It was Sunday and my good friend from college, "Feather," was getting married. I was ascending the steps of St. Peter of Alcantara Church in Port Washington, Long Island, when my phone vibrated. It was a text from my cousin Christian in France; my great Aunt Therese had died earlier that morning.
She was my grandmother's sister, my father's aunt. My parents loved her more than words can express, especially my father. It's why they made my middle name, "Therese."
I didn't think I would be this upset. I was sad, yet composed five months earlier when her husband, my great Uncle Gerard, died. But I think her death made me realize something: this is one of the last ties to my father. I barely made it through the wedding ceremony. I skipped the reception and caught a train back to Manhattan.
The train was fairly empty. I chose a seat in the corner facing away from our destination; it felt good to keep an eye on things behind.
All at once a familiar scent hit me, sending a nostalgic flutter of bumps along my skin. What was it? No one had passed me. I breathed deeper. Another strong whiff filled me.
Smells detonate softly in our memory like land mines, hidden under the weedy mass of many years and experiences. This specific smell brought me back to the Christmas of my 10th year when my parents first took me to Marspich, France, located in Lorraine region.
We stayed at my great aunt and uncle's house on the Rue du Cimetiere.
They lived across the street from a cemetery, at the top of a hill that overlooked the small town. From my little square window I could see in the steeple of a church. A melody of bells would ring every morning at eight and I would poke my head out to see.
There've been other trips since: another with my parents and cousin Julie, two alone, and the last with Nick.
Two years ago Nick and I slept in the main guest room the room my parents stayed in when my mother got pregnant with me. There are wood-paneled floors and a high ceiling, French doors with a translucent white curtain that tumbles down the length of them and pools at the base. The doors lead out to a wrought-iron balcony that overlooks the entire town. When opened, the wind billows the curtain inward.
I remember Nick and me standing out there on our last night, my eye on the silhouetted steeple. "I hope I get to see them one more time," I said.
I breathed deeper. I tried to pinpoint what the smell on the train was, what the tripwire was that had exploded these memories, willing such visions to leap out of the undergrowth. But it was impossible.
It's like trying to define what your childhood smelled like.
The smell was something like warm milk and wool, overly ripe oranges that have been forgotten on the dining room table, a cork after it's been pulled from the wine bottle, dust that has settled for years and years between floorboard cracks, the sweet decay of dried roses. ... It was all of these at once.
The odor, instantaneous and fleeting, caused my heart to both dilate joyously and contract with grief. When the train arrived to Manhattan, the doors opened and the scents of the city crested over me like a breaking wave. Aunt Therese was gone.