The Domestic Garden— Rafaela Bassili

There is a recurring image of my grandmother that plays in a loop in my mind, filled with admiration and a little sadness, colored in the blue tones of a film I love very deeply but which I have never seen: my grandmother, in a tank top and jeans, sitting on the balcony overlooking the street in a folding chair, holding an espresso cup on one hand and a cigarette on the other. An unfinished embroidery hoop sits on her lap, the needle woven into the spot where she left off, maybe threaded with red wool, she had been embroidering a rose. It’s February and the heat elongates the already languid nature of the day: it’s too hot to move, to do anything but sit right in this position, where the breeze from the beach a couple of blocks over manages to just scrape by, kissing my grandmother’s temples where drops of sweat accumulate. The hot espresso, perversely, almost relieves the humidity, because it brings the exterior condition to the inside, and in that moment my grandmother is thinking about something very important to her, and unknown to the rest of us all, and she is one with the stillness of her life, blissful, dignified.

It seems preposterous to say it, but sometimes, when reason dawns and I consider quitting smoking, this image comes to my mind and I decide to keep my unhealthy habit. This is through no fault of my grandmother’s, of course, who was eventually diagnosed with lung cancer and beat it like the illness had been an inconvenient mosquito waking her up from a peaceful sleep. But there is something so feminine, domestic, and statuary, there’s such dignity in my mind to that image that I can’t let go of it because I want it, for myself. I’m never going to know whatever thought looped in my grandmother’s mind in moments like those, but what I am sure of is that she knew something I don’t, a mystery of ungodly proportions for which I am perpetually reaching. Call it experience, motherhood, the weight of the memories of a life hard-lived. I don’t know. I want to know, badly, but I also revel in the mystery, the vastness of a depth of feeling that one person can access and the other can only imagine. Part of me tries to uncover it, and the other part holds the cover firmly down; so, whatever it is that it is, I think it’s utterly fundamental. I feel moored to that feeling that I chase but have never caught when I’m smoking, contemplatively, or sometimes when I sigh deeply, exasperated at something so unbearable I can’t even think of what it is.  

At my parents' house, my grandmother caught me smoking out in the garden one day, looking at my mother's orchids.

"You smoke?" She asked me, surprised.

"Yes, grandma, for a while now. You knew this!" I told her.

"You know, I used to smoke."

"You did, for so many years."

"It's so bad for you. But it feels so good," she smiled.

Rafaela Bassili is a writer and translator living in New York. @sallyjaygorce (twitter)