A Mother’s Fragrance by Margaret Rowan

Standing on the porch of my mother’s house, I rummaged through my purse for the front door key. A murmur fluttered the air. I raised my head to catch the sound and saw the curtain ripple in the side-light window. Leaning nearer the door to listen, a thought flashed but I dismissed it, turned the key in the lock and entered the house.

Inside, everything looked as it had six months earlier when I’d come back east to be with my failing mother. Her passing had arrived sooner than expected, so we’d not very long to catch up.

Sniffing the unforgettable, aroma-infused wallpaper, I smiled then put my suitcase down at the foot of the staircase and headed to the kitchen. Why the kitchen? Because that was where I’d find my mother when I’d come home from school or from playing outdoors with my friends.

In her kitchen, I was met with the smell of cinnamon. On the counter sat a dusty bundle of cinnamon sticks tied with raffia. It was as if she hadn’t left. A hint of vanilla brought to mind her last words to me before slipping off to heaven. She’d lifted her frail hand to wipe my tears, saying, ‘Oh, now…my lovely, Tweed. Don’t fret wee lass. Mum, be nearer now. So on ye stride, as the Tweed River flows, through murmuring breezes and rising tide, I’ll carry you as when first you were placed in me arm…an earthy bouquet so new.’

After several days of going room to room, wiping clean each memorable treasure my mother had collected, it was time to restock the pantry shelves. Granola bars and flavored seltzer water were becoming tiresome. And I detested decaf coffee. What I really craved was a big mug of good-ole Scottish coffee. “What do you say, Mom, a splash o’ whiskey and vanilla bean to warm a weary soul?” Oh, to have you here a wee bit longer and go tagging with you one last time. I slipped into the sweater I’d picked up for her on a trip to Nova Scotia and journeyed out the door and down the sidewalk.

Autumn was my favorite time of year. With each step I plowed through colorful leaves the breeze swirled up before me, remembering how my mother and I would rake huge piles then fall back into them. She taught me about snow angels too. Nothing was better than sinking back into an untouched field of snow. Afterwards, we’d hurry inside to drink hot cocoa and eat oatmeal raisin scones we’d baked earlier that day.

A few blocks down, I saw a Tag Sale sign tacked to a shattered fence post. Behind the pickets of the worn-out fence, hordes of people were scrambling about. I watched things being dropped and tossed here and there with no regard. A woman sat at a table stacked with books and vinyl records, pricing more items. Either this was her house or she was overseeing the sale. I stepped between remnants of a gate and weaved through the crowd towards her. A photograph album teetered on the pile of records. I picked it up. There might be a photo of my parents in it…and maybe me too. I began turning pages.

“Hello. I’m interested in this photo album. Can you tell me anything about it?” 

She raised her hand to shush me. She appeared more interested in the people crammed around the adjacent table, arguing over a quilt. Well, that was somewhat rude, but I spoke to her again. This time a bit louder, since the people were now shouting and nearly coming to blows. 

“Excuse me, could you help me? I…I’m really interested in this album and would like to know something about it. Does it belong to the family who lived here? Did they move away?”

She ignored me.

Gee whiz, what’s herproblem? I’m not a curiosity seeker, quite the opposite. When I go to tag sales, it seems a matter of courtesy to ask about the people who lived in the house. Especially if I buy something, I love to hear their stories. Who knows? With a stroke of luck, they might be descended from one of our founding fathers—maybe even Benjamin Franklin—and the quill pen I bought was used to—well, that’s probably pushing it, but its owner could have founded the general store in town…or been the mayor!

On my desk, I keep an old tintype photo of my great grandmother. Entrusted to me by my mother and that her mother passed along to her, and so on down the line—I’m expected to see that it gets there!

My friends call me a hoarder. I tell them, I’m preserving history. Besides, you’d be amazed at what you might come across. When did you ever notwish you had an extra vegetable peeler? They laugh. But I was serious. It came in handy when my mom and I were peeling apples for Christmas pies.

I was about to speak again, when the woman rose and went to where a tug of war over the quilt had erupted. She took it from them, came back to where I was waiting, gave me a sideward glance and sat back down at the table.

I cocked a half-smile in approval of what she’d done. She picked up the black magic marker and tapped it on the table. Okay, my turn. “So, I guess this is their photograph album. The people who lived in the house?” My, gosh, is she ever going to speak to me? “I grew up a few houses from here but didn’t know them, and after college, I moved away. I’m sure my mother knew them. She and my dad lived in the neighborhood for decades.”

Finally—and not too gracefully—she put her marker down and looked up at me. “My mother died last week. The album was hers. You want to buy it, $1.00.”

 Taken aback and at a loss for words, I could only wonder why she was getting rid of her mother’s things so soon. Having just lost my own mother, I knew I couldn’t have done that. Her death was still rumbling in my heart. To discard her things would be like dumping a part of my life. I’d been with her when she’d purchased some of her most prized possessions. It was only now that I’d enough courage to come back and open up the house again. To my surprise, I found sorting through my mother’s things kept her around a bit longer.

Her potato salad bowl: nothing unusual to anyone else, but it was her favorite; the one she used for family barbecues and our traditional evening snack on Thanksgiving. That had been the best part of the day: a turkey sandwich with a side of mom’s potato salad and a second slice of pumpkin pie. We would joke about the men in the family needing sideboards on their plates.

A pair of white plastic salad tongs. They’d lasted this long and were far better than any I’d purchased. They remained in the utensils drawer in Mom’s kitchen.

Her Boston baked bean pot and the shiny Art Deco chrome tray she kept on her worktable in the kitchen, along with the worn-out, flat Pyrex bowl, less the lid. Why would I hold on to something of so little value? Because my mom had kept it filled with holiday candies, particularly jelly beans at Easter and candy corn for Halloween. It had been her first offering to greet you upon entering her kitchen. She was so into seasonal changes. I loved spring, when she’d hang white dotted Swiss tie-backs in my bedroom.

Of all these keepsakes, the one I treasure most and still have tucked among my fragrances is a tiny sample bottle of Tweed perfume that my mom gave me when I turned sweet sixteen. Although the bottle is empty now, whenever I open it, I can still smell the fragrance of my mother. When she was getting ready to go out with dad, her scent filled the house, following her down the hallway into the living room. I loved to hug her good night before she and dad would leave.

The words slipped from my tongue before I could pull them back. “Why are you cleaning out the house so soon? Is it being sold?”

The woman glowered at me. “Well, if you must know, my mother and I haven’t spoken in four years. I can’t wait to get rid of the residue so I can get on with my life and not have to wade through hers.”

Wow, residue. A pang found its way into my heart for the woman that had died. I didn’t even know her but felt an allegiance to her. She was a mom with a fragrance all her own. “Mm, that’s a shame, I’m sorry to hear that. Something awful must have come between you.”

“Her friendly tenant, if you really must know!”

“Oh. Your dad passed on before her.”

“What does that mean?”

 “She had to be lonely in this big ole house.”

 “Why would you care anyway? You didn’t know my mother.”

“No, I didn’t, but I saw tears in your eyes as you folded up that quilt you’re clutching to your chest. Your mother made it?”

“Yes, for my first birthday.”

“She smells good doesn’t she?”

She sniffed the quilt.

“You know, nothing awakens love and forgiveness more than the fragrance of your mother.” 

I placed the photograph album back on the table and continued down the sidewalk to Mr. Stone’s. I was grateful to see his general store was still open and his grandson was now running it. It’d been in town for as long as I could remember.

On my way back home, I saw the tag sale sign had been taken down. The people were gone and, coming from inside the house, I heard singing. A breeze swirled at my feet as I quickstepped through the leaves and down the sidewalk.

I’d give her a day or so before knocking on her door with a bowl of potato salad. I’m sure we’ll find something in common to talk about.

“Thanks, Mom, for one last tag sale.”

Margaret Rowan was a legal secretary, a production artist and proofreader for the Patent Trader newspaper and two sister publications. Today, she owns and operates an antiques business with her husband and writes lively descriptions of their inventory. When not at home writing fiction and poetry, she travels around the country, where her creativity is sparked by the ‘characters’ she encounters and the places visited in her hunt for the antiquated. Margaret belongs to the Mahopac Library Writers’ Workshop. Her work has been published in Adelaide Literary Magazine. At present, she has completed a novel and looks forward to landing an agent soon.

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