Mama knows that one of the first things I do when I open a box that arrives from Mom’s house, packed with remains of her estate, is to pull one of the objects to my face and inhale deeply, breathing in the vestiges of the scent of my childhood home. It’s partially a conscious act, but mostly instinct.
The scent is a comfort, a reminder of my childhood. What it brings back is not so much a vision of home, but a sensation. Part of my instinct is driven by the knowledge that as we disperse the contents of the house, we disperse all of the sensations from that house.
I may put up some of the pictures in my house, but they won’t look the same there, without the particular slant of the sunlight and the cluster of other frames surrounding them. I may walk up a million stairs through the rest of my life, but none will have the particular thump-thump that resonated through the timbers of that house when Mom skipped down the steps. Every time I walk into our new bathroom with its beautiful tiles, I’ll miss the radiant heat warming the floors that I enjoyed growing up.
But none of those are so ephemeral as the scent of home. As we disperse the items from the house, we also disperse their collective presence, which is what created the unique aroma of home.
That aroma is a faint, fleeting taste in the air, unnoticed when I’m there, that dissipates almost immediately into the smell of our condo. While I can continue to hold and use the physical items from home–read 3B the books, sip tea from the mugs and flip through the photos–I can only hold the scent of home and the sensation it creates for a moment.
And for a moment, I feel the freedom to walk out the front door and play hide-and-seek, climb a tree, ride my bike around the block, or swing under the oak tree. I feel the excitement of a friend coming over to play, the arrival of the UPS truck, or the dawning of a weekend with a soccer game in the morning and a bike ride over to watch Bill Walsh and John Elway lead the Stanford football team in the afternoon. For a moment, the world is new again and I am as light as a snowflake again.
A recent box from home was packed with baby and toddler clothes as well as linens, all of which were packed up for years at home–in the case of the toddler clothes, approximately 38 years, since I’m now 40…longer in the case of the girls clothes. All of these have held the scent of home through a washing and several weeks now. Some of the clothes were too small for 3B, but some fit perfectly, and so as I move through my days at home, I’m seeing and smelling home. For now.
3B will soon outgrow the clothes and the aroma will dissipate into his home, indistinguishable from the scent of the pine trees outside his window or the warm imprint that Barky leaves on the couch after napping. The scent of home will become absent, just as home itself becomes absent as we dismantle and distribute it, piece by piece.
I have long understood that I cannot go home again. While it was still physically intact, the people, the events, the society that made it home, were long gone. As I tangibly understand–in my gut, like one understands a kiss or a hand on the shoulder–that home no longer has a physical presence, it sets me free, little by little, like a ship with a loosening anchor.
And so it is that by bringing along the physical burdens of the past, I am set free by them.