Where and When are You?

At my brother’s house a while back, I sniffed the fragrance of a blooming shrub at the side door and suddenly I was back in the 1950’s… I was standing beside my mother in the back yard of that same house, handing her a home-made milk shake.

Mama loved planting, pruning, or digging in the dirt, always doing something with the flowers and bushes. When she got hot and sweaty she’d call me outside and request a milk shake, usually just sweetened milk with vanilla flavoring in a glass full of ice cubes.

Not interested in gardening myself in those days, I was grateful she didn’t make me stay out there to help rid the world of errant bamboo. The sweet smell of that shrubbery had taken me back fifty years in an instant.

Back at home, I recently rearranged seldom used dresser drawers and came across an old yellow nightgown. Not mine, though – my mother’s. It was probably my imagination, but the faint fragrance of her cologne seemed to still cling to it. Though mama died in 1970, I couldn’t possibly throw that gown away. It helps me visualize her, not like she looks in her posed portraits, but sitting at the breakfast table on weekend mornings, sipping a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. I can see one bedroom slipper dangling from her foot as it swung it back and forth in time with music from the table-top radio.

One day I pulled up in my condo parking lot, opened my car door to get out and was greeted by “whoo, whoo?” from an owl perched somewhere in a nearby tree. Suddenly that distant sound seemed to be coming through my childhood bedroom window. I was back in the 1940’s and 50’s again.

With no central air-conditioning, our windows were open on warm nights to catch a cross-breeze. We’d occasionally hear the cry-baby call of a bobcat prowling deep in the swamp behind our house, but we could always count on the owls. Their mellow “whoo, whoo” has always sounded like home to me.

Walking across the parking lot at a nearby Food Lion, I sniff that hot pavement smell and think of Harvey’s Thriftway, only a block and a half from my rented house in the early 60’s. I would push my son in his stroller down to Harvey’s for a quart of milk or loaf of bread, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine on our short, slow walk. When I needed a whole list of items, I simply telephoned Harvey’s and someone shopped for me, then brought my order right to my front door.

But I preferred to shop in person, and sometimes we walked around an entire block or two before heading to Harvey’s, the baby jingling his rattle as we stopped to visit with the elderly spinster sisters who lived down the block. One or the other was usually snapping peas or shelling butter beans on her front porch as we strolled up, oohing and aahing about how big the baby was getting, what a handsome boy he was. I liked that.

One year’s Mother’s Day the children in our church distributed long-stemmed roses to all the moms in the congregation. I smiled as a determined-faced little girl stretched out her hand with my rose, and I saw again the cut stems from my own rose bushes, gathered for a dining room vase in the 1980’s. Their first growing season those bushes thrived in the flower beds surrounding our back deck.

Tim and I had planted those roses soon after we were married, along with several dozen red-tips against the back yard fence. The memory of the roses made me think about the red tips, the dogwoods and river birches, the azaleas, honeysuckle and wisteria, all gracing the yard of the house we eventually moved away from. Amazing what the sight of a single rose bud can do.

As I drive around Florence these days, recollections and remembrances carry me further than my car does. Nostalgia can sometimes be bittersweet, but I’m glad I grew up in this town, glad I still live here. All my best and some of my worst memories are here, and I’m grateful for the hometown sights and sounds and smells that bring them all back.

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