Scent and Sensibility

The past is prologue

I’m sitting on the front step jiggling a stroller and inhaling the scent of boxwood. It’s the quintessential Virginia scent for me, woodsy and dusty and heavy with memory. On this June afternoon in a small Virginia town, waiting for a baby to fall asleep in the dappled sunshine, my life doubles back. I’ve been here before.

The baby, porcelain fair and blue-eyed, could be my eldest child. He was like this, cheerful and mostly serene, at home in the world. Born a month after my 21st birthday in another Virginia town a few hundred miles up the road, he promptly sized up his college-student parents and decided to give us a break. He forgave our rookie mistakes, adapted himself to our inexact schedule, and rewarded our good intentions with endless smiles.

On spring afternoons like this one 40-something years ago, I pushed his carriage around the venerable university grounds, winding through boxwood hedges near buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson. Sometimes my route took me past the red brick houses of the genteel spinsters who provided approved lodging for me and my college friends during party weekends. In those ancient days of in loco parentis, the Holiday Inn was not an option.

A scant year before, I had been one of the visiting dates, stepping off the train at the Charlottesville station with a suitcase full of flowered dresses. Now I seemed to pass distant versions of myself on the tree-lined streets, girls in pearls and cable cardigans whose worries centered on frat boys and looming finals. I stood apart and watched them and breathed the boxwood-scented air. If you only knew, I thought.

My own college campus was an hour south, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, too, the boxwood grew lavishly, edging the library steps and creating a dark, fragrant corridor between the bookstore and the tea room famed for its cinnamon toast. I fell in love in that tea room, and on that campus, and on the front porches of the Charlottesville spinsters. I spent a whole spring shuttling back and forth between two Virginia college towns, packing and unpacking, writing term papers on rattling trains and reading Rimbaud between whistle stops. I worried about finals, but the frat boy list had been narrowed down to one.

I was a wife at 20 and a mother at 21. I came of age in the shadow of these blue-tinted mountains, putting away the things of a child to prepare for the birth of my own. I went from student to card-carrying grown-up in a single dizzying year, and after that, there was little time to look back.

I thought I had rolled those memories in tissue and stored them safely away, yet here I am, more than four decades later, transported by the smell of boxwood.

A car door slams and my son walks up the lawn, smiling and waving and jingling his keys. It is his front step on which I sit, and it is his baby in the stroller, his daughter, his first-born. I watch him, the child of my youth, stoop to touch her wispy hair. He became a grown-up long before he became a father, went north to seek his fortune, mastered loneliness and want, came back to the beginning to find the work and the woman he loves.

We push the stroller down the leafy street, talking about babies and teething and pre-dawn reveilles. I tell him that his daughter has inherited his own serene nature, and that he must count his blessings. And then, breathing the fragrant air, I count my own.

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