The Scent of Memory

There was a lilac bush by the house I grew up in, by the little balcony on the one side of the house. The house was built into a hill, so if you ran up the stairs on the outside, you’d end on the second floor. The balcony was at the top of the stairs, by a door that opened into the living room.

The lilac bush of my childhood was huge. Once, my mother was up in the middle of the night (going to the bathroom? tending a sick child?) and hadn’t put her glasses on. She looked out the window of the door on the balcony and shrieked fit to wake the dead. When my father darted up the hall, she told him a man was standing outside the door. Just standing there, looking in. My father, having grabbed his own glasses, opened the door and found … the lilacs. We are, all of us, blind as bats. Thank goodness the boys don’t share my genes; they might have a chance.

I used to sit there in the early summer and take in the smell until my allergies drove me indoors. I’m not much for strong floral scents as a rule – I don’t wear perfume and use unscented soap – but lilacs have always been an exception.

We left that house when my father died. Nearly a decade later, when I married and moved to the farmhouse, there was a lilac bush. I wished aloud that I had a cutting from my mother’s lilacs at the old house. Well, my mother-in-law said, I got that cutting from your Aunt Roberta. I’m pretty sure your mom did, too. Probably it’s the same plant. 

We built a house and moved up the lane. This time a cutting came with us. It started small and has grown to the height of the windows. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open in the heat, and the scent of lilacs is always in the air.

I don’t know if I remember all of this exactly the way it happened. I don’t know if my mother-in-law remembered it exactly, either. Memories grow hazy and eyewitnesses are unreliable. It’s a nice story. I can’t swear that it’s true.

But it’s true enough for me.

So this spring, as I drift off to sleep, the last thing I know is the scent of my mother’s lilacs. And it is the first thing I know when I wake.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Levi Z (b. 2008)
Self-Portrait, early 2017
school paints on construction paper

Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Z

Artist’s note: “I forgot I have grey glasses now.”

Curator’s note: I told him it was fine; we all have a little trouble seeing ourselves with absolute clarity from time to time.


Empty Frames

We don’t have any pictures of our boys’ birthmothers.


I am sad about this for my boys. They have asked about pictures, a little, and I think it will be more important to them later, as they grow up and think more about what adoption really means. Perhaps when they are first asked to make a family tree, or write an autobiography.

Each birthmother made the choice not to give us a picture. And so even though I would have liked those pictures for my boys, I wouldn’t change what is. They had their reasons, I am certain. And from women who were already giving us everything — their children, their hopes, their trust – to insist on more would have seemed cruel.

Mother’s Day is an obvious one, but I think of them often, our birthmothers. It has been some years now, and the faces I thought were seared into my brain are fading. We met them each for just a few minutes, all of us with fear and hope and adrenaline surging through our blood, and what I remember now are flashes and impressions. Long black hair. Shy brown eyes.

I try, when they ask me, to make word pictures of their first mothers. I tell them how they looked, and I tell them what they said, the best I can remember. Mostly, though, I tell them how they were; the things I will never forget.

She was strong.
She was kind.
She was generous.
She loved you so, so much.
She was afraid, but she was brave.

If I could, I would tell this to the mothers who gave me my children: We remember your names. We remember you. You are honored in this house. I hope, this Mother’s Day, that you are well. And I hope that alongside the bitter, there is sweet.

All About My Mom

These will never, ever get old. 

Levi, 8 1/2 years, second grade. 

How to Fix Pants

If you have raised a boy or observed someone raising a boy or in fact encountered a boy at any point in your life, you may be aware that boys are very hard on the knees of their pants. Sometimes the pants seem to have been worn only once or twice to family weddings before they appear in the laundry with a gaping hole in one knee. Usually the right, although I cannot explain why this is true.

If you have experienced this problem, I am here for you. I have found a solution. (Remember, I am very crafty.) Even better, this solution takes less than five minutes including cleanup.

See these pants?

They are good pants. Hardly any wear (except for the gaping hole in the right knee) and they still fit. These pants need to be salvaged. Here’s what to do:

  1. Lay pants out carefully on a flat surface.
  2. Mark (just in your head is fine if you are experienced like I am) a location about an inch and a half above the gaping hole.
  3. Fold pants over so you can make a cut at the same location on both legs.
  4. Using the good scissors (the ones you hide from everyone else in the house), make a careful cut straight across both legs. Like this:
  5. Hand the boy his new shorts.
  6. Throw the rest of the legs away.
  7. Re-hide the scissors.
  8. Reheat your cold coffee.

You’re welcome.

Doesn’t Count

When I married into my neighborhood, The Fountain had been in existence for nearly thirty years, and was a local landmark. I directed people to our home (the ones who didn’t already know where we lived along with our collective lineage for eight preceding generations) with, “If you pass The Fountain on your right, it’s the next farm lane.”

Just in the last couple of years, it’s started a new life as a counseling center with beautiful gardens, but for four decades it was the place where everybody had their family reunions (if they could get on the schedule; you had to ask for the same time next year as you were paying for the day or you’d lose your place), the home to a thousand pickup baseball games, and the local swimming hole. It was named for a little natural spring in the front yard, but the manmade pond was the real draw. The big wooden deck out into the swimming side of the pond seemed sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake, and had a diving board. Posted rules allowed only one on the board at a time, and enforcement came from any grownup who happened to turn an eye that way when someone was in violation. Half of the pond was roped off for fishing, but if the float (an AstroTurf-covered platform floating on 55-gallon drums) bumped the rope, you just shoved off toward the deck again. When the pond was open for swimming, it was open for anyone. You couldn’t reserve it like you did the building. A summer pass for a single person was something ridiculous like $15, so literally anyone could afford it.

My sister really liked to swim up there. There was a lot on the pro side for her. It was cheap. It was relaxed; no one trained for a triathlon at The Fountain. There were usually enough people around that no one paid her any particular attention. Weighing heavily on the con side was that it was such a local fixture that she almost always knew someone, and she might have to talk to them.

You may have cottoned on to this given the last few sentences, but my sister is very shy**. She has a public-facing job and that’s just fine, but if you’ve ever had even a twinge of social anxiety yourself, you know that that’s different. If you looked up “hell” in my sister’s personal dictionary, standing dripping wet in a swimsuit making polite conversation with a friendly acquaintance is probably somewhere in the top three definitions. (And really, who besides Giselle does like standing around dripping wet in a swimsuit? Stack it on top of other anxieties and you have the Tower of Doom.) But the pros outweighed the con, just, and so she made do with covert entrances and exits whenever possible, and a lot of friendly waves executed while scurrying off in the opposite direction. Sunday in the early afternoon, though, was usually dead quiet, with everyone still at church or feasting with family after.

Having built a house more or less right on our property line bordering The Fountain, we saw a lot of her when she swam. She’d stop by before or after, or both, to say hi. (She likes us fine, but if the frequency surprises you, remember that the boys were babies then and ever so squishable.) Sometimes she even parked at our house and took one of the boys with her.

When she burst in through the back porch door one Sunday afternoon, it was immediately clear that today was not a normal day. Mom was in the kitchen with me, and we both stared at my sister. Her hair was sopping wet — it didn’t look like she’d even patted it with a towel — and she looked like she might burst into tears.

“What happened?!?” my mother said.

My sister took in a long breath, and said, in the fiercest whisper I have ever heard, “I. cannot. talk. about it. yet.”

She wrapped a towel around her head and one around her waist and took off her water shoes and went and sat in the living room. Mom and I stayed in the kitchen and conducted a conversation of frantic looks and shrugs, mostly translating to, “What on earth could have happened?” and “Why are you asking ME? I don’t know any more than you do!”

After a while, my sister summoned us into the living room. She didn’t have to whisper anymore, which was a good sign. Mom sat in my huge chair-and-a-half and I perched on the ottoman, facing my sister across the room.

Another deep breath.

“I can’t laugh yet,” she said. “But I know that it is really funny, and you may laugh.”

We nodded, wide-eyed.

The Sunday afternoon swim started like all the Sunday afternoon swims before it. Quiet. She did some laps. Maybe some underwater planks. Stuff like that. She’d been out there a long time and was just starting to think about getting out and drying off when cars started to pull in to the parking lot. A lot of cars.

This was not particularly alarming. Remember all the family reunions? It was a little unusual that people were pulling lawn chairs out of their cars and setting them up right by the water, but not everybody eats inside. Probably, she thought, they were setting up the chairs and then they’d go inside and get started on the food. She could exit safely when they went in and be gone by the time they’d filled their plates and ambled outside.

But more cars kept coming, and more people kept lugging chairs out of them and some of them had started to sit down. Suddenly, in a horrible flash of insight, she realized that the chairs were not set up in chatty little groups meant for socializing over picnic food. They were all facing the water, in rows.

It was far, far too late to make a covert escape. People were settling in for the show, whatever that show might be. And so she did the only thing she could think to do. She swam, very slowly so as not to make any noise, to the very farthest corner of the roped-off swimming area, and tried to slide in behind the float. The float, though, was not embarrassed by the audience at all, and drifted happily wherever it pleased, paying no heed to the mortified woman begging silently for cover.

Not my sister. But I didn’t have a picture of her that day so you’re stuck with me.

More people had gathered. She discovered that the dead man’s float works well even for those who only wish they were dead. Someone rose to speak. Her ears were mostly underwater, but she peeked periodically to see when the farce would end.

The speaking continued. Finally, there was some movement, and she turned enough to see two people walking out into the pond, about to waist level. The penny finally dropped.

And so my sister floated there, in the sun-warmed water and a sea of mortification, during a ceremony of Christian baptism.

“I said you could laugh,” she said again at this point, but I shook my head furiously, jaw aching and eyes wide. I wasn’t laughing, I insisted, between clenched teeth.

The actual baptism at least signaled that the worst was over. The newly damp Christian and the minister went inside to get cleaned up, and the crowd drifted slowly toward the front of the building. After a bit, only a few older men remained in the chairs, talking quietly, right by the shallows where she needed to exit.

She gave them a few minutes, but they clearly weren’t vacating, and she decided this was a good as it was going to get. Gathering her courage and the remains of her dignity, she swam toward the deck, standing up and walking when she could. Streaming water, she walked up to the men and said, “I am SO sorry. I did not mean to be disrespectful. I did not know this was happening.” Because while not a Church Person, my sister is very much a Polite Person, and she wouldn’t purposely interrupt a wedding or a funeral, either.

No, no, they said gently. No need for apology. Fine, everything’s fine. And would you like to come in for some food? You’d be welcome.

And that did her in. She fled. It was half their kindness, I think, and half the vision of walking into the building in her swimsuit and helping herself to the potluck buffet cooked by strangers.

As she neared the end of the story, she was visibly recovering, and my mom had given up all pretense and was giggling hysterically.

I knew, though, that my sister was definitely going to be fine when she turned to me and said, “You know, it WAS a baptism. And I WAS submerged.”

“No,” I said. “It doesn’t count.”




** Please note that I am telling this story with her explicit permission and publishing it after her review. There are at least two people that now follow everything they say in my presence with, “Don’t put that on the blog!” but I’m not actually out to embarrass anyone. Except maybe the kids, when they’re teenagers.

Behind the Times 

This has been my special friend for the past little while. For those of you lucky enough not to recognize it, it is a donut pillow, and it is for those who are having trouble sitting comfortably.

About three weeks ago, I slipped stepping out of the shower and went down hard. Right on my tailbone. It is possible that I did not accept this bump in the road with total equanimity and instead shrieked like a banshee. It hurt quite a lot.

It kept hurting, and sitting down was especially objectionable. My sister brought me a donut to sit on. I lost it somewhere (best guess: Millersburg) and immediately went to Rite Aid and got another one.

I finally saw a doctor last week – I don’t have anything against doctors except the copay we get charged – for a regular appointment and she confirmed my belief that she really couldn’t do anything about the, uh, problem area. She did, however, give me something that slowed down the spasms I was having and let me sleep at night. Things have improved enough that when I went to my brother’s house for Easter dinner tonight, I didn’t take my donut with me. (That was a touch optimistic.)

The boys have been intrigued by this injury, not least because it provides them opportunities to bring into conversation a part of the human anatomy that I generally encourage them not to discuss at length or in detail. In fact, last Monday, Levi’s Sunday School teacher (also my co-worker) informed me that I came up during prayer time. She swears he used polite words, but my problem was explained to his teachers and classmates at some length.

I experienced an initial flash of embarrassment – Does anyone other than a Kardashian really like having their hindparts discussed in public? – but recovered quickly. Because this is the best thing, seriously. It has been making me laugh all week long.

At one point, a week ago, there was a classroom full of second-graders praying for my behind. Bless their sweet hearts, and their delightful teachers. I guess when you ask second-graders what they need to pray for, you really, really never know what you’re going to get.