of my grandparents that was slipping away.
Two days after the above incident occurred, I stumbled from my bed to the hallway only to notice the scent of the vanilla cake I’d baked the day before hung heavy in the air. At first I struggled to identify the aroma. Instead of remembering the odor, my memory reached back ten years to my childhood, to the winter Sunday mornings when my grandpa would make extravagant pancakes for my sister and me. As I walked across the hall back to the kitchen, I expected to see younger versions of my grandparents talking by the round dinner table, articles of the newspaper , or books in front of them. My grandfather would have one foot folded over the other, his left hand curled around a cup of hot coffee. My grandma would be wearing large white-framed reading glasses that she would quickly hide as she looked up to talk to me. My grandpa Ali would be standing by the stove in the kitchen, wearing casual pants and a button-down shirt. My sister and I loved his pancakes because they were absolute opposites of the nutty whole-grain ones our mom made at home. These were made of Bisquick, water and starch. He cooked them in margarine, which left the edges crispy and laden with a near-buttery taste. He served them to us on big polished glass plates embossed with patterns of fruit and flowers. A restaurant-style dispenser of thick honey syrup would be within reach, a great contrast to the dreary authentic watery maple syrup that I buy at stores throughout the city.
I hesitated as I walked across the hallway, not wanting to forget the memory of those mornings. After a pause, I stepped out into the front Porch in the freezing cold weather, and realized the fact that I was no longer six years old and that there would be no more classic pancakes for breakfast.
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