Henry got away from me today at a local nursery. One minute I was holding his leash, the next, he had slipped out of my hand and was zipping gleefully through the trees in the back lot, a little speck of white among the evergreens. I knew from past experience the last thing you want to do when something like that happens is start chasing. Henry knows the protocol at the beach. He runs off, he chases birds, but at the beach he comes back. At the beach there aren’t trucks and cars going in and out. At the beach there’s usually a pack of dogs he’s running with. Here at this strange nursery where none of us had ever been, he was in all new territory.
Even though my husband is the only one who can make Henry come when called, I knew it was fruitless when he started shouting, “Hen-ry! Get over here, right now!”
It was a dank cold day, and a drizzle was coming down. The huge evergreens were rich and fragrant, and Henry was getting lost among them, peeing on one, sniffing another.
I stood on the edge of this seeming primordial forest. Each tree must be worth tens of thousands. I saw white, I saw his little brown head. Then I didn’t see him at all.
“Here Henry!” I called out as nonchalantly– as sweetly– as possible. I squatted down to ground level. Pretty soon, my little dog appeared in front of the trees and inched closer. I continued to squat, blessing my yoga practice, holding out my arms.
From behind me, my husband hissed, “sit Henry!”
And of course, being Henry, the little anarchist ran away back among the giant trees and bushes for sale. Henry sits very nicely for his morning and evening meals. Or when he doesn’t want to be left behind at home. But there was no bowl of food anywhere in sight. I could see him leaping among the trees, a quick moving spot of white bigger than a rabbit, reminding me of theRoad Runner.
Lord, I didn’t want him to run for the road.
I looked behind me. My husband looked panic stricken, pale and his mouth was trembling. He swore softly. It occurred to me why the almighty had chosen women to run the small being show. We have more faith. We have more patience. And let’s face it: we’re totally used to this sort of shit. Toddlers toddle off down the street unaware of danger; dogs go chasing anything that moves or smells. When we’re young and taking care of our babies and little ones, we’re in the presence of death on a quotidian level. Even an hourly level. Minute by minute women have to sit there guarding their offspring: from the street, from the bullies in the playground, from the ocean or swimming pool. Men have to join gangs, ride motorcycles or traditionally go to war to create that kind of awareness. Stay at home Dads of course are the exception to the rule.
By now, the rain was really coming down; my feet were numb with cold. It’s been the frostiest May I can remember. I wondered how I was going to find my little dog among the tall evergreens at the Whitmore nursery. I wondered how long it was going to take. I didn’t really panic, because I felt confident Henry wouldn’t forsake me. Henry didn’t want to die. Henry was smart.
But he wasn’t coming out. From the front of the nursery, I could hear my husband calling, “Henry! Henry!”
I looked among the trees. It was getting harder and harder to see with the grey mist and rain. I prayed to the gods who rule the canines. Don’t take Henry! Send him to me.
In the end total submission was required. Often that is the case when you love another being: a child, a husband, a friend,—you have to just let it all go and say, I submit. I’ll lay down and let it all go, if only you’ll come back.
This is my love and I’m proving it!
So, I squatted down, put my head on my knees. And, thanked my yoga practice. I was in traditional Child’s Pose. Quads folded, arms out, head down. I was wearing my raincoat, but still I felt the drops on my back. Under my face, was wet earth, the earth smelled rich and sweet. I waited. I breathed. I have seldom felt so utterly in the present moment as I did in the mud in the back of the nursery, waiting for my dog. Certainly not in most child’s poses in the controlled calm of the yoga studio.
Presently, as I suspected, (or had been instructed by the gods who control canines) Henry was upon me, licking my hand. I could picture his little face, with its grin of hilarity. Nothing Henry likes better than a prank. I grabbed him. He was covered in mud as I was. His leash was solid brown, just as the front of my coat was.
I hugged him to me, kissed his head, then set him on the ground and grabbed hold of his muddy leash, and we went and found my husband who was in front, still shouting, watching the road…
An olfactory hallucination (phantosmia) makes you detect smells that aren’t really present in your environment. The odors detected in phantosmia vary from person to person and may be foul or pleasant. They can occur in one or both nostrils. The phantom smell may seem to always be present or it may come and go. Phantosmia may occur after a head injury or upper respiratory infection. It can also be caused by temporal lobe seizures, inflamed sinuses, brain tumors and Parkinson’s disease.
My mother in law whom my son named Nia is haunting our house in Springs, the shabby arty part of East Hampton. I can smell her.
A good many of the Abstract Expressionists came to Springs: Pollock, deKooning, , to name two. They all hung out, my husband remembers being taken to de Kooning’s studio when he was little. The paintings didn’t really interest him—he had enough of that boring shit at home—he liked the painter’s restaurant stove where the he cooked himself lunch every day.
We wouldn’t of course have this house but for her and the fact that she bought land in Springs when it was cheap and gave my husband land to build a house. And the handy, crafts manly person that he is, built himself a house.
They had their house. He had his house. The thick oak tree woods make the places invisible to each other in the summer. The first time I came here, and he and I were eating lunch outside, I saw this pixie person walking across the woods with a basket.
“Whose that?” I asked.
My husband looked down.
Nia had a very breathy birdy voice, a voice as distinctive as her smell.
“I’ve brought berries!” she said that day. And that was the beginning of her intrusions.
I never really minded because she was a trip. And I didn’t have any elders; all my elders were dead. I liked her, she liked me. She read books, she knew interesting people. And she was very nice to me and to my friends. Her relationship with my husband was a wee bit more complex.
Nia died unexpectedly, the day the levee burst in New Orleans just after her eighty -fifth birthday. My father in law, who was way older, died years before. Now, since Sunday (today is Thursday) I’ll be walking through the house and I’ll catch her scent: part old lady, which means (moth-bally), mixed with Christian Dior’s Miss Dior perfume, her signature scent. One minute I’ll catch a distinct whiff, and then in the next instant it’s gone. This is not my imagination. I do not have temporal lobe disease. This is a solid olfactory fact.
She’s here. My husband doesn’t smell her. But I do. So far, she’s only in the kitchen/dining room. She hasn’t wafted into the bedroom, which surprises me, she was hardly discreet.
If I start writing about her at length, I’m worried instead of these rather startling whiffs, the whole spirit will materialize. What will I do then?
Is it because finally her little house across the way is going up for sale? How come when I was there last summer, all by myself, she didn’t come then? Why here? Why now?
When the task of cleaning out her apartment in New York fell to me, the huge run down eight rooms with a view, where she and my father in law lived, held court, and stayed for fifty years, she showed up a lot. And so did he. The feelings were so strong and intense; sometimes I had to sit down to recover from them. I felt then they didn’t want to leave the apartment. (Neither did I—finding a stable place to stay in New York is to say the least: arduous.)
This is something else. This is not a feeling. This is a precise smell, when she walked in the room, there she was Nia and her smell. I could be cooking with her and her Nia smell even transcended the food smells, it was sui generis, completely her.
Odd too, that one of my early novels has a ghost that returns first as a scent. Then completely materializes in the apartment of my main character. First there was the Joy perfume (does anyone wear Joy anymore?) and then the ghost of Annie’s mother Theo is sitting on one of the chairs in her living room in New York.
I never could get anyone to publish that book. But I steal things from it from time to time and put it in other stories and books.
Has Nia stolen that bit from the novel I wrote?
I can smell Nia now. I smelled her just a few minutes ago when Henry and I came in from our last walk of the day.
Do I consult a physician?
This afternoon, my husband caught me sniffing. I was sniffing, and looking around and he said, “What are you doing? You’re like Divine in Polyester.”
“Sorry!” I said…
Sniff sniff. Stay tuned…but in the meantime, enjoy Mother In Law by Ernie K Doe, a fabulous blues singer who I actually saw perform in New Orleans when I was a kid. I used to sing it in anticipation of her yearly visit to the coast.