midpoint (2006-23)

A moving experience

Scents of History

by Stephanie Piper

There is a certain amalgam of smells—air conditioning, hot asphalt, a base note of magnolia—that never fails to evoke for me the June night 23 years ago when we first arrived, reluctant and weary, in Knoxville, Tenn.

Well, one of us was reluctant and weary. Others in our party of five bounced off the plane from O’Hare full of bright expectation. They seemed to embody the homespun philosophy foisted on me the week before by the moving man who catalogued our possessions and picked up on my dark mood. “Lady,” he said, “after 30 years in this business, I can tell you one thing for sure: If you like where you’ve been, you’ll like where you’re going.”

I nodded bleakly and looked out the window at my leafy Chicago suburb, home to stellar schools, a pristine lakefront, and our neat little Victorian farmhouse. I loved where I was. I dreaded the place I was going.

My children set a brisk example of adaptability. They scoped out the new neighborhood, recruited new friends, decoded the local accent, and settled in to bloom where they were planted. 

I settled in to prove that my dread was well founded. I seemed to slide into a 1950s time warp, surrounded by over-coiffed women who played tennis and gave corsage-y little luncheons and stared at me in astonishment when I announced that I simply had to get a job. “But honey,” they protested in chorus, “why would you do that? You don’t need to work.”

Oh, yes, I did. My family left the house at 7 in the morning and rarely returned before 5 p.m. I needed to stop feeling like a duck in a chicken coop. So one day, after a year of playing very bad tennis, I became a feature reporter for the evening paper. And it was there, in the cavernous newsroom, that I began to make peace with Knoxville.

The newspaper staff was a diverse assortment of hard-bitten, chain-smoking locals, a few transplants from other cities, and a sprinkling of recent journalism grads. Nobody was particularly interested in my culture shock or adjustment issues or the fact that I didn’t know how to get from Church Street to Vonore and back again in time to file a story for the early edition. On my first day, the city editor handed me a map of Knox County. I propped the map on my steering wheel and took to the open road.

I learned the back ways and the shortcuts and the place with the best $3 lunch. I wrote stories about daycare and foster care and children’s beauty pageants and a man who made violins out of walnut shells. I learned to write 20 inches of readable copy in 20 minutes. And I learned that it is possible to move away from everything safe and familiar and dear, to flounder for a while, and to find your feet again.      

I sit on my patio in the June dusk and inhale the familiar smells. The perennial bed I started years ago has come into its own: the mauve and white phlox and purple loosestrife are taller than I am; the lavender plants are like small trees. My middle son has just called from Chicago to say that he went back to see our old house. There’s a white picket fence now, and a new room off the den. I wonder briefly if the basement still leaks. I wonder how many families have come and gone, how many children have made forts in the dense bushes that border the back yard, or climbed the snowdrifts left by the plow from November to April.

I wonder about the seasons of our lives, and the things we believe to be irrevocable, the ways we think we will never change. It’s June again, and it smells like  the past, and the place I came to all those years ago. “You’ll like where you’re going,” the moving man said. I wonder if he was right, after all.