this past week, two people with hearts of gold died: my aunt kathryn and ben floyd, a friend of my dad's for decades. i knew both of them when little but whether memory is too weak or childish perception too shallow, i only really got to know and appreciate them in the last 10 years or so.
it was only a bit over a month ago that i knocked at aunt kathryn's door, at the old yellow-brick house on 3rd south in provo, utah. she was not home, and we did not have time (so i thought then) to go back for another try, to my deep regret. when i pressed my nose to the screen, peering through the glass and the translucent curtain for her figure coming out from the kitchen, i smelled something straight out of childhood memories. it is a smell i associate with grandma's house (just a few blocks east, also on 3rd south), and was amazed to find it in the screen door of aunt kathryn's house. like most memory smells, i cannot really describe it. it is not anything obvious -- apricots, say -- but at the same time it is very specific. and, to make it even more mysterious, or at least hard to isolate, it is embedded in particular memories such as eating white-bread toast with jam in grandma's kitchen.
as hard as it is to describe a smell (and i haven't really even tried to describe it, have i?), in some ways it is even harder to describe a person: to really describe, not in the shorthand we usually use (such as 'heart of gold,' 'thin,' or 'spiritual'), but in sharp specifics. one reason it is hard is that these people we love(d) are holy, somehow, and we do not want to get them wrong. aunt kathryn's voice, for example, is just like that slightly sweet smell on her door, unique from all others and highly specific. so what we do in these situations is to fall back on general preferences or hobbies. she loved children. she loved to feed people. she was quite fat when i was little, and once i really got to know her as an adult, quite thin. her suffering (back pain) condemned her to walking, a perpetual motion that eased the pain.
as for ben: he was barrel-chested, and carried himself like a big man, although he was small-statured. it was only when i was an adult that i realized how loving and tender he was. he was an expert and hilarious story-teller, which is not surprising, since to tell a story well requires a big and sympathetic heart. he used his eyes, and hand gestures, and expressions, and hard-hitting words, to convey a particularly sharp impression, like his imitation of the person catching a ball by chance in the stands at yankee stadium -- the finger tracing the ball arcing through the air, accompanied by a whistling sound to convey the descent, the arm flipping up almost robotically, a 'pop' sound for the ball landing in the palm, the eyes huge, fixing on the (imagined) ball in the hand. actually, i don't even remember who was catching the ball -- was it him? a stranger? his joy (and ours) was in conveying that physical moment, embellishing and exaggerating it to make it in the telling even funnier than the original experience! another moment i recall (and will my whole life, i think) is of his son (and my childhood friend) christian taking ill at night. he described hearing christian whimpering, creeping into his bedroom, touching his leg to wake him, and him sitting straight up in bed and throwing up all over ben. the comic moment that he played and replayed just for the pure delight of it was christian sitting up in bed -- again, the automatic, robot-like 'click' of the body, conveyed by his forearm shooting up to vertical, the use of the word 'jacknife' to emphasize the out-of-control nature of the act, the opening of the mouth, becoming his miserable son in performance. he threw up again, once he was in the bathroom. of course, through his son's misery and his own exasperation, anyone could see how he loved his son. oh, ben. you were too young!