Part of being a parent is always having odd things in your pocket. Sometimes surprising, sometimes sticky. Mine are often lined with sand and seashells. I had my daughter late, when I was 39. I hadn’t really found anyone I wanted to make babies with until I was thirty, and hadn’t decided making babies was a good idea until a bit later.
But one day I was doing yoga on the back patio under spring jasmine, and listening to a radio interview with Chrissy Hynde. She was talking about her dead husband, and how he was always with her through their children. Suddenly having children made sense. If I could have more of my husband in my life, it could only be a good thing.
Plus death always seems possible to me. Although I had not had a lot of death affect me directly, I had a fair amount of second hand grief. My mother and my cousin had both lost both their parents when they were 13. It was an odd coincidence, one that send my mother back for some overdue therapy and assured I knew people do not live forever.
My daughter came easily once my husband and I decided she should be here and she was every bit the miracle I had hoped. But there were casualties. Our marriage did not survive the transformation from lovers to parents. When we seperated, we divided her time between us. We both are madly head over heals in love with her, and couldn’t bear anything else. But I found myself wandering over empty house, crying over stuffed animals, crayons, seashells and rocks she left strewn about the house. Eventually I took a job that let me change cities when I didn’t have her with me, and I healed slowly. But the fragility of everything that seems permanent got a bit deeper under my skin, like an untended splinter.
I wondered if my daughter, born when I was 39 –just like my cousin’s mother was born when my aunt was 39– would find herself motherless and hard pressed to even remember her. I’m not too young to die.
I hatched a plan.
I am a geekly sort, and love reading science books. I have learned through this hobby that memory is triggered by smell. So I began to take her to Asilomar, a resort in Pacific grove. It is a state park, a conference ground, a hotel and a historic site protected by many laws from changing. And it’s smelly. It smells of pine trees and ocean, word fires and old buildings made of stone and wood. It smells like forever and the beginning of time, and it will always smell like forever until humans leave the earth or at least change state law.
I take her there now every three or four months, and we play and tell stories, the pine and the ocean grinding deep paths into her brain so that some day when she is 40 or 60 and her mother has long moved on to other beaches she’ll suddenly think of me hugging her, catching her hermit crabs, making up stories of Maeve, the queen of the fairies. Maybe she’ll tell her daughter “my mother used to…” and my ghost will sigh and settle.
What I didn’t expect and should have is that this scientific magic would work on me also. As she brings me shells and rocks, I slide them into pockets. And any time I see a shell, even in a store or glued on a piece of outrageous brickabrac, I’m suddenly with her, sheltering her from the wind, watching for sea otters, waiting for the breakfast bell. And no matter if I’ve seen her five minutes ago, or three days, I ache for her again. My arms feel raw, my chest feels heavy, my eyes feel wet. And I know that being a parent means that until I am a memory, I will always feel this way.
And I slide another shell into my pocket so I can touch this sweet pain one more time.