Tag Archives: childhood

Home Is Where The Nose Is

“I wanted to tap my heels together three times in that bakery!” the woman said as she sat down beside me for the flight back home to Virginia.

I glanced at her feet expecting ruby slippers.

“Smell this.” she leaned towards me and opened a paper sack containing several blackberry pastries. “I loved France but the smell of blackberries made me miss childhood summers at home!”

“Well, there’s no place like it!” I added.

I was fortunate to do some traveling over the last year and found myself captivated by the beauty and history of various cities in Colombia, Spain, and France. Every day, in every city I visited, I’d daydream about what life might be like to leave the place I’ve always called home and live abroad in such majestic locales. I doubted that a hint of blackberries, or anything else for that matter, could cause me to pine for home the way this woman seemed to. Just because she smelled a pastry? I wasn’t so sure about that one.

However, while waiting for our flight to depart Paris we continued discussing the strange power some scents have to unlock fond memories of people or places and to sometimes make us homesick. She insisted that the mere hint of blackberry instantly transported her back to summers as a little girl. She stopped reminiscing as the plane took off but I continued thinking about the power of scents. I admit that a remembered smell is like a souvenir from the past, but how silly this woman’s sudden urge to tap her heels three times to be home – because of a smell!

Born in and spending most of my life in Richmond, I then realized, had given me many scents to fondly associate with those years. During countless youthful Saturdays along or in the James River I remember its water’s pungent dank aroma in summer and how it took on a crisper essence whenever rainfall upriver came barreling through. Cookies baking at the FFV off of Broad Street made my mouth water almost as much as a whiff of sugary sinfulness when passing by Krispy Kreme. Closer to home, the call from fresh slices of our garden’s first cantaloupe would lure me into Mama’s kitchen. To this day, the aroma of butter beans cooking makes me homesick I confess. Maybe I have wanted to tap my heels a time or two after all.

For decades now, summer trips to my uncle Tuck’s cottage in Lancaster County where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay have provided many a memorable sniff. Saltwater marshes with their fishy odors make me recall the childish excitement of simply nearing the bay. Even the acrid sulfur stench of the paper mill in West Point has the power to remind me of long gone summers. In the air is a bracing spice given off by layers of decaying pine tags along the shaded sandy road approaching the cottage and entering the cottage itself I experience a rich potpourri of aged wood, salt air, and a suggestion Old Bay. Every one of those aromas has the power to take me back in time.

Another uncle, Jiggs, owned a farm in Lunenburg County where I also spent many summer weekends. The musty old wood of a barn is comforting to me and hundreds of bales of fresh hay emit a tangy sweet bouquet. Summer sun beating on a field of dry alfalfa causes it to release its zesty aroma and sometimes I think pure country air itself is invigorating perfection. Just after a summer rain, I know that it is. The fragrant perfume of honeysuckle on the fencerow, the peppery redolence of old tobacco barns, the faint sweetness of cornfields in the morning, and the lightly pungent pile of composted cow manure behind the barn all make me smile when remembered. Even today I can brush by a tomato plant and have the sharp scent from the crushed stem take me right back to the country. The more I thought about it, tapping my heels didn’t seem too silly anymore.

It was back to reality when I heard the pilot announce our landing. The woman beside me held up her bag of blackberry pastries and smiled. Once on the ground I gathered my things and made the slow walk up the aisle to the exit. As I neared the door a gust of wind from outside blew into the plane. Wow, I thought. There really is a sweet Virginia breeze. In that small burst of summer air I smelled trees, blooming trees of some kind, and remembered the pasture at home.

I’ve enjoyed my world travels and hope there are more in store. Surely my daydreaming of life abroad will continue with each trip, but as I walked from the plane that day I inhaled deeply and fought the urge to tap my heels.

Ahhh, I had just smelled Virginia and there really is no place like home.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Get Dirty

I’m going to be dirty today.

As a kid, Mama often met me on the back stoop as I came in from playing outside. With a broom in her hand she’d have me slowly turn in a circle while she brushed dirt from my blue jeans. She wasn’t against sweeping my bare legs either if I happened to be wearing shorts.

“Don’t bring that mess in this house.” She’d say. “Did you plan to get dirty?”

Well no. I hadn’t planned to. I was a kid. There was dirt. We met and fell in love. The end.

I remembered that this morning as I thought about where to plant some things in the yard. I still love dirt. Not potting soil in shiny garden-center bags. I don’t care for the sterile smell of plastic and perlite. I love real dirt. Earth.

One of the finest smells of spring is that first whiff of good clean soil. Sealed in by frigid winter, spring unlocks the distinct scents I first noticed as a kid. Dirt in our garden had a plain chalky smell, dirt in the yard had a more sour smell, and digging in the woods provided pungent aromas too delightful to describe.

Dirt smells good.

Dirt feels good too.

The powdery dirt in the garden stuck to our sweat when we worked the long rows and red clay in the yard felt almost oily as it clung to our fingers and hands. The different soils in the woods provided a variety of textures from mushy sludge along the creek to sandy light mix up on the hill.

As a kid who spent almost every day outside, I knew my dirt. Mama ended up sweeping off quite a lot from my pants before allowing me into the house. She didn’t sweep off just dirt, she swept off ground-in goodness and muddy proof of the fun I’d had that day. I didn’t plan to get dirty, it was just good luck.

Excited to get into the yard this morning, I remembered the happiness that digging, feeling, and smelling good old dirt can bring about. Coming home with blue jeans caked in mud for Mama to sweep off was never my goal. I’d had great fun in the dirt and the muddy jeans were just a byproduct of my good time. I never planned to get dirty.

Today I’ll put on blue jeans to dig in the yard and plant a few things. Along the way I’ll wipe my hands on my pants, feel the gritty soil stick to my skin, and marvel at how sweet the earth can smell when you stir it up a little.

Today I plan to get dirty.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Baby Doll

My four year old daughter, Greer, resisted a bit when I told her bath time was over. After I’d scrubbed dirt from her that only a four year old could accumulate, she quietly played with her bath toys. For a good twenty minutes she casually poured water from a plastic toy telephone into a pink Barbie car, back and forth, until I urged her again to get out of the tub.

“Come on Baby Doll.” I said, using the nickname I’d given her the day we brought her home from the hospital.

I helped her from the tub and draped her with a towel warm from the dryer. That was something I began doing for her and my son Evan when I noticed their tiny teeth chattered the instant they stepped from the warm bath water. She hugged the warm towel and pulled it over her head as she spoke, mispronouncing her thanks as only a four year old comically could.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

That was almost fifteen years ago.

During most of those years I continued to call her “Baby Doll”. I slowed up some when she became a teenager and the dramatic rolling of her eyes indicated she preferred to be called by her real name. At least in front of her friends.

As years passed I’d often recount the bath tub story and how she’d thanked me for the towel. She had no memory of that but thought it funny. “Tattoo Daddy” became her thanks to me again for a few years as our own inside joke. In recent years, however, both “Tattoo Daddy” and “Baby Doll” slowly faded away.

Greer is eighteen now. She drives her own car, the pink Barbie car from the bath tub a relic of the past and recently she called me on her iPhone, which has replaced her long gone plastic toy telephone. She called to talk about paperwork she needed for college admission and during the course of that conversation we also discussed how time has flown by so quickly.

That tiny baby girl we brought home from the hospital is now about to embark on a very big milestone in her life. I used to laugh at other parents when they became emotional about their children going to college. How silly, I thought.

It’s not silly.

We didn’t bring up the bath tub story, but Greer and I reminisced about a lot of things during that one phone call. I was impressed with her maturity, happy she remembered fun childhood moments, and surprised by the emotion in her voice.

Focusing back to the business of college paperwork I told her not to worry. Even though I was in denial that my tiny baby girl was about to set off into the real world, I would certainly get everything back to her as soon as I could. She probably heard the emotion in my voice as I told her I would do anything she needed. There was a momentary pause on the line.

I couldn’t see her face but I could tell her lips were quivering.

“Tattoo Daddy.”

“You’re welcome Baby Doll.” I admit I choked back tears in the sweetness of the moment.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Small Green Marble

A massive purse sat propped open in her lap as I approached. From the seat beside her she moved a small pack of tissues, two pens, and a broken pencil to make room for me. I took my seat and gasped as something jabbed me in the left buttock.

“I think you forgot this.” I said, handing her the bristled end of a broken hair brush.

“Sorry!” she shook her head apologetically. “I wanted to clean out this old purse on the ride to work and I have thrown things everywhere.”

The bus continued its route while she continued her cleaning. She shuffled through hand-written notes, balled up scraps of paper, and checked and rechecked zippered compartments in the giant purse.

“Well look at this.” she said as she held up a small green marble. “I found it in the yard one day when I left the house and forgot I’d put it in here. My son is grown but he had a set of green marbles he played with all the time. I’m sure it was one of his.”

“You should hold on to it then.” I said. She stared at the marble she held in the air.

“I’m too sentimental as it is.” she said and handed me the marble. “Here, if someone says you’ve lost your marbles, now you have proof you haven’t!” We both laughed and I took the small green marble she pressed into my hand.

“It’s crazy to hold on to it just because it reminds me that my son was a tiny boy.” she stared through the bus window.

“Not really.” I said. “I have boxes of things like that marble”.

She turned around and tossed the last few items back into her purse that had been scattered in her seat as we’d talked. She looked at me expecting, I assumed, to hear what I had in the boxes I’d mentioned.

“You wouldn’t keep something as silly as a marble, would you?” she asked.

“Ohhh yes.” I said as I thought of my sentimental trinkets. “From the time I was a kid I’ve kept a puppy tooth our collie lost, a feather from a quail I hatched in an incubator, and a heart-shaped rock I found in the pasture.”

“I just might keep those too.” she smiled out of courtesy.

On a roll, I continued. “I have the cracker tin my grandmother used in her kitchen, a tiny basket my son carved from a peach pit, and a pocket knife my uncle gave me for helping him one day.”

“I just might keep those too!” she smiled again and seemed to give thought to the relevance of everyday trinkets.

I told her more about various items I have in boxes and drawers, any one of which could look like meaningless trash to others. To me, each has a story.

Who could know the number of times my grandmother’s caring hands opened the cracker tin? The sharp little puppy tooth is a reminder of my collie’s first year as my best friend. The peach pit basket was carved by my son with the help of my father who passed away just over a year ago.

Every tiny silly trinket I keep is accompanied by a wonderful story. All I need to do is pick one up to go back in time for a minute or two. Good reminders of great times. At the mention of each of my keepsakes the woman beside me agreed she just might keep that one too.

I felt I’d bored her with too much nostalgia when I saw her turn away and stare straight ahead. She had a slight smile on her face, though, when she turned to me and pointed at my coat.

One step ahead of her, I had already reached for the small green marble in my pocket. I pressed it into her hand.

“I just might keep that.” she said.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Dumb Little Dish

That dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

With temperatures dropping, I took plants in from the porch. The dumb little dish covered in dirt and crusty old plant fertilizer had been under a Christmas cactus to catch water.

It was an ugly saucer actually. The last remaining piece of an ugly partial set of hand-me-down dishes given to me twelve years ago when I moved into a new place and had nothing for the kitchen. Each plate, saucer, and cup had a nonsense design of white geese, blue ribbons, and an occasional flower, or maybe the thing was a butterfly. It wasn’t good china…

Over the years, pieces broke and were thrown away. I began to use the last few saucers as trays under my paltry collection of houseplants. Time had whittled the set down to this one lone dish. With new plastic trays to catch water from the plants, the dumb little dish meant nothing to me, so I threw it in the trash.

It had two big chips in it anyway. One chip happened when my son Evan, only four at the time, turned it upside down to use as a ramp for his MatchBox cars. The second chip happened when Greer, only six then, decided it would make a nice boat for her Barbie. In a stormy capsizing incident, the boat was chipped. A few chips but so what, we still used the dishes. They were all I had at the time.

In the summer we’d sit on the screened porch and I’d cut slices of hot dog on those dishes for Evan. I’d watch his little tan hands pick up one piece at a time and smile as he popped each into his mouth. Greer would ask for two helpings of macaroni and cheese on those dishes and being the fickle little girl she was, decide she wanted none after all.

Evan continued to use a dish or two as car ramps, flying saucers, or to hold his crayons as he colored. Greer’s Barbie often used the dishes as wading pools, boats, or stages from which to sing to imaginary audiences. One Christmas Greer and Evan got watercolor paint sets from Santa Claus. Every remaining dish in the decrepit set was called on to be used for mixing paint. We had a grand time!

Those dishes held soups and sandwiches, marbles and doll shoes, eggs and bacon, army men and princess stickers. That ragged old set of dishes was there every evening at the dinner table, every lunch on the porch, and every time one of the kids needed a spaceship or a place to save rocks they’d found.

The dumb little dish that meant nothing and that I’d thrown in the trash was the last remaining piece from those days. It had somehow survived Matchbox cars, Barbies, watercolor paints, and a myriad of dinners and childhood activities. Twelve years, two chips, and a thousand memories later, it was still here.

That dumb little dish meant everything to me, so I took it out of the trash.

Stuart M. Perkins

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A Load of Fun

It was still cold the day I noticed that in spite of an unyielding winter determined to wear out its welcome, the local hardware store had taken a leap of faith by filling its storefront and walkway with a grand display of all things summer. I saw birdbaths, a gleaming row of new lawnmowers, and a stack of wading pools depicting smiling cartoon elephants spraying water on laughing cartoon hippos. Closest to the sidewalk was a row of huge, bright red wheelbarrows with glossy black wheels, price tags swinging in the still chilly breeze.

As I hurried past the hopeful display and on to the grocery store one building over, I passed a small boy waiting for his father who was busy admiring an array of shiny new grills. The father turned to catch up to his son who had stopped at the row of red wheelbarrows. With both of his little hands gripping the side of one wheelbarrow, the boy stood on his tiptoes to peer over the edge.

“It’s a toy?” he asked into the empty wheelbarrow.

“No.” the father said as he took the boy’s hand to lead him into the hardware store. “You only use that for work.”

“It’s a toy.” the boy said with conviction.

“No, it’s not.” the father repeated. “It’s only for work.”

“No, it’s not.” I thought to myself. “It’s not only for work.”

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my grandmother, Nannie, helping me and a cousin into her wheelbarrow for a ride. She pushed us to the pear trees in the pasture where we helped her pick up fallen fruit. Riding back to her farmhouse in a pile of pears, we held on to the sides of the wheelbarrow during the bumpy ride and pretended we were on a boat. That was no wheelbarrow only for work. It was a toy.

As older kids, cousins and I took turns pushing each other in the random wheelbarrow that always leaned against Nannie’s barn, maybe the chicken house, or sometimes left under a tree. If lucky, we came across two wheelbarrows and races began. Those wheelbarrows were not only for work. They were cars or planes or motorcycles. They were toys.

My aunt Noody once gave me and my cousins a package of little plastic sailboats. Having nowhere to float them, we soon lost interest until Noody suddenly appeared with her old wheelbarrow. As we watched, puzzled, Noody unrolled her garden hose and filled the wheelbarrow with water. Instant lake! Her old wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

Years passed and when my own two kids were small I spent as much time behind the wheelbarrow as I ever had inside the wheelbarrow. I pushed first one, then the other, but usually both at the same time. The wheelbarrow became a train, a rocket, and once it was a dinosaur they rode. The wheelbarrow was not only for work. It was a toy.

I was still thinking about these examples as I left the grocery store and headed back towards the summer display next door. As timing would have it, the little boy and his father were leaving the hardware store when I approached. As the father walked on ahead, the little boy lagged behind just a bit when he got to the wheelbarrow display. Once again, he gripped the side of a huge red wheelbarrow and craned his neck to peer over the edge.

The little boy looked up and grinned at me as I neared him. His little hands never let loose their grip on the edge, but one tiny finger rose up and pointed down into the wheelbarrow.

“It’s a toy?” he asked as I walked closer.

I leaned down just a bit as I reached where he stood.

“Yes, it’s a toy.” I said grinning as I walked past.

Stuart M. Perkins

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The “Fencident”

If you take a left out of my parents’ driveway you come to an intersection. Look across the intersection and you’ll see a house with a chain link fence along its driveway. Look again and you’ll notice that the end fence post is slightly askew and the chain link is buckled. It’s been that way for thirty-five years.

And I know, because I did it.

There is rarely a time when I leave my parents’ house that I don’t glance at the bent fence and think back to my first year of driving. I’d never told anyone about the fence until recently when my teenage kids were with me as we stopped at the intersection. Somehow, the off-kilter fence post caught my son’s eye.

“What happened to the fence?” he asked, unaware that was a question I feared for a very long time after I caused the damage.

Unfortunately, there have been many times in life when I haven’t been as honest or as forthcoming as I should have been. In the case of the bent fence, however, I’d had an occasion of truthful glory. Remembering what I’d read about “teachable moments” I decided to confess the story to my kids, hoping to teach them something about the value of honesty.

“What happened to the fence?” my son repeated.

“I did it.” I said.

Both kids gave me their full attention as I crossed the intersection and passed the scene of the long ago incident. Almost in slow motion, they looked from the fence then back to me as I began to explain.

I was sixteen at the time and hadn’t been driving long. A friend was visiting and I decided to drive us down to the service station for a Slim Jim and a Yoohoo, I guess because they’re such a delicious combination. The car my sisters and I shared at the time was a 1963 Mercury Comet, affectionately known around home as “The Vomit”. It was an ugly beast with tail fins akin to those of the Batmobile.

As I stopped at the intersection with my friend I realized I’d forgotten my money. I crossed the intersection to turn around at the house with the the chain link fence and return home for cash. Eager to show off my driving skills, I backed into the driveway. It went well until one of the jutting tail fins snagged the chain link. I heard a slight screeching sound as the fence bent and the post shifted. I began to sweat.

“Go! Just go!” my friend insisted as he looked around for anyone who might have seen us.

I considered just going, but couldn’t.

My hands shook as I put the car in park and told my friend I’d be right back. My nervous knees nearly buckled as I walked from the car up the sidewalk and to the front door of the house. It took several tries to convince my finger to push the doorbell. I pushed it and waited for the worst. I felt my lips quiver and assumed I wouldn’t be able to speak when the man opened the door. Surely I’d have to start over several times before being able to tell him what I had done. “What happened to the fence?” he’d ask, unable to understand the stuttering I was sure to do.

As I waited for an eternity for the door to open, I also imagined how it would be when I had to tell my parents. “What happened to the fence?” they would ask, forcing me to repeat to them the awful incident. Luckily, when I imagined telling them, I hadn’t yet had my Slurpee so the urge to wet my pants went unfulfilled.

I heard the front door being unlocked and the doorknob turning. An old man stared at me through the storm door as he then unlocked that too, and opened it partially. He stared at me.

“I messed up your fence, sir.” I croaked to him. I waited for him to curse, demand to talk to my father, or tell me to wait while he called the police. He just stared at me.

“I backed in and accidentally hit the end of it.” I said, turning to point to the fence with my shaking hand.

His expression never changed as he said very calmly, “I know. I saw you do it.”

He went on to say he was watching television in his den when he saw me back in and hit his fence. I hadn’t realized that living so close to my parents he’d seen that unmistakable car a thousand times, he’d known my father and extended family for years, and he’d seen me driving the car a few times before.

“I saw you do it but you came and told me.” he continued. “If you’d driven off I would have known who to call, but you came and told me you did it. So don’t worry about it.”

“What?” I asked, not understanding. He never raised his voice, no cursing, no calling the police, and no calling my father.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s between me and you.” he said as he shut the door. I heard the lock turn and his footsteps fade away as I stood there with sweat on my upper lip. I told the truth and the old man had respected that.

My kids listened as I wrapped up my teachable moment. I told them that although I had been scared to death of whatever punishment might come my way, I had done the right thing by being honest with the old man. In return for my honesty, he forgave the whole thing. Had I not been honest, things would have turned out very differently for me.

“So you never told Mamaw and Big Daddy?” the kids asked.

Many times I thought about telling my parents. I always wondered if the old man would eventually tell them. For a while I was certain one of my parents would approach me, having learned what I’d done and ask, “What happened to the fence?” I’d started many times to tell them but each time I could only get a few words out before I began to sweat. “Nevermind.” I’d say. “I’ll tell you later.” The old man passed away long ago and two families have lived there since. The chain link fence, rusty now, still remains.

Feeling empowered by the teachable moment, I told the kids that as soon as we got back to my parents I would tell them all about the little accident that happened over thirty years ago now. Being ancient history at this point it would make a funny story. What could be the big deal?

Hours later as we sat around my parents’ living room the kids looked at me and grinned. “Hey, don’t you have something to tell about a fence?” they asked, very loudly.

I took a deep breath and asked my mother if she remembered way back when an old man lived in the house across the intersection, the one with the chain link fence. She nodded yes. I tried to keep talking but I got tongue-tied and suddenly felt a little warm. I stopped talking.

“Well, what happened to the fence?” she asked.

I felt even warmer.

Daddy entered the room and caught part of the conversation. “What happened to what fence?” he asked.

I broke a sweat.

“Nevermind.” I said. “I’ll tell you later.”

After all, the old man did say to forget about it. It was between me and him – and now my kids, for the sake of a teachable moment.

I did finally tell my parents about the “fencident”, the code word my friend and I used for that day now thirty-five years ago. They grinned as I told them, they had never learned of it from the old man, and the passage of so much time made the whole event seem pretty irrelevant to them. To me though, it has remained relevant. Being human, I’ve sometimes failed to apply what I learned. Then again, there have been many times when that lesson has served me well.

Stuart M. Perkins

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