Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Yesterday I walked past a man in Grand Central Station that had the exact same smell of my father when I was a child. It caught me by surprise and I came to a complete stop. I was immediately taken back to Christmas Eve and my father pouring cocktails for his daughters. I was perhaps 13 and being handed a glass of something sour and foul to toast with that I would insist on finishing, while sneakily trying a taste of every other glass at the table. Hey, why not? I wasn't driving.

This is my favorite memory of my family. My father. He would return home late afternoon on Christmas Eve. He would slink into the house and enlist one of us, his daughters to wrap a last minute gift for my mother. Of course, in reality it would have been purchased weeks before by his assistant and it was an elegantly concealed cover up for his other doings. He was drunk to my mother. He was fun to the three of us. He was laughing, dancing and he was home. We were wooed by this man. A man in hand tailored suits, shiny spats and a glint in his eye that every other man in our lives would be forced to compete with. We were terrified and thrilled by him on any given day, but on Christmas Eve he only had eyes for his girls. He was ours for the day. Or so we thought.

Truth is he had already had three too many. He was already fed and would ruin my own mother's hard work by not clearing his plate as her bountiful feast deserved. As the courses neared dessert we knew we were losing him. As Santa Clause approached he retreated into himself. That must be why my mother was the one dragging pillowcases to the bottom of our beds in the middle of the night.

I can see my mum looking at his mum and my Nana throwing daggers at my father's father urging him to pull his son in line. By the time we cleared the dishes, he would be in bed. Exhausted from eating two Christmas dinners, from drinking enough to entertain two families, from the pretence, no doubt.

Of course, we didn't know this at the time. Not until later. Not until much later did we realize where our new toys would disappear to in the days and weeks that followed Christmas. Why my mother would dread him returning late and had to stifle her anger that he had cajoled us into believing he was the ultimate romantic; that he had been out for hours finding the perfect gift for his beautiful wife. Instead of eating with his other family. His secret family.

One moment in Grand Central this week, 3000 miles from where I grew up and at least 20 years from those special evenings and I can still smell the Christmas tree in the room, can still see the scrunched up wrappers on the dinner table from the After Eight mints we ploughed through. I see my grandfather reaching down to pick up his paper crown and my Nana's arthritic fingers fiddling with her charm bracelet. I see my beautiful mother in my memories but I always see her from behind. She is always at the sink in my mind, or at the window arranging flowers.

Christmas Eve always packs a punch in my heart because of these memories. They are not bad. I only have to remember setting the dinner table to Wham's Last Christmas and see my sister on the phone to her boyfriend, so irritated that I won't leave the room and give her some privacy and I smile. It just makes me all the more aware of our own little family unit and the importance of making our own little traditions and the memories that we will create. No pressure, huh?

Funny thing is - I already bought Tom cologne for Christmas from Olive. I'll have to remind him that with great smell comes great responsibility. Or something like that...


  1. You have a gift for sensory and descriptive writing. You must write a novel. Come home and I will help you. Isn't it strange to grow up and look back on your memories to see how different reality was compared to what we thought it was? You must have an amazing mother if she survived all of that and still managed to raise someone as fabulous as you. Miss you.

  2. "They're dusters now"

  3. um, wow. you have such a gift for writing. I could smell that smell and I felt like I was in the room with you. Such an honest piece. Your friend is right. Time for the novel.

  4. Love your writing... I enjoy how you are able to aritculate your thoughts and emotions in a way that allows me to tag along for your journey. Merry Christmas and happy tradition making!

  5. I am learning that traditions are good and important, but to hold them a bit out since they will be forced to change and sway as time moves on.

    This was very interesting to read, and I found myself hoping it was fictional.

  6. I think I read somewhere that the sense of smell can instill a much more powerful and vivid memory than any of the other senses. And it's true that one whiff can bring back these volumes. It's actually pretty cool that you got to 're-visit' it all. What a nice experience for Christmas - bittersweet, but priceless. :)


Go on...say something.