What the Nose Knows

“Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. Hit a tripwire of smell, and memories explode all at once.”

–Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Tell me about a smell that reminds you of your mother (if you didn’t have a mother, choose another significant childhood figure).


  1. Cathy Hall Stengel says

    Coffee, cigarettes and alcohol on cool smooth skin. My face up against her freckled arm, feeling for motherhood, breathing deeply, my nose searching for that smell of motherlove…faint perfume, fresh laundry, dinner cooking. Coffee, cigarettes and alcohol burned my nostrils, stinging all the way to my little girl heart.

      • Bobbie Anne says

        Laura and Cathy- My mom also smelled of coffee, cigarettes, and alcohol. Her children suffered with upper respitory infection, asthma, and bronchitis. Some of her children have followed in her footsteps. I’m not one of them. I chose to put myself through school. I became a teacher. By the way, they did know smoking wasn’t good for your health back then. I read a book published in the late 1940’s, where the hero asks for a ‘cancer stick’ instead of a cigarette.

    • Barbara Smailey says

      Cathy, my little girl cries with yours. I remember those horrid odors that I tried to ignore in order to get close. The odor I hate most to this day is the one I think killed her. Listerine, which she used for douching. She thought she was doing me a favor by telling me her cleansing secret, even buying me the strange contraption and my own bottle.

      I’ve never thought of these odors together before, and how the morning after a party’s left-overs they combined to rob the house of any other scents. And how I decided never to drink coffee or alcohol, smoke or use Listerine in any part of my body.

      I’ve outlived Mom by thee years and I know it’s because of the Listerine, more than the others since my Dad loved his evening cocktail with Mom. Oh, but he didn’t drink coffee or smoke! Hmmm, whatever the cause of Mom’s cancer, I guess I can be grateful I’m not drinking coffee or using Listerine!

      Thanks, Cathy, I hope you’re taking good care of your Inner Child, I know mine needs me periodically. What a delightful reminder to take care of both of us. THank you!

      Laura, in the military two cocktails in the evening were a tradition most families observed. Parties were in abundance, even if many of them were mandatory! Thank you for this remarkable site! Blessings, Barbara

      • Ilana says

        Barbra- I have read this several times. What resonated with me most was the feeling of trying to ignore those horrid odors in order to get close. I have loved many a parent and grandparent who needed me to ignore odors. Thank you for sharing with us.

  2. laura urtuzuastegui says

    The smell of my mother, my mother is a classy women to this day 83 young vivacious ful of life. She radiants her smile when she enters the room. My mothers home is like your stepping into the Pottery Barn catalog. Soft. cozy a zest for life and place to call home. The scent of my mother that lovely scent is a soft aroma of jasmine,roses,lavender and lify of the valley. With those flowers all mixed up. Divine and beautiful smell , “Mom I always tell her you always smell so nice!” Oh Mija, its this cheap perfume that I purchased or the air spray”! No! Mom it allways smells so sweet and loving .
    I once went to the dime and nickel store in the neighborhood and tried to find that one perfume that resembled my mother. I searched and searched and I remember the woman from the counter say “honey what are you looking for? I said I am looking for that special scent of flowers that my mother smells liked! She laughed and smiled back at me,. and said your mommy would like any perfume that you buy here, and I said I dont want to buy her just any perfume. So I decided to get some flowers of the ones that my mom liked . I dried them and smashed them and I added some water, big mistake I put them all in a garlic bottle. Mom, I said I have something for you I have a present for you. She opened up and said oh mija I loved it. it smells so nice! I know my mom was laughing and I started to laugh. Mommy your scent is one in a million from the stars to the moon, and when I came to visit you I want that scent to rub off on me so you will always be with me for the rest of your life! Priceless moments!!

  3. beverly Boyd says

    My mother loved coconut! I don’t need the smell of it to remind me of my mother. The word coconut, a picture, or a recipe in a magazine is enough. Mother’s favorite flavor was strawberry until she discovered coconut. I don’t mean to say that coconut had not been available before. Mounds bars were always her choice of candy bar. I mean she discovered she could buy coconut in fifty pound bags from a bakery supply! By that time we had a large freezer so it was easy to keep it fresh.

    After that instead of carefully portioning out the small expensive bags purchased in the baking section of the grocery store she experimented with in on and in everything. It was sprinkled on top of cakes, mixed into chocolate and penuche fudge. She spread sweetened condensed milk mixed with coconut on toast and browned it in under the broiler. Sometimes she served it to us like cold cereal: unsweetened shredded coconut in a bowl with milk and sugar,

    Sometimes she bought a coconut in the hard shell from the produce department. Dad ceremoniously pierced holes in the “eyes” of the coconut and we shared the sweet liquid from the inside. Then it was cracked open with a hammer. We sat around the table, enjoying our treat; taking turns prying the nutmeat away from its hard shell.

    I wonder if she ever had an experience like I had when we were living in Navy housing in Hawaii. Every year crews came around to prune the coconut palms before a dying frond or nut came crashing down on someone’s head. The men often took their machete and with one whack, sliced through the football sized fruit. Often the inner hard shell had not formed yet an in the middle the immature coconut was like pudding. The men loved to see the surprised expressions when they shared the delicious treat with the children and me.
    The canned coconut milk we can but today doesn’t begin to compare to the coconut milk fresh from the tree!

    To say something was almost as good as coconut was high praise, even if it was chicken and dumplings.

    My sister put a little book of mother’s recipes together a few years ago. At the beginning she included a little description of how she put the book together; and ended it with:
    “And remember to keep a 50-lb bag of shredded coconut in your freezer at all times.”

    • Ilana says

      Beverly- I really don’t like coconut, though I tried for years to acquire a taste for it. (It just looked like so much fun to eat) Your writing makes me want to try again. You make it sound so delicious and beautiful. What a pure experience of childhood joy. Thank you for sharing it with me.

  4. Ana says

    Smells of my mother…

    Unbathed: Think of a smell that makes you cringe. Extreme poverty forced her at times to choose between getting up at four o’clock in the morning and rushing to go to work at a sweatshop, or feed me or bathe.

    Dirty Underwear: Same cringe as above. She would wear the same underwear – at times due to pure laziness, at times due to pure exhaustion from work and not being able to do laundry – a quick hand wash would have to due.

    Bad Breath: Rancid. Buying toothpaste or a tooth brush was not a priority, it was a luxury. Even on the rare occassion she went to the dentist and was given a free bag of dental items, she would not use them because she was not in the practice of doing so.

    Wriggley’s Juicy Fruit Gum: Sweet. She kept them in her purse. A sugar smell mixed in with the faux leather of her purse and lipstick. Often used to deal with bad breath or to deter hunger pains when the forman wouldn’t allow her a lunch break.

    Blimpie Ham/Cheese Sandwich: Fresh Bread. Once in a while on a pay day, I’d find a flat half eaten sandwich in her purse. The smell of warm ham, cheese and bread. When she entered the sweatshop, she’d go to her station and pin the sandwich underneath one of the factory’s garment steam pressers.

    Potting Soil: Earthy. Her hands full of fresh dirt. She often took care of her plants better than herself. She had an amazing green thumb. Anywhere she saw greenery or a flower, she’d clip a piece and bring it home. It was a miracle she could grow the variety of plants she did on the window sills of our apartment in the projects.

    Vapor Rub/Camphor Oil: Vapor says it all. The strong smell reach me before she even got her hands on my chest. Most of my sick days were cured at home by her.

    Black Coffee: You know it when you smell it. My mother was old school. She’d buy, roast and grind her own coffee beans. I don’t drink coffee, but I cannot smell coffee without thinking of her and the fragrance of strong black coffee coming off her clothes and hair as she woke me up weekend mornings. I still have her coffee grinder (made of dark wood and cast iron)…and yes, it still smells of her ground coffee beans.

    • says

      Ana, I was moved by the strength and variety of smells that you used to evoke your mother. I can see the complexity of who she was through the smells you wrote about. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Mary (aka Melody) L. Cryns says

    I used to think the smell of cigarette smoke was magical. My mother constantly smelled like Benson & Hedges cigarettes and sat in a shroud of smoke. Whenever I smelled cigarette smoke, I felt my mother wasn’t too far away. To this day, although I myself have never been a smoker, I feel comforted by the smell of cigarette smoke – not repulsed as many non-smokers are. I’m drawn to smokers who gather around outside and chat during breaks, whereas the rest of us at work just hang out or walk.

    I don’t miss the eye-burning of bars and clubs, but I remember my mother and her ever present cigarettes, her tab and her book – she always had an ashtray on hand. Her friend Vikki said that Mom wouldn’t smoke the cigarette all the way down to the butt, but would leave half-smoked cigarette butts piled high in ashtrays, and when she’d leave the room at Vikki’s house, all her friends who couldn’t afford cigarettes would run over to Mom’s ashtrays and grab the half-smoked cigarettes she always left behind. Mom never went anywhere without her cigarettes and either matches or a lighter. I’d see her in the morning dashing around the house with her long hair up in a prudish bun, wearing her Spiegel clothes instead of her black stretch pants, flip flops and white hippie shirt, and into the pantry she’d go. I’d see her toss several packs of cigarettes into her purse.

    When we were kids, we’d even buy mom’s cigarettes at the store. We had a note from our mother, which Ned and Jack, the two black haired brothers who wore green aprons and always worked at UC Market, apparently kept the note on file. Every day we’d ask for “three packs of Benson & Hedges please,” and Ned and Jack would throw the cigarettes into the brown paper back along with bottles of tab or diet pepsi or lettuce. It never occurred to us to try and smoke cigarettes ourselves. We were happy if Mom gave us 10 cents extra to buy a candy bar or a Missile popsicle. No one seemed to have a problem with my mom smoking all the time, and my Dad used to sing that funny song about smoking and Peter to Golden Gate, I just hate to make him wait, you just gotta have another cigarette!

    Sometimes mom smelled of other things like perfume and sometimes the house would smell like her special homemade spaghetti sauce that took all day to simmer on the stove. But it’s the cigarette smoke I remember the most – probably it’s the cigararette smoke that killed her too, but who knows?

    • Ilana says

      Mary- Wow that brings back memories. My grandmother used to smoke. To me that smell, no matter what brand or who was smoking it, meant that grandma was around. I remember collecting butts off the path at the botanical gardens , trying to clean up the litter. When I finally threw them all away my hands smelled like grandma. Thanks for giving me this walk down memory lane.


    A Passion…..

    I never saw my mother take a bath until she was in a nursing home. Her bath when I was growing up was a big splash of Evening in Paris so she’d smell good for my dad. I can still remember the intertwining of perfume and cigarettes. It was enough perfume for all the women in the entire Pleasant Acres trailer court we lived in at the time.

    The perfume would permeate everything in our home including my clothes and the furniture, and I could barely breath, and I would always say, “Mom, you’re takin’ a bath in that stuff.”

    Mom didn’t care, though. She’d just laughed that laugh that always reminded me of a chicken cackling. Mom would laugh so loud it would make me want to run for the nearest exit in Penny’s department store down on Pacific as she laughed with the sales lady with the beehive she’d made friends with probably because she bought more Evening of Paris perfume.

    Mom gave me a couch she was dying to get rid of so she could buy another one, and I gladly took it home. My kids came downstairs the next morning their noses wrinkled, “It smells like grandma in here. Open the windows.” “No use,” I told them, “I even sprayed the couch with Fabreze.”

    Mom was in her eighties, and she was thrilled about a present she had bought me for Christmas. I opened the present, and saw the familiar blue bottle of Evening in Paris. Mom smiled and said, “Doesn’t that just bring back memories? I smiled faintly, and said, “Yep, it sure does mom. It sure does”

    As I was sadly packing up her things after she passed away about a year ago I found three bottles of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion perfume in the cottage style dresser I had bought her a couple years before. I just had to laugh. Mom had a passion all right–men and perfume.

  7. Ilana says

    Now I’m the Mama

    There are about a million smells that remind me of my mother but I’m going to talk about the one that I took away from her; the smell of yeast.

    When I was a little girl my mother made homemade challa for our Shabbat dinner. Most people call this ‘halla bread’ but it’s really just challa. My mother’s recipe is very special. She got it from my younger brother’s preschool teacher and honed it to perfection over the years. As an adult I changed it even further to fit my own preferences. It is a sweet one with what I like to call ‘cinnamon ribbons’ flowing through it. Once you have mixed the dough and let it rise you divide it up to braid it. Eight loaves, four strands per loaf; that makes 32 strands. You pound each strand flat, fill it with a cinnamon and sugar mixture and then pinch it shut before braiding them together. Then it goes onto the pan for a second rising. The whole process takes a little over four hours and fills the house with the wonderful smell of yeast.

    I remember watching my mother mix and knead the dough, punch it down then shape it. All the while her face was pinched in concentration and anxiety. “Tip toe! You’ll make the challa fall!” We’d sneak a pinch of the raw dough when she wasn’t looking. If we got caught this earned us a glare but the heavenly, delicious, dough was more than worth the risk. I understand why she was so stressed out. Making challa is such a labor intensive process, it would be crushing to have to throw it all out. Still, I approach parenthood very differently from the way my mother did.

    When she made dinner there was a strict “No picking!” rule. As I prepare the salad and my children gather around to pick from my cutting board the rule is “Help yourself. I’m cutting it for your salad anyway.” It’s good for them. Why wouldn’t I invite them to grab a piece of lettuce or a chunk of tomato? It’s more fun to eat it that way and what a friendly, more loving atmosphere you create when the children are allowed to help themselves.

    So, I used to smell baking bread and savor the fragrance of the yeast because I remembered my mother baking the challa we would eat with Shabbat dinner. Now I smell it and think of myself as I go through the process. I understand where my mother was coming from. I make challa when no one is around to bother me, even if that means in the middle of the night. I delight in the feeling of the dough in my hands, slipping through my fingers and sticking to my skin. I love to watch a few broken eggs, sugar, oil, water, flour and the magical yeast blossom into eight beautiful loaves for my Sabbath table. One a week means I’m good for two months. A busy mother rarely has time to set aside an entire day for baking.

    But when I do, oh the response it gets. The children come home from school bounding up the stairs excitedly. “Mama, it’s Wednesday, why does the house smell like Shabbat?” My outward answer is pretty mundane. “Because I baked.” But the smile in my heart reaches right out of my chest to embrace my family. In two days I will lay my hands on their beautiful little heads and ask God to bless them, as He did “Sarah, Rivka, Rahel v’Leah” and for my son, “k’Ephriam ooh Menasha.” Then my husband will read the Eshet Chial in English, thanking me for all I do to take care of his family. He always looks up from his book and meets my eyes to share one magical moment. “Many women have done superbly but you surpass them all.”

    There are a million smells that remind me of my mother. But now I am the one they call “Mama” and this smell reminds me of me.

    (A couple of translations. “K’” is a prefix which means “like He did”, “v’” and “oooh’” mean “and” Shabbat is the Hebrew word for Sabbath)

    • says

      I could smell the challah! And I loved your mother saying, “Tiptoe or the challah will fall!” And the idea of the smell being passed down to the next generation. Loved that, too. So happy you’re sharing your voice with us here.

      • Ilana says

        Thanks, Laura. It was nice to share something I so treasure with you all. I dream that one day the smell of my challa will fill my children’s homes as well and my grandchildren will feel that same thrill.

  8. Juli Richardson says

    It feels so strange to try and think of what my mother smells like. This is the second time this week that I have been given a cue to talk or write about smells. I have no memories of smells what so ever. When I try and think about it I find it very strange. How can you not remember any smells. I couldn’t even tell you what the smell of my favorite dishes are.
    I think about mom she cooked she made great dinners and there was always the special family favorites for holidays. What do they smell like? I have no idea. I think about mom she never wore perfume or smoked or drank. There are no memories of smells. What does she smell like? I have no idea.
    When she was older up until she retired she owned a bait and tackle shop. I know she had to have smelled like the bait. When I took over for a few years I would have to rub my skin down in lemons just to get rid of the smell before I even showered. Did she smell like bait back then. I don’t think so I don’t remember. Does my mother even have a smell?
    Mom loves to take baths with all kinds of salts, bubbles, what ever…. I don’t remember her ever smelling like any of those things either. Strange when I think about it to not have any memories of any smells what so ever.

    • says

      Juli, if smells don’t work for you, you might want to trace through another sense and see if that’s stronger for you–what she sounded like, what her skin felt like, phrases she used, or a strong visual. We all store sensory and other memories differently. See if you can find the strongest thread of memory for who your mother used to be.

      • Juli Richardson says

        Thanks Laura, boy her stern no nonsense tone of voice brought in a flood of memories. Will try again.

  9. Juli Richardson says

    My moms voice!
    First thing I could think of was the way she would sing our names up the stairs to wake us in the morning. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. It would shrill right though me. With 6 kids at the time 5 of whom slept upstairs you would dread being the last name called. It reminds me of a sick version of the Waltons. Instead of the sweet good nights they would call back and forth to each other this would grate on me. Going through the list of names every name was drawn out R….. …….. time to get up. M…… Time to get up….. B….. time to get up. Till she would finally get to me Juuuuuuuullllllllllllliiiiiiiiiii timmmmme to getttttttttt upppppppp. By the time she got to my name what she didn’t think I could here the 10 mins of calling everyone else’s name before she got to me.
    Although she was very rarely able to actually walk up the stairs due to her physical conditions she hardly ever missed a morning of calling all those names. When I think about it now I still get that shiver. I know it was probably the sweetest voice she ever used at any one point in the day. But it drove me nuts. Just thinking about it still my stomach is in knots.
    Mom has always been a no nonsense person. Has always hated anything that isn’t prim and proper. Have to put up appearances that we are so well behaved. No sit coms ever were watched in our house you shouldn’t laugh at other people. They always make one member of the family look stupid. And people should not look stupid it is not funny. No soap operas ever were watched they were immoral people. There was no fooling around or running in the house. That is for outdoors only. Unless of course there was a tiger chasing you in the house. We had full permission to run in the house if we were ever to be chased by a tiger.
    You never complained. You had no right to complain. We worked for the family business from elementary school. And we never would dare to complain about having to do work. Or that our friends got to go play after school or that we didn’t have something someone else had. YOU DON’T COMPLAIN. You take what you get you smile and you say thank you. You don’t have a voice so you don’t get the wrath of her voice of the accusations of how ungrateful you are.
    She had a few sayings one of which I put to the full test. We put up with your brother Mark but we’re not going to put up with you. That was an all time favorite of hers when I was in high school. I would test every single limit of that. Lets see just how much you will put up with or won’t! I did every I could think of to push those buttons back then. It was worth it. I knew the only punishment I would get would be an hour long speech from her. And I had long ago learned to shut off when she spoke. I could sit and look her straight in the eye and obviously without knowing it I could nod at the appropriate times. Because she never knew I never heard one single word. What she had to say never made a difference. I have never been her favorite. I would never be anything special. I was the one that was the rebel. I was the one who ran away from home for no reason other than I could and did. I returned when my older sister begged me to come back. I had moved several states away and she missed me and it was just horrible mom was so worried. I finally came back after a month when I agreed to come only if someone paid for my return trip. Turns out my sister did. I was the one who at 18 joined the military to get away and prove I could make it on my own I could be an adult and not listen to her anymore. It didn’t work what she says still gets to me. I always have longed for her approval for her to tell me how much she loved me. For her to tell me I was wonderful.
    Even now as an ailing 86 yr old woman. I am still listening to her. I am her main caregiver. I am the one who has to do everything for her. She is my best friend and my worst nightmare rolled into one. I know now she loves me. I know now she truly appreciates everything I do for her. I also know now she has never and will never be capable showing me the love I have always wanted. It was robbed from her in her childhood by how she was raised. All I can do is love her. All I can do is take care of her now the way I wish I was taken care of when I was little and needed it most. To protect her even if I wasn’t protected.

    • Ilana says

      Wow, Julie. That was powerful. I can so relate to wishing my mother had done things differently when I was a child. This is very well written, drew me in from the start. I look forward to your future posts. IM

    • beverly Boyd says

      Oh, my. I did the same thing with my seven children.
      I called each name and waited for an answer. When they had all answered I called the time and said “It’s time to get up”. Then I went to the kitchen to fix all our breakfasts and seven lunches. It worked for me. I hope they don’t have such an unpleasant memory of it.
      Even at that, Richard usually came on the run to catch his bus, which he often missed. The alternative was to ride the base bus to the main gate and run a mile, a gentle uphill stretch, to his high school. When he went out for track in the spring. After all that unintentional training he was an immediate sensation and a shoo-in for the 440 relay team!

  10. Terry Gibson says

    Julie, There was a lot in there but that just made it even stronger for me. Sometimes I had trouble liking my Mom despite the fact that I still love her fiercely. Thanks a lot for your story.

  11. Christie says

    Short Short Story
    Deborah Christie
    March 24, 2012

    “Red Ripe Jersey Tomatoes”

    My eyes remained tightly closed as I conjured the smell of bacon wafting up the wooden stairs toward my bedroom. It was soothing as I imagined the steady murmur of my parents’ conversation echoing from the kitchen below. Imprinting these sensory details one last time, I laid on my childhood bed, hands resting on the rise and fall of my breath.

    Mom was angry with me. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be her right now. A tear slid down my cheek.

    “Debbie, I don’t like this place. Please don’t do this to me,” she pleaded as my heart tore in half.

    “Mom, it’s too difficult to take care of this big house anymore. Just think about how many stairs we have from the sidewalk up to your bedroom; a total of eighteen! And the first nine are made of concrete. That doesn’t include the narrow basement stairs that have nine more.”

    “I know….l know….but I don’t want to go!”

    Ingrid rested her legs on the seat of her walker, while her petite form was swallowed up by the red velvet couch that had been Granny’s pride and joy. Our couch held countless conversations and harbored an especially poignant exchange one evening after Dad and I finished washing and drying the dinner dishes. My nocturnal visit to find Mom relaxing on her favored roost was a ritual I found comfort and pleasure in. We’d cuddle up and talk about whatever was on our mind. This one particular conversation remains fixed in my mind.

    I was reading The Exorcist in my bedroom when a rising panic reached my chest. Unable to catch my breath, I raced downstairs hoping I’d find Mom settled on the couch. As predictable as the sun rises and sets each day, she was there, watching the eleven o’clock evening news. Alarmed by my obvious distress, she reached for the remote and clicked off the television. “Mom, I’m afraid I’m losing my mind,” I anxiously blurted out.

    As calmly as ever she asked, “Honey, why do you say that? What’s on your mind?”

    Making up a quick lie I said, “Someone slipped LSD into my drink at school last week. I’ve been hallucinating on and off since then. I’m really afraid because I can’t control my thoughts and I’m really, really afraid that I’m going crazy.” Taking LSD was true, but the “someone slipped it into my drink” was a big, fat lie. As my fears spilled out in a torrential flood, Mom remained calm and nonplussed as my part lie/part truth unfolded.

    Her voice has echoed in my mind countless times since that moment. “Sweetheart, it’s very difficult to lose your mind. In fact, it’s almost impossible. Really.” Despite sharing a tale that would rattle the most liberal-minded parent, my “old world European, conservative, strict mom was actively reassuring me “that everything was going to be fine, and I need not worry anymore.” We explored the LSD topic at length as I held fast in my determination to pretend that I unwillingly partook of this powerful drug. Her ease and poise, along with the simplicity of her message, allowed a dramatic shift from deep within me. A sobbing, hysterical fourteen year old transformed into a deeply comforted little girl.

    That comforted little girl remains with me even as I have to rip my mother away from the comfort of a home she’s known for over fifty years. We will get through this by letting go of worry and the fear of losing something too precious to live without. Everything will be okay.

    The clock moves forward twelve years. Mom is settled into her second home with “assisted living companions.” Mom spends much of her time in dreams. Her body fails her more and more. She is unable to go far from home because she can’t trust her body to cooperate with long rides that prevent quick exits to the bathroom, the challenges of getting in and out of the car, and the nameless stresses hidden in the corners of ventures away from the routine and monotony of the walls that surround her.

    In Mom’s dreams, she laughs and runs as she climbs mountains and traverses valleys. She tells me that she looks forward to her dreams. She revels in the freedom she encounters in her dream state, exploring the world, her friends, and family.

    Mom calls her dreams to come to her more and more. She waits expectantly for her mind to travel to those places her physical body can no longer venture to. Mom is a time traveler. She reunites with Caroline and Robert, her parents, and best of all, she is able to visit Jim, who we dearly miss since his death twenty years ago. She likes to go to Ocean City with him, and on the way home they stop and buy a bushel of red ripe Jersey tomatoes.

    Meanwhile I sit on my burnt orange suede leather couch, with three thousand miles and many mountains and valleys between us. I close my eyes as I hear the soft rattles and clicks of the glowing hot wood burning stove on this rainy grey day. I feel Mom sitting by my side, and we dream together as we hold hands and rest our heads together in stories and conversation.

  12. Terry Gibson says

    When it comes to my Mom, Wilma, I usually keep a thick wall of rage around me for protection. She died in 2000 at the age of 63 from a heart attack. Since her death twelve years ago, I am doing better all the time. When I feel strong enough, I allow myself to peer through a tiny crack I allow in that wall. It reveals several things to me on this occasion.

    The smells which trigger memories of Mom include hairspray, lipstick, and the acrid smog from a four pack-a-day cigarette habit. These odours always hung in the air during Mom’s getting-ready-for-work routine, which included primping the hair just so, hosing it down so it wouldn’t move and, finally, the application of her lipstick. The chain-smoking went on all day long but the other was a morning ritual only–that is, unless Mom and my stepfather went out at night.

    Usually, I didn’t like Mom’s morning ritual because she was always fussing about her clothes, demanding to know where her things were (bobby and safety pins, combs, brushes, nail polish or tweezers). However, for the brief time we lived in Winnipeg, Mom was happy; she was free of Dad’s beatings (which I remember vividly) for the first time since marrying him. It was then that I remember moments when we sang to songs on the radio and even laughed with her. Getting us up and off to school, while she combed and sprayed and puckered up, was a great time. Of course, it always ended with us crying at the bus stop because it was so cold our eyelashes froze to our wee faces.

    I realize now that there are probably more sounds that jar memories of Mom. As she was an excellent pianist, every time I hear the song glow worm, I think of her. I can see myself sitting in the bedroom my sister and I shared, thankful Mom had closed both doors to the dining room to play the piano—and in later years, the organ. That meant I’d at least have some warning via the opening of one of those doors, before she would come at me with her fists, a broom, or a knife.

    Other sounds include her yelling (at me, the social worker, our dog, and school teachers), crying, throwing temper tantrums, slamming doors, drawers and, at the opposite end of the scale, a giggle which sounded much like Steve’s and mine. I didn’t pay attention to her laugh while younger because it usually meant she was ridiculing or mocking me like when she would kick me in front of the owner of the five and dime. The last time I saw her, I came to realize that she was even funny sometimes.

    I did not see my mother for the last eighteen years of her life. During that time, we may have spoken a half-dozen times. It’s hard to love a parent who, with her husband, set up a rape to ‘get’ me, to knock me down ‘a few pegs.’ That crime devastated my already-tenuous hold on life and myself; it also set off a string of events which, just remembering, fill me with rage and grief.

    But, I still love her. Mom was a victim too. She told me once that an uncle sexually abused her and I remember Dad breaking her nose during a fight. Also, when we left him, Mom showed a lot of strength to pack up little kids in the middle of the night to board a train for Winnipeg. Starting a new life with four dependents. I admire that spirit and her cement stubbornness, regardless of whatever happened to her in later years–mental illness or just plain cruelty.

    • Ilana says

      Terry- This is beautifully written and drew me in right away. I so admire your courage to be so honest as well as the ability to recognize the good as well as the bad in your mother. Your courage has been (and continues to be) so helpful to me in my own healing. What a gift your writing is. IM

      • Terry Gibson says

        Thanks Laura and Ilana. I challenged myself to see a more complete picture. Not just fall into those seemingly automatic tapes and scenes.You both inspire me!

  13. Hattie Norman says

    Tell me about a time you did this. See if you can tell me the story of the moment you decided to do this-to give up the life you had planned-or that had been planned for you. (Joseph Campbell)

    I grew up with only my parents. I had one sibling. She was twenty-one years older than me. Therefore, we never had that special bonding between sisters. Living alone with older parents made me want to get married and have children. I envied all the big families on my block.

    My dream was to become a stay at home mom. I would be the best mom in the world cooking cookies, reading to the children, and my children would have the luxury of knowing their grandparents. See, I never had the chance to meet my grandfather. I had times with my grandmother. Not as many as I would have liked because she lived in Florida while my parents and I lived in Pennsylvania.

    My dream to marry came true by age twenty-two or three. My plans became slightly fowled up when parents on the maternal and paternal side became sickly and died. I was very sad. My children would never share time with their grandparents. My plans also began to stray further away from my intended goal after I learned that just taking my children regularly to church would not keep them safe from illnesses, bullies and the other hard knocks of life.

    For example, there was no way in the world I would ever have thought one of my children would suffer with mental illness. That word wasn’t in my vocabulary. I definitely didn’t know it was something that could happen to any young child. Finally, I began to accept the fact that life is not as sure as a United States map I take with me on vacation. Life is unpredictable. Learning this fact made me feel sad and then, sadder. Finally, another blow to my plans. I began to suffer chronic depression.

    If only I had listened to my father. He always said “man makes plans. God changes plans.” Life must have thrown a couple of punches his way too. Now, I don’t look at plans as a sure thing. I see life as a surprise present. One I might receive on Christmas day. The gift might have a beautiful red and silver ribbon with cardinals all over the paper. But when I pull off the paper and open the box the gift might be too small or a color I hate. My challenge, my joy I’ve heard it called, is to begin the journey of accepting the unwanted package. Really trying to make it a part of my life because it’s the thought that counts not the gift.

    • says

      Hattie, thanks for posting and joining our community. This post actually got put in the wrong section. If you want to repost in the “right” prompt, you can repost there and I’ll delete this one. Or you can just leave it as it is… no worry.

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