Here in the east San Francisco bay area, it was the kind of gorgeous midwinter day when bugs hatch unseasonably and the sky is blue forever. I threw together a picnic and drove the girls to the playground. At the last minute, Jackie, the 1st grader who lives next door joined us. My sister met us at the park with her two little girls, and my husband met us there too, having spent last night at his brother’s house to celebrate his brother’s birthday.
In the sun by the swings we were too hot and exposed to unpack our picnic, so we moved our soft sided cooler to the picnic table, shaded by oaks. There, above the tree-darkened creek bed, it was too cold when the sharp breeze started up, cutting through our clothes, whipping plastic container lids to the dirt under the table, and knocking over a box of crackers and a metal water bottle, which clanked. The little girls shivered on the picnic benches and hunched over their peanut butter and jellies, clamoring for more eye contact with us adults who stood by the table, sipping 3% alcohol cider and trying in vain to have a conversation that lasted longer than two sentences.
Then later as everyone dispersed throughout the playground to ride bikes or to roller skate or climb trees, I stood in the sun for a few minutes, my feet anchored to the paved path, my eyes open but unfocused as I caught the scent of the wind gusting up from the wet and dappled creek bed. I let it speak to me. I felt doglike excitement at the whiffs of clay and leaf and dust and mud, and rot and loam. As I discerned one, another one came to me, and then another, and I breathed in, letting the cool air fill me up and suggest to me anything it wanted to.
The smells became everything, every memory and every possibility connected to those memories. All the pathways to my memory bank— which felt vast, almost unending, like dipping into the edges of the collective unconsciousness— opened up simultaneously: the picnics, the wild, unchaperoned moments of my life, quilts on damp grass or overhead, filtering in pink light, and the smell of sun-hot weeds in the field against my jeans leg. I smelled the keg party at night down by the creek in the woods freshman year, and all future keg parties future college students may yet have down by other creeks.
The air carried with it the wildness of things: the wild garden on that rainy day birthday party– my first drop off party as a little girl– at a schoolmate’s house near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, and the wild woods of Northern California, the mass of the trees, all the trees I had ever been near, the height of them, their stature, like a library in their silence and knowledge. And books, as cozy-smelling as an attic, books I read as a child that took me to exciting places and introduced me to new people, “The Family that Nobody Wanted,” and “Pippi Longstocking,” and “The Bobsey Twins by the Seashore,” and “Little Women,” and on and on. And zoos, and seeing a giraffe’s giant blue tongue for the first time when I was three.
Every darkened and musty place I hid in as a child playing hide and seek, every dusty and blooming place, the vacant lots, the mountain air, all came to me on these smells up from the creek bed at the playground while I lingered for a couple of minutes in the sun.
I remembered that icy spring day in Minnesota when I was about eight. I was supposed to walk home from school with my two friends, but we got waylaid by the tempting ice covered puddles at the edges of the sidewalks. It was warm enough outside to begin to thaw the world from the ground up, and to smell deliciously like muddy springtime as the frozen puddles liquified, but at the same time, it was still cold enough that the solid sheets of ice over most puddles remained frozen, thick and hard. So the sheets formed a crust on some puddles, that we could crunch through with our heels, and on some puddles the sheet formed a raft that could be jostled with the toes of our boots. We stepped onto these white clouded sheets to test them and see if they would hold solid, or move and float, and then– deliciously– crack under our weight.
One frozen puddle led to another, and soon, instead of walking home, we were exploring the city, in the search of more ice that would crack. Anywhere we saw frozen-over puddles, whether they were tiny or the size of a small lake, we’d take turns stepping or stomping on the ice layer, listening to the satisfying high squeaking as white jags bolted through the solid sheet of ice under our weight. After it broke apart, we kicked– as hard as we could– the large glassy shards, which shattered into the air– and sometimes we would accidentally plunge through to the frigid water that we could see slurping around underneath the cloudy ice, and our boot would get wet and seep through to our socks. That was always exciting, because it was a little bit scary to get wet in weather that cold, and it underlined the fact that we were roaming on our own whim, completely unsupervised.
When we finally got to my house, soaked to the knees, shivering numbly in the oncoming dusk, my mom was sitting grimly on the edge of the couch, pale with worry, about to call the police to search for us.
Now, as an adult, standing in a park, far from Minnesota, the smells that had been watered by weeks of chilly rain and then released by the warmth of the sun and scooped up by the passing breeze and delivered to my face, my nose….those smells reminded me what it’s like to be a child, free enough to wander and follow a trail of puddles and cracking ice.
Free to imagine anything into being– that’s how I want to be. I smell stories. I’m riding on rivers of memories that need to be let out in the form of characters or memoir chapters or movies with songs, or crayons and paints and pastel pencils.
There’s a rainbow of these memories coming through me, and I’m drenched with the bracing water I’ve broken into.