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Smells like summer
My 4-year-old son Bennett says, "It smells like the pool, Mommy" and I know exactly what he means. He's talking about the bleachy smell our new towels have, which reminds me, too, of the chlorine in the swimming pool at the hotel we visited (unexpectedly) last year, when our travel trailer broke a leaf spring on our family camping trip.
Or sunscreen. It's like having the beach in a bottle; as soon as I smear Banana Boat on the kids, I recall long days throwing rocks in the lake, or floating belly first on inter-tubes, trying to catch the tiny minnows that flash and dart in the shallows.
The lilac outside my window reminds me of the ones by my parent's house, when I was a little girl. I have a memory of falling asleep tucked between cool, clean sheets, to the gentle fragrance of a bunch in a jar by my bedside.
Which of course reminds me of my own Mom--on the nights she and Dad went out, I'd sit on the edge of her bed and watch her finish getting dressed, in the big, long mirror over her dresser. She'd put on a necklace or earrings; then perfume, which she kept on a little mirrored tray on her dresser. She'd let me twist open the lids and smell the fragrances with names like Charlie or Anais Anais, then she'd reach down and dab a bit of whatever she was wearing on each of my wrists.
I think of her when I'm in the kitchen too, making a pot of spaghetti sauce, stirring in the ground beef, the onions, ripe red tomatoes and the spicy, sweet basil. "This is my soul food," my mom would say. "I think I was Italian in another life." It's her gift to me: a great recipe for marinara sauce, and a belief in the power of story. This one includes past lives, when we were all kings and queens and princesses. A rich life--a life of the imagination.
My husband Tom says his growing-up house smelled like coffee. "There are worse things!" I say. We both have a secret fear that our house smells like cat box, since everyone agrees, that would be terrible.
I wonder what my kids will remember. What smells will make them think of home?
When I was a new mother to Carter, as a gift to me, my mom scrubbed my house with Pine-Sol, so it would be sanitary for the baby. I walked through the door baby carrier in hand, took one sniff, and burst into tears. My house didn't smell like home anymore.
With my second pregnancy, the twins were born early and stayed in the NICU. I remember holding each of them, inhaling them, and feeling a profound sadness. They didn't smell like Tom, or me, or baby lotion or even diapers. They smelled like the hospital.
It was summer then, and after the long drive home from the NICU I'd pull off my clothes and change into my maternity swimsuit (which sadly, still fit) and go to the lake. There, I'd plunge myself into its cool, clear waters, letting the smell of Steri-Soap wash away, letting the hurt and worry and fear float away too. The bigness of everything--the lake, the mountains surrounding me on all sides--made me feel small, in a good way. My problems were inconsequential, really, in this landscape.
Instead, I tried to think of what was lasting. The ancient rhythms of the tilting earth--summer to fall to winter to spring, when the snow on the highest peaks of the mountain tops began to melt, flowing slowly down through the canyons, the gullies, the rocks. Pulled by the indisputable force of gravity, from the high country to this clear blue lake, these tiny minnows flitting about in the shallows, this woman, floating on her back in her maternity bathing suit.
Or another scent, not of childhood but of summer. For my father, each Memorial Day weekend marked the beginning of grilling season. The old black barbecue was kept on a cement patch at the side of the house--grass growing up through the cracks, everything green and lush and full of promise.
My dad had a precise method for "firing up the grill"--briquettes arranged in an exact pyramid, two squirts of lighter fluid, toss of the match. The pile would erupt into flames, and release into the air the smell of the season--fire, and heat, and the sizzle of grilled vegetables and chicken, or beef kabobs, or sausages, or salmon, or thick rib-eye steaks.
Just one whiff of smoke from a barbecue and I'm 9-years-old again, sitting by my father's side, watching the flames leap and dance toward the sky as the day fades and the stars begin to shine. Memories of the past year, and the past 30 years--my babies are grown to preschoolers and a 9-year-old boy, now; all the rest is slowly fading, like an old photograph. This is what is lasting: the love we share while we are together.
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