The scents of our grief
Can smells hold the key to our memories, and how long can we keep hold of them?
In the months leading up to the family dog’s death, she becomes my obsession, my ritual. There are others, of course, but hers fill my days and my space more than any other.
Each night, before I head up to bed and leave her in the care of my husband (she is too old for stairs and he is a night owl), I kiss her in patterns. Three on her head, three on the scruff of her neck, three on her belly. Then I inhale her scent, deep, from the warm spot on her torso.
Repeat, repeat, repeat until I am sated, or until I feel my husband’s stare, and excuse myself quickly and quietly. He has reasons to stare – the longer I stay, the more likely our sleeping dog will wake up, need to be carried out to the yard. He says this aloud and gently encourages me to take my leave.
But the other reason is unspoken. I’ve learned through therapy the tools needed to manage my obsessions, my compulsions. I’ve watched others strategically defeat their OCD, and cheered them on with enthusiasm. Yet, now, I’m not even trying to stop my rituals.
I do not want to try, in these moments, where every kiss and every deep inhale could be my last feel of my dog’s fur against my lips and the last whiff of the rich scent that belongs only to her.
I take picture after picture to preserve her.
When she finally passes, I ask the vet to save a lock of her soft fur, along with the clay imprints of her footprints, to carry the rest of her with me the best I know how.
But you cannot preserve the scents of our grief.
How fast they leave us
She was succumbing, finally, to a brain tumour, that had spread to her lungs. Her departure would be terrifying, the vet said, and could land on Christmas day in front of my children. The kindest act would be to let her go peacefully.
So I do. She dies in my arms, with the taste of her last hamburger still in her mouth and the feel of my lips against the top of her head. It happens quickly, so quickly that my rituals are punctuated, kiss, kiss, kiss, and located only on her head. I do not have time to do all the steps.
Then she is gone, peaceful. Still warm when I tell the vet I need to leave. I do not want her to get cold; the vet agrees to stay with her while I walk out.
Her smell is gone ... I knew that we cannot bottle the scents of our loved ones, but I did not know how fast they leave us.
A final set of rituals and I will go. I kiss her head, three times. The scruff of her neck. Her belly.
I lean in for the inhale, in the still-warm place on her side.
I breathe in. I try again, and again, and again.
“It’s gone,” I say, panic rising, as the vet tilts her head out of sympathy, or concern.
“What?” She is kind, gentle.
“Nothing.” I try again, and give up. I kiss her head, again, over and over and over, before I finally stand and make it to the door.
Her body is still warm, but her smell is gone. It has been less than two minutes. This is something no one has ever warned me about; I knew that we cannot bottle the scents of our loved ones, but I did not know how fast they leave us.
Where memories live
At home, though, I have a secret.
A place where memories live, where I can inhale the stories of those who have gone before me. I will not find my dog there, but I will find generations of women, nestled in the sweet smells of our family linens.
At night, I nudge the closet door shut with my foot, uncertain who left it open. My children, perhaps, who do not yet understand that the scents of our past cannot be contained in jars or captured on film.
I open it again and rub my fingers across the plainest sheet; faded, worn, as soft as the back of my toddler’s leg, or my granny’s cheek when she was both faded and worn, but alive.
When she died, I was still a child and these sheets lived in my mother’s hall closet. I took them out and wrapped them around my shoulders, buried my nose in them, inhaled the memories of my granny’s embrace, her voice, her touch, all captured in a smell. These moments, where my rituals started, soothed me. It would be three more decades until a diagnosis followed, until I refused the very help I embraced for others, and allowed my rituals to grow.
My mother still has most of the linens, but when I moved west she sent enough sheets with me that the scent has filled my own closet; from 1,400 kilometres away, I feel my mother’s touch, too, when I open this door.
I call my mother and ask her to describe it, this smell that we have never realised with words. “I can feel it,” she replies. “It’s old. My mother’s purse, my grandma’s handkerchiefs. When I was little, she used to fold them. Babies in a hammock, she called them. Have I told you that story?” I shake my head, no, though she cannot see me.
Beautiful and tragic
I do not remember my mother’s grandma. I was not there for handkerchief folding. I am not sure if I have even met her. I do not ask, because to ask builds a wall between us – how do we have such different memories, my mother and I, when my life is so intertwined with hers?
She had a sister, once, who I never met, who died when she was a child.
Does my mother smell the scent of her sister, in these sheets?
I am my granny's writer, I am my grandma's explorer.
There are stories, buried in our linens. My granny’s stories. My great-grandmother’s. My aunts’, perhaps, both the living and the dead. The stories of girls and women – told through detergents, sachets, beds from generations I have never met. Stories of strength. Beauty. Hardship. Motherhood. Me too, you too, we too.
“They smell like grandma, too,” I offer, acknowledging that which divides us.
My father’s mother. She dried her sheets on the line in her backyard; they once smelled of lemon and sunshine, but now have mingled in and rewritten both closets. Where my granny was soft, with books and bird carvings and songs, my grandma was wilderness and lakes and outside, a Midwest farm girl who once rode a pony to school with her sisters. Granny’s sheets were white, cream, yellow, silky. Grandma’s had swirls of shocking pink and were rough to the touch.
“You think? I’ve never noticed,” my mother answers.
She would not notice, of course she would not notice, because my grandmother was not hers.
We smell the exact same scent, my mother and I, when we open my closet door. And when we open her closet door, after I journey past endless fields of wheat and corn to fold my children into my childhood home, into my family.
Yet, the smell is different. Hers, filled with memories I have never had and faces I have never seen. Mine, filled with everyone who has created me – my mother included. I smell dollhouses and books, gardens and sunshine. I am my granny’s writer, I am my grandma’s explorer.
At once, this is beautiful and tragic.
My own children will never know my grandmothers.
Right now, they are small; our lives are enmeshed.
When they open this closet, someday, they will smell their mother, their grandma, and something I have not yet imagined.
They will make their own memories – as it should be.
Generations of women gone
But also, they will forget. They will forget those that I have loved, through scents that they have never known.
I show my children pictures. Easy memories; with care, they will last forever. I can tell them stories, illustrated: Here is your great-grandmother on her farm! Did I tell you that they had to get up and do chores every morning? Then ride to school, all six of them, on the back of that pony? That for Christmas, they were lucky to get an orange, some chocolate, a small toy? How lucky are you, to have gotten the books, the games, the brand new Pokemon figures!
But I cannot tell them, can I, that someday they will try to find a memory and it will be gone?
Someday, you might bury your nose in your dog’s fur, and panic when you can no longer smell her. You might be wracked with grief in coming days but also with the anxious sense of something irretrievable, lost. A memory, gone.
A memory that I can see, on a photo – but I cannot hear it. I cannot touch it. I cannot feel it. I can only try, with my head buried here in my closet, to smell it. Rituals of obsession, compulsion, necessity.
I check the closet door every night before I sleep, to make sure it is closed.
Neither my husband nor my children are allowed to use these linens, as if the scent will seep out into the hallway or onto their bodies and float away; generations of women gone, with no way to hold them in place.