Phantom Mother-In-Law

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.  

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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?

A metaphysician?

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.

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