On a recent road trip to a state park, while stopping for gas, I suddenly found myself smiling and thinking about my mother. The service station restroom had a dispenser for soap, which came out green and silky but had a sharp lemon-peppery smell — just like the bar of Ivory soap in my childhood home.
My five brothers, two sisters, and I always had to wash our hands before dinner, and my mother would inspect all 16 of them, invariably flagging mine when they still had dirt under the nails from playing outside. She’d take me to the sink and hold my hands under the tap and rub the slippery bar across the tops of my fingers, a ticklish but warm feeling with her own hand underneath mine.
Similar memories are sparked by the smell of marigolds, among Mom’s favorite flowers. As pretty as any other orange-colored blossom, but they also have an earthy, musky fragrance and, most importantly, an affordable price tag. Once or twice a year, I recall, Mom would buy a flat of them at the greenhouse behind the car wash for planting in the yard when she had a spare half hour.
Our yard never had a lawn. Instead, it had six boys and a dog and was a rectangle of dirt scoured from running bases in our makeshift ballfield and punctuated, especially in the spring, by holes dug by Cleopatra, the stout family beagle.
It made for a rough picture out her kitchen window, which was why Mom would try to pretty it up with a patch of marigolds, and we would tiptoe around them for a full day, maybe two, in deference and obedience. Inevitably, though, they would be obliterated from someone overrunning third base or from the hard skid of a bicycle.
There are many nose triggers of Mom memories: oxtail soup simmering on the stove, the iron-like smell of melting snow on the back steps where she would help me take off my boots and leggings, Jean Nate perfume, and scorched cotton from her marathon ironing sessions in the basement.
More than any other is the scent of fresh hay. It was Mom’s idea to drag the ping pong table outside at Christmastime and flip it sideways to make a stable in front of the picture window. Dad was busy selling tile, so she paid old Joe Corbett to cut creche figures out of plywood with his jigsaw, which she covered with stencils of Joseph and Mary and the three kings. Dad bought a bale of hay someplace on Saturday, which we spread on the roof and floor of the stable, which, when layered with snow overnight, offered the sweetest smelling hiding place for a 6-year-old, cozied between the baby Jesus and a plywood sheep.
But it's a haunting sound, instead of a smell, that has me lately remembering my mother through the fog of so many decades, at a time when our twilight years are electrified by our granddaughter, a 36-pound bolt of lightning who stays with us one night every week. Now that she’s 4 and growing more resistant at naptime, I take a chair next to her bed and sing the lullabies I once sang to her mom. After a while, running low on both lyrics and energy, I scale it back to humming. Initially, it has melody, but eventually it devolves to a four-count metronomic chant, the beat on the final syllable: “hmm...hmm...hmm...HMM.” Repeated, but now lower. Repeated, but now softer. As easy and hypnotic as breathing.
And as my granddaughter finally falls asleep, I realize it was exactly the same “song” my mother invented half a century earlier, inspired partly by exhaustion and mostly by love for me and her seven other children.
And as long as I can hear and smell and love her back, she is with us, still, on Mother’s Day.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident, an emeritus English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, the author of "South Siders," and a frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.