I Remember Mama

I Remember Mama

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: A Tribute to Moms

I Remember Mama

The fragrance always stays in the hand that gives the rose.

Hada Bejar

The closet smelled like Mama.

My mother died when I was ten. For some reason, the closet in my father’s bedroom still had all her clothes in it. I don’t know why he didn’t get rid of them. Was it that the grief was so raw that he couldn’t bring himself to do it, or with five girls in the family to raise, did economy dictate the clothes were still wearable?

I also don’t know why I went into the closet that day, but I did. My father’s room was his inner sanctum, and I rarely stepped across its threshold except to clean it. I wasn’t there to clean when I went into the closet. I walked through the door, and there she was. My mother. Her presence came back to me with as much substance as if she’d been hiding in the darkness. It was her smell. I felt as if it had been waiting for me, hanging in the air of that tiny room, giving me time to grieve and come to terms with life.

I didn’t realize people had individual smells. It wasn’t a perfume smell, although there was the shadow of Evening in Paris mixed with the uniqueness that I smelled each time she hugged me. I’d given her that bottle of perfume for Mother’s Day. She looked so surprised and happy when she opened it that I knew it was the most precious thing I could spend my meager savings on. A whole year after she was gone, after I admitted she was dead, after I stood tearless and numb before her grave and realized I would never again see her or hear her voice, there she was now, alive in my memory.

They say the sense of smell is the most potent for recalling memory. At eleven I learned the truth of this theory. For a moment, I could only stand and take it in, allow it to settle over me like a warm, comfortable blanket. I could see her clearly, in good health, not carrying the pallor of sickness that would take her life. She was without pain, dressed in the blue chemise that I loved and thought she looked best in. She smiled at me, and I could see our lives. It wasn’t my life that passed before my eyes, but hers. I remembered us together, not with my sisters and brother, but, selfishly, just the two of us. I clung to the vision, wanting her all to myself. I knew it was only for a short time, and I didn’t want to share. There was nothing fantastic in what I saw, at least not to anyone other than myself. I smiled in the darkness as the days passed before me, and the small incidences of life were recalled in bright flashes inside my head. I don’t know how long it went on—it seemed like hours, but memory moves at the speed of light. Probably only a few seconds passed, but it was an eleven-year-old lifetime to me.

I pulled one of her coats from its hanger and slipped my arms into it. The smell stayed with me, closer now than it had ever been. I removed the coat from the closet and I wore it until my arms grew longer than the sleeves and my legs hung too many inches below its hem for style to allow. The coat provided protection, not only from the cold Buffalo winters, but from the hurt of life.

Then one day the smell was gone, like the disappearance of the newborn baby smell. I can’t tell you when the coat no longer smelled like my mother, just as I don’t know when the baby smell goes away. One day it was no longer there, as if it knew I was ready to take on the world under my own terms. I no longer needed the support of my mother. While I knew she would always be with me, the coat had taken on my own unique smell. But I remembered Mama’s.

Grief is a hard thing to work through, especially when you’re a child and don’t understand the intricacies of life and death or why God decided to take away the person you loved more than anyone else in the world. Like the smell of my mother fading and mine taking up its place, the pain went away one day at a time, one layer at a time, and I’d passed from girlhood into an adult woman.

I often wonder who I would be had my mother lived. The path of my life would probably be very different from what it is now, but the thing I do know is that the memories she gave me survived the pain and grief of losing her.

Today I’m a single mom and a grandma. Life is very precious, and spending time with my children is a high priority. With the many demands on my time, I give preference to my children and the events in their lives: dance recitals, school programs, or just a talk in the car. Children grow fast. I work hard to make sure they have the same kind of happy memories my mother left me.

Shirley T. Hailstock

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