Every year it happens. No, not basketball. I walk into a Wegmans and I am assaulted with it. Actually I can smell them the moment the automatic doors open and my reaction is visceral. No, it’s not the scent of my beloved crusty rosemary rolls. We’re getting deep today, people. It’s hyacinth season. I know, you think they smell like toilet bowl cleaner and you may be onto something there. This is an olfactory memory that will never escape me and transports me back to age 23. This was my mother’s favorite flower – the one she tried desperately to shield from squirrels, the one that filled her hospital room with color and fragrance, and the one that adorns the gravesite she never wanted in the Catholic cemetery. That’s a story for another time. Pardon my French, but March is quite frankly, the sh*ttiest month of the year for me. I might be Irish, but I typically spend all 31 days wishing March would be over. It is this month where I learned my mother had cancer, the month of her birth as well as her death. In fact, today would have been my mother’s 70th birthday.
My mother was a third grade teacher before she gave up her career to stay home with me. She was basically my polar opposite: tall, naturally blonde, and athletic. She liked candy bars, ice cream sandwiches, cigarettes, Coca-Cola and hated vegetables. She hated shopping. She hated getting her picture taken and would either throw a bag over her head or flip you the bird. She didn’t really drink much, but told me about one incident where she got so drunk and angry at friends while hanging at the Sherwood Inn in Skaneateles that she flipped everyone off, including my father, Crazy Bob. She generally liked do-it-yourself home-projects and being outdoors. She loved yard work, gardening, and flowers but rarely ever wore perfume because most scents would give her a migraine. The neighborhood cats and squirrels getting into the garden were a bone of contention for her. Once, she got so fed up that she spent my entire junior year working the “Squirrel Relocation” project. Yeah, don’t bother Googling that because we made that name up. Basically, the squirrels would gouge up the soil, uproot all of her perennials and steal her bulbs (irises, daffodils, tulips and hyacinths), destroying all of her hard work.
Actually, the initial plan was not, “Squirrel Relocation,” it was something more akin to, “Thin Out Their Numbers.” After my father, Crazy Bob, was unsuccessful with his pellet gun, they bought a trap and thought it would be a nifty idea to fill a garbage can with water and try to drown the squirrel. Apparently this squirrel’s name was David Blaine because he escaped the cage and shot out of the can like a rocket, scaring the crap out of Crazy Bob and sending my mother screaming. She decided to take matters into her own hands. One by one, she successfully trapped squirrel after squirrel, put them in the trunk of her car and relocated them to Onondaga Lake Park. During one “relocation,” I had to go with her and we had to make the usual left hand turn out of our neighborhood. My mother despised making this left hand turn and would sit, and sit, and sit, and wait, and wait until all was completely clear and she could pull out. When I tell you it needed to be clear, it literally needed to be all clear – no risking it! On this fateful trip a man was waiting behind us, waving his arms and making faces in angry frustration. I gently extended the third finger of my left hand. The man proceeded to get out of his vehicle and bang on my mother’s window. Mind you, a live squirrel was in the trunk. I can’t believe she opened the window. He asked, “Do you know what your kid just did? She gave me the finger.” He then proceeded to whip out his badge. He was off duty and being a jerk. He told her that she should teach her kid better behavior, loudly and angrily, and then got back in his car. My mother rolled up the window and finally made the left turn and said, “That’s great, Sensory. Really smooth. You realize we have a squirrel in the car?”
“Yes,” said fifteen-year old me, “But whose fault is that? I didn’t put it there. He was a jerk.”
“Did you really have to flip him off?”
“Yep, I learned from the best!”
While we were very different, we were very close and shared a similar sense of humor. We never spoke of this incident again and my mother continued to trap her squirrels and make solo runs.
Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if my mother were alive and kickin’ at 70. Would she be healthy and active? Would I no longer want to erase my terrible twenties? Would my twenties have been so terrible if she were around? Would I be married? Would I have children? I know she would probably hate most of the crazy things I cook since she spent most of her childhood spitting bites of my grandmother’s dinners into her linen napkin. Often, she would be made to sit at the table until midnight because she refused creamed cod while my grandmother scolded, “People are starving in China!” She never elected to force food upon me which is probably why I enjoy such a variety of foods today. Would Crazy Bob have made her nuts enough to divorce him or would they wind up retiring somewhere along the St. Lawrence River like they had planned? Would Crazy Bob be less crazy if she hadn’t died? Would my father and I actually be civil to one another? Would I have finished graduate school like she had insisted before she died? Would I find more comfort in an hour of conversation and a Judge Judy episode with her than at the bottom of my nightly wine glass? The truth is: I just don’t know anymore.
The only thing I can say about losing a parent is that although time truly heals most wounds, the scars often remain, and some are outwardly visible. While there are some aspects of my life that have been less than perfect, I wouldn’t change the person I’ve become because of these imperfections.
There aren’t many perfumes out there that replicate the annual March waft of hyacinths. Probably the best example (which has been sadly discontinued) is L’Artisan Perfumeur’s Jacinthe des Bois. I’m presently hoarding my last sample vial of this gorgeous rendition. I actually put it on to write this. It’s a watery (like rain water – not beachy or marine-like) green floral with hints of lily of the valley, narcissus, maybe lilac, wafting over the hyacinth on a bed of galbanum. It’s stunning. I’m 99% sure my mother would have loved it and I’m 99% sure it would have given her a headache.
Happy birthday, mom. I miss you.