I walked perhaps 75 feet from my back door, past the pool to the fence at the rear edge of our property, and found it. Honeysuckle, climbing its host toward the sun. I knew it was there long before I saw it. Even standing there grilling the kabobs, with the smell of the onions and peppers and chicken surrounding me, I caught the singular sweet smell that, for me, is unmistakable. Unmistakable because it is the fragrance of my childhood.
Every year, at some point in the late spring or early summer weeks, I find that sweetness in the air, and I am, in an instant, 6 years old, standing at my great-grandmother's rock wall at the end of her driveway. It's covered in honeysuckle, hanging heavy with blooms waiting for bees and 6-year-olds to get a taste of the nectar. One by one I would pull the blooms off the vine, pinch the petals, pull out the stem and lay it on my tongue. Were the yellow ones better, or the white? I'd stand there trying to decide for hours. Or, at least it seemed like hours. I could hear bees buzzing around me, but there was enough for both of us. I can remember this image of me in such detail it's almost like a movie I've seen again and again. I think of this time, and smile the kind of smile that begins somewhere deep inside.
When I was 5 my mother and father divorced, and for some period of time that remains hazy and almost ethereal to me, I lived with my amazing great-grandmother Lucille (Lucy) Blackwell, better known as Mamaw, in a two-story brick house that seemed endless and huge. Rare are the kids that get to know a great-grandparent so well. Rarer still are women in their 70s who have the stamina and energy to kick a 6-year-old's butt in a spirited game of whiffle ball. That was Mamaw. She cooked, she cleaned, she gardened. She shopped. She ran an unconventional household (that included my grand-mother and her husband, and little ole me) in a way that left no one wondering who was in charge. And at a time in my life that could have been confusing, sad, and full of fear and doubt, she provided companionship, a playmate, a teacher, and most of all a loving atmosphere. To this day, those are some of my happiest memories. And that smell of honeysuckle—that sweet, distinct smell that rides on the air every year—carries with it all of these memories.
It's why I love living in East Tennessee. The seasons. And with the transitions from one to another come things blooming or dying that have distinct odors. And on those smells ride the childhoods of all of us. In one moment, I'm a 51-year-old man cooking chicken kabobs on a grill in Knoxville, Tennessee. In the next, I'm 6 years old in Johnson City pulling a bloom from a honeysuckle vine. And one of the strongest women I've ever known is still a part of me. Sweet like honeysuckle, strong like a vine, enduring for a lifetime.