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Scent Memory: A Return To Small Town America

Only a time or two in life does one lose everything–if we’re lucky.

Most of the time, it’s like my mother used to say, “things will be okay. They almost always are. Remember that.” It’s a philosophy that carried her through 93 years from Karlskoga, Sweden to Jamestown New York. She wasn’t the kind to worry. She would say, “Don’t trouble trouble, Sandy!” She was in fact full of adages that carried her through. They were pretty smart things too, I realize now.

But now and again in life, we do lose everything. In one fell swoop, our worlds are stripped of all we knew as safe and sacred. We wake up and the world is askew.

It’s another world entirely, an alternate universe. I think this must be true for all people, not just for me. Recently, I’ve had a yen to drive 100 miles west and visit Ashtabula, Ohio, a town my family moved to and lived in for five years when I was 9 to 14. Sometimes when I think back, it’s like another universe. We lived in a brand new ranch house on Allen Avenue.

When I moved there, it was the end of fourth grade, and I left my teacher Mrs. McKee at Fletcher Elementary and all my Jamestown friends behind. It was exciting though and my family was still strong and well. I think we all looked forward to the move. A fresh start. A new house. My father had a new job with a big Missouri company. He would travel the Midwest and make more money. All these things made Ohio life sound good. It was small town America at its best.

And it was good, it was so good, for a long while. I have friends there still, and friends who’ve gone, whose losses I mourn and will always mourn. My first love Allan Burns lived there and his sister Pookie–who became an registered nurse and who died in middle age of breast cancer.

I played the flute and the clarinet. I took dance lessons weekly and horseback lessons at Coffee Creek Farm in Austinburg. I learned how to ride there and how to be brave, conquer a fear of galloping hooves and big fences, to throw my heart over the jumps first. They were lessons I carried throughout my life, all of them. I showed hunters at horse shows throughout northern Ohio.

Our little ranch house, white with black shutters, a long front porch, was loved by my mother who tended it like she did the inside of our home. It was always festooned with flowers at every corner ad window box–long draping petunias purple and white from the boxes, and around the sides and back of the house, rows and rows of orange and gold marigolds, and some years, whole blocks of zinnias–vibrant with colors, tall and tough stems, from July through September. I often came home to find my mother gardening, bowed down on her knees amidst the fragrant flowers, gloves on. She would be lost in her world until I spoke.

Then she would look up at me and remove her sunglasses. She had the bluest eyes, eyes that saw through you, seemed to plumb your secrets. Her smile would welcome me. She might stand and push a strand of hair behind my ear or straighten my bangs and adjust my pony tail. Her hands smelled of marigolds.

They were ideal days. My sister played with her best friend Marie Stottle who lived next door. Marie’s mother was our mother’s closest confidante in those years. They remained close all their lives. June is still living, well into her nineties now. Mother is, of course, gone these three years.

The summer of ’62 was our last ideal year. One August day, dad’s company moved him to New England. We drove off from 1402 Allen Ave. forever, and when we did, we left our last real home together behind. Soon thereafter my parents divorced. We moved again, back to Jamestown, to Fluvanna actually, where family embraced us.

We lived in Maple Springs a while and later in a rental just outside Bemus. They were cold and lonely days to me. Gravity shifted when we left that home in Ohio. I return there in my dreams and some days when I’m brave enough to drive back into the past.

Last night, the halo-ringed moon drew me outdoors.

I stood with my head back, looking up at the stars, some of which may no longer exist in time and space. I stand with my head thrown back, staring up at stars that may or may not still exist. My own garden breathed around me in the darkness. And I was once again swept back to that small Ohio house that last was home, where mother still kneels beside her marigolds and pestles the dried blooms in her palms, and strokes a strand of hair behind my ear. It has left scent memory, all these years.

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