(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel March 13, 2011)
I've done a bit of traveling lately, but I haven't left home. The fragrance of newly bloomed plants has taken me back in time and across the miles to remind me of places and people I love.
Sweet alyssum was the first flower to trigger a memory.
I was visiting my daughter at her Winter Garden home, where she has planted her first entirely-on-her-own garden. I hadn't been to Amber's house for several weeks, and although I'd heard about all the vegetables and flowers she was growing, I'd yet to take a tour.
We were chatting as I stepped outside, but a strong whiff of a familiar scent stopped me midsentence.
"Is that alyssum?" I asked, looking around. Just outside the door, a cluster of fragrant white blooms hugged the ground. "It is alyssum! It smells just like Grandma's yard in Seattle."
Suddenly, instead of standing in Amber's backyard, I was 3,000 miles away. I was in front of my mother-in-law's home on N.E. 147th Street, where blankets of white and purple alyssum poked through the concrete next to the garage. Whenever we visited, the sweet aroma of alyssum flowers was there to greet us.
I have always loved that smell and the memories it triggered. Grandma Boas died last year, and the next-door neighbors bought her house. Our days of sitting in Grandma's flower-bedecked living room overlooking Lake Washington are gone, but as long as I can smell alyssum, I can be there in my mind.
When I returned home from visiting Amber, I ordered a packet of "honey-scented alyssum" seeds called "Summer Romance" from Renee's Garden.
My second journey began in my own backyard.
I was taking out the trash on the last day of February when I noticed a rush of color against the clay wall. I put the bags in the trash can and went over to where a stand of mature wisteria vines covers a section of carved-out hill. The day before the vines were bare, but overnight it had rained. The wisteria responded by producing masses of purple and white blossoms. I lifted a pendulous cluster of blooms to my nose.
One whiff and I was back on Cape Cod.
On Cape Cod, wisteria signaled the end of winter. After several months of cold, gray, wet and snowy weather, it was a sign we were eager to receive. In April, vines that ambled over stone walls and climbed sagging trellises burst into bloom. The air was heavy with their aroma. I'd go outside with clippers and return home with a basket full of blooms. Vases of wisteria brought springtime indoors.
It has been years since I lived on the Cape, but one sniff was all it took to transport me to back in time. I was a young mother in our hand-built house in the woods. The kids were little. They were busily drawing pictures on a long roll of brown paper spread across the pine floor. I stood in the kitchen listening to their chatter as I cleaned up after the midday meal. On the windowsill behind the sink sat a huge bouquet of wisteria flowers. With each dish I scrubbed, I inhaled the sweet promise: "Winter is over! Spring is here!"
My third olfactory journey was closer to home. In fact, it was right here at home. Ralph and I were on our way to the junk pile in search of some paving stones to use in the garden when I smelled perfume in the air. Our junk pile is a few steps beyond a grove of citrus trees. We have only a few trees, but even one orange tree blooming will fill the air with an intense perfume.
The smell of orange blossoms is the aroma of home. It speaks of Florida and sunshine and family time together. When I first moved to Groveland, groves of citrus trees still covered the hills. There are far fewer now than there were in the 1980s, but the trees that remain still stop me in my tracks. Their heady fragrance proves the past is not over — at least not completely.
As long as scent can trigger emotions, a bit of yesterday will always be here. People who say time travel is impossible must never have taken a flight of fancy. That's too bad, because it can be quite a trip.
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