When I was engaged, I read a unique piece of advice: Buy a brand new perfume for your wedding day. If it’s the first time you wear it, the scent will become rooted in your memories of the day. Every time you wear that same perfume, you’ll have flashbacks to your wedding.
I figured it was worth a shot, so I bought a new scent and wore it not just for my wedding day but also every night during our 10-day honeymoon in Cabo San Lucas.
I didn’t wear that perfume again for several months, but the first time I did, I was instantly transported back to Cabo. I could almost feel the humidity from the breeze coming through the sliding glass door of our suite.
Even now, almost eight years later, it’s the perfume I wear only for “date nights” with Mike, and every time I spray it, I can see myself standing in front of the mirror in our Cabo bathroom.
Memory is a funny thing. It’s hard to access memories on command. Memories often come to us at unexpected times. We smell a flower or a whiff of cologne or the damp earth after a fall rain, and a long-forgotten memory surfaces from the dustiest parts of our brains. Or maybe not a specific memory, but a feeling. A tingling familiarity. A hint of a place you once occupied.
I’m writing a book. A memoir of our year with BlueJay, our four-year-old foster son who lived with us for almost a year before going to live with extended family members. As I write the book, I feel its focus shift from the full story of our time with BlueJay toward the way our early experiences and our memories shape who we are and how we choose to live.
The day BlueJay left our home to move in with his relatives, I pulled a storage tub out from under his bed. Many months before, when he first came to live with us, I had packed away some of the clothing he brought with him into that bin. Things that were clearly hand-me-downs from his older brother (or perhaps mistakenly packed in the wrong box) and were several sizes too big for him. Everything that did fit him — which wasn’t much — I washed and stored in his dresser.
When I pulled that storage tub with the too-big clothing out from under his bed and pried open the lid, the smell of a foreign laundry detergent hit my nose and transported me back a year. Suddenly, I saw myself standing on my sunporch, staring down into the large (but only half-filled) box of BlueJay’s possessions. A heap of ill-fitting clothing, a large plastic Ironman, a few small toy cars and a bucket decorated with Easter eggs.
I remembered how I sat on my living room couch that night, sorting through BlueJay’s clothing while he slept for the first time in his new bedroom upstairs. How I tried to figure out what might fit him, how I pulled out Ryan’s bins of hand-me-down clothes from the basement to fill in all the gaps.
The other night, for the first time this year, we threw open our bedroom windows. As I clicked off my bedside lamp and turned onto my side to sleep, a light breeze came through the window. I breathed it in and suddenly, I was seven years old again in the middle of a hot summer in Cleveland.
In my memory, I threw my pillow to the foot of my bed so I could lay with my head right next to the window to catch any breeze that might come my way. I could see the wood frame of my first childhood bedroom window and its chipping hunter green sill.
Memories are tricky. They can be evasive, even protective. They appear when they want to be seen and they bury themselves as they see fit.
I have a year’s worth of memories with BlueJay burrowed in my brain and covered with a few layers of emotion. When I close my eyes and try to pull a few out, the strangest things surface.
Like the way he’d ball up a napkin at the end of a meal, furiously swipe his mouth twice and each hand once before tossing the napkin onto the table. How he’d then vault down from his booster seat and run off to the living room to play.
I must have seen him do it hundreds of times. Swipe-swipe, swipe, swipe, toss, jump. One fluid motion, a choreographed dance.
Or the way he’d come down the stairs after his afternoon nap, both feet hitting each step before moving on to the next. His steps were loud, frenetic and his face always showed one of two emotions: contentment or fear. Either way, he’d clomp down the stairs at a rapid pace and run straight into my arms.
I can’t help but wonder, as the years ahead pass by, how many of these details I will retain. How much I’ll be able to pull from my memory at will and what will come to me in random moments when I see, hear or smell something that coaxes a memory forward.
Even more, I wonder whether BlueJay will remember us at all. I suppose he will. Little flashes of memories here and there that come to him at the strangest times.
Maybe one day, he’ll hear an old song playing in a restaurant and he’ll have a vague sense of holding hands with a woman and dancing in circles around a kitchen and dining room.
Maybe he’ll be 30 years old when, on a certain day with just the right temperature and just the right breeze, he’ll open a car door and hear my voice: “You guys know the rule: Ryan gets in the car first; BlueJay gets out of the car first.”
Maybe BlueJay’s own son will roar like a dinosaur one day and he will see Ryan’s laughing face and a plastic T-Rex clutched in his hand.
Maybe one day, BlueJay will write his own book, and the memories he rediscovers as he lays down to sleep with wide-open windows will help him tell his own story.