When I remember my grandmother it is in moments of delicate precision: a paintbrush dipped in lacquer as she made her decoupage panels; long fingers holding a pair of clippers to shape her balcony topiary; an ivory-backed hairbrush gently running through her hair. Her home was a Sydney palace: quiet white carpets, thickly folded drapes, baroque trimmings and a view of Bondi Beach. She was in all respects a proper lady, the kind of older woman whose cosmetics were kept in delicate, silver antiques, who packed all her clothes in careful plastic, and left the house looking like Greta Garbo even well into her seventies. Yet my last and most enduring image of her is of mess and delight and a gigantic scoop of gelato.
It started in Paris. I was living there at the time on a student exchange. I settled on abject poverty as a means of adhering to my idea of a bohemian lifestyle: I’d managed to find an apartment without heating and, in a bitter October, was shivering away with a glass of Côtes du Rhône in one hand and copy of Camus or Sartre or something equally ridiculous and existential in the other. Into my Parisian angst swooped Grandma, who was wealthy and willing to wander for the right cup of tea. There were museums, of course; she preferred the Louvre and I the Pompidou, but we found a happy medium at the d’Orsay.
There was lunch at some absurdly bourgeois club to which Grandma belonged, a block from the Champs-Élysées and retaining all of its second empire elegance, everything was delicate china and gilded mirrors. In my rebellious irreverence, I had neglected to wear a jacket and tie. After a deadly and quintessentially cool French gaze down a very long nose, I was loaned both from the front desk and was thus allowed to sip Champagne and gently prod my steak tartare.
And so, for about a week, it was café au lait by the Jardin du Luxembourg in the mornings and shivers, moldy cheese and musty blankets in the evening. And before you ask, no, the irony of my self-imposed poverty and my excessively wealthy relatives is not lost on me. While I might have liked to style myself as the next Van Gogh, complete with prerequisite suffering and dismembered ear, who wouldn’t prefer a macaroon to McDonalds?
Among the many excesses provided to this bourgeois boheme was a trip to Rome, staying, of course, at the Savoy. We took a tour of the ruins and wandered the churches and palazzos, sipped cappuccinos and ventured to the Trastevere. We wandered down Via del Corso, stepping into Gucci and Prada, where shop assistants regarded me suspiciously but flocked eagerly around the restrained elegance of my nona.
For my grandmother and me, Europe was a bridge spanning the fifty years that separated us. For her, the daughter of wealthy Polish immigrants to Australia, Europe represented the height of class and a sense of home long left behind but inherited through memory and migration. For me it represented art and culture and sophistication and everything that small, backward, out-of-the-way Australia lacked. And so we met in the middle and carefully considered the differences between rococo and renaissance, and admired everything from the Pieta to the Piazza Navona.
And so we arrive at gelato. Among the many postcard places we visited was the Trevi Fountain. Thronged with tourists and packed with peddlers selling their knickknacks and miniatures, the fountain, er, overflows with Italy-ness. Among the many shops lining the gurgling waters is a gelato store whose name escapes me but whose endless variety of flavors I well remember.
Now before I go on, it warrants explaining that, for my grandmother, ice cream was kind of a big deal. Her life-long gluten intolerance along with her dietary discipline had deprived her of most sweet things that crumble. But those of a meltier variety held a rather special place.
We each selected our flavors: dark chocolate and hazelnut for me, salted caramel and crème brûlée for her. After a long day of sightseeing and selfies, sitting in a quiet(ish) corner and languidly licking a gently melting mound of yum was, in a word, bliss. But there was a problem. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had this amazing skill of spreading whatever I’m eating from chin to forehead and beyond. A common childhood affliction, yes, but well into my twenties I’ve still haven’t quite kicked the habit. And, with a ball of gelato the size of a small volleyball, the effect was frankly disastrous.
Realizing the sticky situation I was in, I looked over at Grandma in a panic, steeling myself for her gently disappointed stare. Instead, I found a mirror image: grandmother sitting back, eyes closed in bliss, salted caramel dripping steadily across diamond rings, down gold-bangled arm, onto Prada pants and Balenciaga bag. She opened her eyes and looked at me, looked down at herself, then back at the mess on my shirt. We could do nothing but laugh and wipe away the sticky deliciousness from chin to elbow.
It was a small moment, one of many such travelogue pictures. But to me it’s retained a bittersweet significance. Our European escapade was the last trip my grandmother ever took overseas — shortly after she returned she was diagnosed with the ovarian cancer that ended her life. We had other moments together back home as her health slowly declined and she grew softer, paler, and, if possible, gentler. But in these two scoops of melting gelato, we shared a moment of total, ungoverned, bliss.