They say smell is the strongest trigger of memory and I completely agree. If I close my eyes, I can still smell her. Rave hairspray, Nina Ricci perfume, slightly sweet cigarette smoke from her Virginia Slims and Tide detergent. These were the smells of my childhood. These encompass my mother.
My mom was the type of woman who exuded class. She got up every morning and went through the ritual of “getting ready.” This included days where we had no place to be and days where we did not even leave the house. She still “got ready.” I used to wonder what she was ready for. Knowing her story now, maybe it was just ready with a brave face for whatever life had to toss her way. Maybe my mom never fully felt in control. But making herself up each day and looking good, gave her a sense of control and power. I can understand that. I often take extra care with my morning ritual, on days when I feel most out of control.
She had impeccable taste in clothing. She wore heels every day and they always matched her outfit -perfectly, as if they ‘d been dyed in the same batch of color used to shade her sweater, pants or dress. She wore pantyhose (even with jeans), her hair was always softly curled and sprayed immovable, but never stiff. I remember the feel of it between my fingers, a bit crunchy on the outside, but somehow, I could get to the inside of her hair, where it was softer than anything I had ever felt.
I remember watching her get ready. Seated in her long, front zip robe, cigarette forever burning in the ashtray. Her makeup bag open, its beauties splayed on the counter. It was a colorful, magical array that I loved to explore. Her round curling iron, the blue can of Rave hairspray, her brush to tease her hair. I can recall what her face looked like as she teased, chin down to her collar, arms behind her head and her eyes far away, going through the same motions, day after day, getting every hair perfect. She was beautiful.
Brown hair and eyes, small pixie nose, dark brown hair to her shoulders that curled all over. She was slender and had the most amazingly gorgeous legs. I would later envy those legs something fierce, as I moved into womanhood, but as a small girl, they just further reiterated that my mother was perfect.
She could sing too, and when she sang me to sleep at night, I was positive there was nothing more wonderful than all of this put together; her. Her smell, her style, her beauty, her voice. She was exactly what a woman should be and I loved to watch her. I hoped someday, to be as beautiful and perfect as she was.
It’s funny how memories work, some being still snapshots of my past and others complete; with color, sound, smells, emotion. I wonder if it is that way for everyone, with still frames, then small movies, then the full re-living of a time in their life. Or does it depend on the memory? Do the good ones come complete with all the wonderful feelings associated with those times? Or is it the memories of the bad times that come in full blown detail, haunting us? Are those the memories that make us, or do they simply come back as a reminder, our minds way of ensuring we don’t forget, lest we make the same decisions or mistakes that led us into those harmful situations? What about the times in our past that we’re told about? The stories we hear from our parents, siblings, friends, repeated so many times throughout our lives, that you can honestly question if it is a true memory or something your mind has invented from the details you have heard repeatedly?
Or is it like my mom, whole parts of her childhood blacked out. Not forgotten per se, since she could tell her stories of that time, but black and white memories lacking detail, color, smells, emotion. They were words, they held no feeling. I used to wonder if there were times they snuck up on my mom, coming unbidden into her head while she was doing the dishes. Or if there were smells that triggered them, or colors.
Her story is ugly, painful and weakens me a little more each time I hear it. I’m the age now that she was when her memories invaded her being, finally becoming real. When the smells came back, the emotions took hold, as raw as if they’d just occurred. I cannot imagine what that would be like. To have your past come roaring back, strangling you with it’s weight.
I was a lucky one, a little girl without the invasion of my body and mind by unwanted hands, sick hearts. I was left unscarred by the stripping away of my sense of safety, self-worth and love. I lived in love, not fear. I could trust, I could laugh, I could dream.
I think about this, every time a new woman comes forward with her ugly story. Every time a friend details their personal hell. I think about this as I watch my boys grow into young men, also lucky ones. I think about this when I look at my mother’s face, aged, soft, sad. I think about this when I see a little girl with haunted eyes, wondering, is she an un-lucky one?
I think about this and I am sharing this in the hopes we all do. I hope we think about this a lot, so that we are looking, watching for signs, keeping an eye on our children and the people we trust with their care. I want us to keep talking about this, removing the stigma for those affected so they can speak out, so they can stop these predators.
I think about this, I write about this, because I want us all to be lucky ones.
I’ll think, I’ll write, I’ll watch – always.