Scent of a city

As I walked around the Sacramento Antique Faire on Sunday, an unmistakable, familiar smell drifted through a booth stocked with vintage linens, toys and bits of paper ephemera: A heady mix of Chanel No. 5 and cigarette smoke, old tissue and dried roses.

“It smells just like Nana,” I said.

And it did. Or, to be more precise, the scent recalled my grandmother’s house as I remember it now, with its formal living room and primly clean guest room, the flower-shaped miniature soaps in the bathroom and the board games in the “cousins’ room”—the spare bedroom reserved for grandchildren sleepovers—and, always, the lingering scent of her favorite perfume.

The scent reminded me of Nana; it reminded me of Sacramento.

When my grandmother Fern Gallaway died on September 8, she took a bit of Sacramento—the city she introduced me to and taught me to love—with her.

My grandmother, born in Turlock in 1924, traveled the world with my grandfather, who served in the U.S. Army, before settling in Sacramento in the 1960s in College Greens, then just a small neighborhood still flanked by empty fields.

I first visited Sacramento years later on a visit with my mother. It was November 1976 and I was just a few weeks shy of my seventh birthday.

My earliest memory of Sacramento is flying down Interstate 5 in the backseat of my grandparents’ Volvo as my grandmother pointed out landmarks. There were the two, long and winding rivers. There were all the trees that made Sacramento so famous. There was Old Town; we’d have to go there for a visit.

My grandmother took me Old Town (always “Old Town,” never “Old Sacramento”), enjoying my excitement about the cobbled streets and the too-sweet sarsaparilla soda. She brought me to McKinley Park, handing me chunks of day-old bread to feed the ducks. She drove us to Leatherby’s for insanely large ice-cream sundaes.

I visited again over the years, enjoying trips to various places that, regardless of size or importance, will always seem like iconic landmarks when I remember them through my grandmother’s eyes: the Music Circus and Tower Records, the elegant William Glen shop and the Nut Tree in Vacaville.

We moved to Sacramento in 1983, following my parents’ divorce. Then, my mother and I, along with my two young brothers, lived with my grandparents for six months until my mother bought a house just a few blocks away from the house her parents had owned since she was in high school. For six months my brothers shared the cousins’ room and my mother and I grudgingly roomed together in the guest room.

I was 13 then and not a very nice teenager. I blared loud music in the afternoon as my grandparents tried to watch their stories (every afternoon from noon to 3 p.m., without fail), snuck my grandmother’s cigarettes and left endless messes in my wake. Once I spilled nail polish on the guest room dresser and although my mother raised some holy hell; my grandmother never did.

It’s not that she was a saint—hardly. Fern Gallaway possessed a sly humor and an infectious giggle and a steely sense of right and wrong.

When my grandfather died, my grandmother remained in their house for a few years until a decline in health prompted a move to an assisted-living care facility. The family helped sell her house, and to this day, I can’t really bring myself to drive by it, knowing I can’t walk inside and breathe deep the scent of cigarette smoke and old tissue, dried roses and Chanel No. 5.

Of course, in Sacramento, the fragrance still lingers in the most unexpected places.