Stuffed into a faux suede box that used to hold Guerlin perfume are some of the letters my mother wrote to me between 1978 and 1993. I put them in this box because it was the right size, it’s pretty and soft, and it seemed a fitting place to store these valuable-to-me-memories. Fitting because fragrance made her happy. So did the packaging. Pretty perfume bottles decorated her bureau, their shifting liquid colours shimmered in the mirror.
Attached to mom, scent lived and breathed. It lived in her closet, too, after she died. It lingers in my amygdala.
Her memory comes to me in the garden where together we lifted heavy headed peonies, showy divas with back-combed high hair and hairspray. It comes when I listen to bees steal the scent from nasturtium trumpets. It pinches me when I squeeze open snapdragons mouths and plunge my nose inside for a whiff of dragon’s breath. In the laundry room – powdered soap, starched sheets, a hot iron. In the kitchen – vanilla laced jam-dot cookies, hot oil deep frying cod. In the bathroom – lifting a powder puff tufted with a tiny pink ribbon, like a single cumulous cloud in a lake blue sky dropping Shalimar talcum after a bath. Clean bath towels, stiff from drying on a clothes line, terry loops lassoing sunshine, releasing it when scratched against my skin. These were the scents of our home.
The box of letters lives tucked behind my favourite books on writing – Steven King, Anne Lamott, Jack Hodgins, William Zinsser. Long after I gave up writing soggy, angst infused poetry at 16 or crafting stories based on vocabulary building lists in grade 6, long before a tick-bite infected me with a new writing pathogen, it was my mother who kept writing alive. With several thousand miles between us letters were our conversations and writing them was a regular habit.
Mother, who was a knitter, could spin pages out of nothing, like teasing yarn out of fleece. At the end, her life was a narrow routine, but somehow her tale of eating frozen strawberries from the freezer to make room for the coming summer crop made me feel she was close by and that we could go strawberry picking together to refill her supply. I could see her bending over the freezer, shoving brown paper parcels of pork chops aside, to get the single serving bags out to eat with breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner.
She lives in these letters. We were 21 and 62 when they started; 36 and 77 when they ended, the last one written from a cancer treatment centre on July 19, 1993 when she was halfway through radiation therapy. I read them all last night – every last word. The final letter was signed “I love you very much. I want to go home.”