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1. magic marker

“No, no, no!”

That tone of reprimand rang a bell for some reason. Behind me in the check-out line, a young mother wrestled something from her toddler’s tight grip.

“No, no, no!” she repeated. The little boy had grabbed a ball point pen from a display rack near the cash register. Having swiftly removed the cap, he was about to demonstrate his unique brand of artwork across a stack of Washington Posts. He clenched his little fist when his mother tried to take the pen. What child doesn’t like to draw?

I drew constantly as a child. Pens and pencils were my implements of choice and when I could sneak it away I’d use my oldest sister’s fountain pen until it emptied. She always wondered why her ink ran out so quickly and unless she reads this it will remain a decades-old secret. Of course I had a box of Crayola crayons, 64 count with a built-in sharpener. I lived large. One thing I’d never used, but craved greatly, was a magic marker. I didn’t have one, but Mama did.

I’d seen her use it once then toss it into something in the back of the high cabinet above the stove. I was too short then to know the secrets of that cabinet, but one day as Mama backed out of the driveway to go to the grocery store I seized the opportunity to learn. Although home alone, I quietly slid a kitchen chair to the stove, quietly climbed up, and quietly eased open the cabinet door. I saw spices, aspirin, glue, rubber bands, and a deck of playing cards. That was it. Disappointed, I started to close the cabinet, but that’s when I saw it. There, from inside an old coffee mug, wedged between broken pencils and a pair of scissors, it called to me. A black magic marker!

Quietly I reached in and quietly I plucked the marker from the mug. Just as quietly I removed the cap, catching a whiff of that distinct and what I considered beautiful aroma. In slow motion I turned to hop from the chair. I’d been quiet and I’d be quiet as I drew with this marvelous thing. I’d return it to the mug when done and no one would know. Nothing and no one could be as quiet as me and that marker. Except Mama.

“No, no, no!” Mama said, coming in the back door with an armload of groceries.

“You can’t use that. It’ll get everywhere and it will never wash off.” she continued.

Even when I drew with generic pens, pencils, and crayons Mama made it clear I was to sit at the kitchen table, draw only on the paper, and never get near the walls. No surprise that the notion of me with a magic marker made her a bit nervous. I handed Mama the marker, she returned it to the coffee mug, and I headed to my sister’s room to take out my disappointment on the fountain pen.

With Christmas right around the corner at that point, my sisters and I started making our lists for Santa Claus. I noticed that their extensive lists included things like dolls, dresses, games, and make up. I had written down only one thing.

  1. magic marker

Oh, everyone laughed but to me it was serious. I had to know what it was like to draw with a magic marker. Pens and pencils were great, crayons were fun, and fountain pens were nice while the ink lasted, but I had to have a magic marker!

Christmas morning came and in my spot near the tree was the mountain of gifts Santa Claus generously left every year. As my sisters hugged new dolls and compared games and make up, I marveled at my remote control helicopter and a book on dinosaurs. To the left of a new pair of slippers was a small, plain box. There were no words or pictures to provide a clue, but as I lifted the lid the distinct and beautiful aroma gave it away. A brand new magic marker.

Merry Christmas to me!

I stood in a rush. I had to draw immediately! I ran to the kitchen table where I knew it was safe, grabbed my drawing pad and sat down. Mama, on my heels the entire time, pulled me and the entire kitchen table three feet from the wall. She instantly spread a layer of newspaper beneath my drawing pad, handed me several wet paper towels, and reminded me that magic marker ink would never wash off. Daddy stood by calmly, grinning at Mama’s panic. I think I know which half of Santa Claus was behind that particular gift. I happily drew as the distinct and beautiful aroma filled the kitchen.

For a kid who finally got his magic marker, it really was the most wonderful time of the year.

And Mama was incorrect. Magic marker ink will come off, it just takes rubbing alcohol and three good days. When she wasn’t looking that Christmas morning I’d scribbled a test patch across my knee.

Stuart M. Perkins

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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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One Man’s Trash

“Naw, let’s just leave it there for now.” Mama said over her shoulder as she washed a plate and arranged it with others in the rack.

I didn’t ask why I couldn’t have it, I just dropped the rusty key back into the drawer and watched it disappear between a crushed matchbook and a small ball of frayed string.

When I was little the drawer by the refrigerator was a mystery. The clanking sounds made as Mama or Daddy dug through it and the strange faces they made when they picked up one item or another, stared and tossed it back, were intriguing. Finally tall enough to open it myself, I’d spent a few minutes running my hand through the odd assortment of things in the drawer. If Mama wouldn’t let me have the rusty key I didn’t dare ask about the torn Queen of Hearts playing card, the bent thumb tack, or the random assortment of colored bread ties. They must really be valuable.

A few years passed before I opened the drawer again. Although it was directly beside the refrigerator, which I opened often, the drawer usually faded into the cabinet. It caught my eye that day so I pulled it open. Taller now, I could see and reach even further into its mysterious depths. I fished out a cracked cigarette lighter with half an old crayon stuck to its side, the words “Burnt Umber” still visible on the crayon’s fragile paper. To the left, tucked behind the microwave’s yellowing owner’s manual, was an old pair of broken sunglasses. With a questioning look I held them in the air to show Mama as she came back from the store with a bag of groceries.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” She maneuvered around me to put milk in the refrigerator.

I looked in the drawer several times over the years, at first to ease my curiosity but later to laugh and wonder how the useless random items spent decades in that sliding time capsule without being thrown away. In my spot checks of the drawer I never saw anything missing and rarely saw anything added other than a few questionable AAA batteries, an occasional dry rotted rubber band, and the cracked cap of a long-gone ballpoint pen.

I vowed never to have a drawer like that in my house.

Years later in my own home I hung pictures one afternoon. When done, rather than take the hammer back to the basement, I lazily dropped it into the drawer by my refrigerator. I giggled to myself when I saw familiar bread ties and an old shoelace already taking up space there. Some time later I lost the key to a small luggage lock. Thinking I’d eventually find it I put the little lock into the drawer for safe keeping. When my daughter’s doll lost a hand I put it in the drawer along with the tiny tire from one of my son’s toy cars. I knew they’d be safe there with the broken pencil sharpener and a feather.

As my kids grew older and taller they discovered my drawer. They caught me off guard the day they asked to play with a broken wristwatch they dug from its contents.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.” I heard myself say.

I was always puzzled by my parents’ junk drawer. I was even more puzzled by my own. Why do we keep odd bits of trash? I had locks with no keys, keys to no locks, and I actually struggled one day before throwing away a peppermint I found stuck in the drawer’s back corner behind a broken shoehorn.

My kids are older teenagers now. Will they also collect little drawers of debris when they start homes of their own?  That very thought crossed my mind last year during my daughter’s high school graduation weekend. While she went out with friends, my son and I sat in his room happily chatting about nothing. As he reached into his closet for a guitar, a non-descript little tin can rolled out into the room. Thinking it trash, I picked it up and walked towards the door. He stared at me for a second then nodded back towards the closet as he spoke.

“Naw, let’s just leave it in there for now.”

Stuart M.Perkins

 

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Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama

With Father’s Day coming up this Sunday I’d like to acknowledge the obvious individual…Mama.

She still laughs remembering Daddy’s funny stories. He artfully told his silly tales and endless supply of jokes to keep everyone entertained. Daddy could be truly funny and Mama was the first to laugh. After sixty years of marriage there’s no doubt she’d heard his material several times over but Daddy loved to see people laugh and Mama wouldn’t have him disappointed. She loved him and laughed hard at his jokes, chastised his colorful language, and coyly prompted him to repeat her favorites. Daddy enjoyed making others laugh and Mama happily served as the perfect straight man even if she occasionally found herself the brunt of his playful banter.

An aunt grinned and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy’s vegetable garden was perfection. His weedless rows were straight, well-watered, and produced profusely. He playfully bragged about having the first tomato, prettiest butter beans, or biggest peppers. Mama joined Daddy in the garden every morning to sweat alongside him ensuring enough was grown not just for her to freeze and can, but for Daddy to have some to give to others, which was a great source of joy for him. Daddy was proud of his garden. Mama, knowing what it meant to him, faithfully assisted. Ice tinkled in Daddy’s water glass as he rested in the shade and jokingly scolded Mama for missing a squash. She wiped sweat from her face and went back to pick it, playfully cutting her eyes at him.

A neighbor visiting at the time smiled and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Daddy didn’t buy a lot but what he bought was top rate and built to last. When Mama needed a new washer it was a great one. A new dryer? Nothing but the finest. If Mama needed this or that then Daddy bought her the best. One Christmas he surprised her with a brand new car. The perfectionist in Daddy compelled him to give advice so Mama was reminded to keep the car full of gas, to let him know if it ever sounded odd, acted odd, or gave her trouble. She patiently allowed him to finish knowing it was how he showed he cared. She grinned and slightly rolled her eyes a bit when he was done. He grinned back.

My sisters and I watched their comical interaction and asked Mama, “How in the world do you live with him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

In all that Daddy did, and he did a lot, Mama was there to back him up. Daddy was a perfectionist but giving, rigid but generous, and a serious provider who enjoyed nothing more than a sense of humor. He and Mama were together for sixty years, raised four kids, and saw grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were a powerful pair when they needed to be, a comedy duo when the occasion arose, and always surrounded by family and friends. Daddy was unique and Mama supported that uniqueness. It dawned on me over the years that Daddy was free to be Daddy because Mama was Mama.

Daddy died almost two years ago now. His vegetable garden is no more, fewer friends stop by Mama’s for impromptu visits, and though we still laugh it’s not with the frequency or intensity it was when constantly bombard by Daddy’s zany tales. We all miss him, but Mama surely misses him the most. Friends and family do still visit Mama and inevitably they talk about Daddy and his garden, his jokes, and all he did for Mama.

One visiting friend recently asked Mama, “How in the world do you live without him?”

“It ain’t easy.” Mama answered, shaking her head.

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy… and Mama.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Hi Ben

During my walk through the cemetery this afternoon I noticed rabbits tucked here and there, watched countless squirrels skitter across gravestones, and heard two blue jays bicker with a crow as it picked something from an old paper bag. Acres in size, this cemetery is full of wildlife from backyard birds to a family of foxes living in a back corner where brush is piled. Once I walk into the cemetery all traffic noises are gone, no sirens blare, and I forget I’m only four miles from downtown D.C. Watching a pair of cardinals in the shrubs by the gate, I sat down at a bench beside one of the gravestones.

I knew from other walks in the cemetery that if I sat on this bench long enough, the family of chipmunks living under the granite base of the tombstone next to it would soon get the nerve to come out. I’m not sure how many live below since there is a constant flow out of the hole, in the hole, back out, two of them now, no wait three, all gone, no here they come again. Once I had four in sight as they scrambled over each other like kittens, paused, then dashed back under the granite, tails in the air. All of these animals today reminded me of the many, many times as a kid that we took in abandoned animals brought to us by well-meaning people.

Our house was always full of animals. Not just the cats and dogs we had, but baby birds, baby rabbits, and even a lizard with three legs someone brought in case we could help it. I currently live in a third floor condo so a pet of any kind is almost out of the question, but something as simple as an afternoon watching rabbits, foxes, and chipmunks can sometimes fill the void.

As a chipmunk bounded from the hole and headed towards a crepe myrtle, a plump robin landed beside me on the back of the bench. I instantly thought of Ben, the name Mama gave to a baby robin someone brought to our house years ago. Mama was usually pretty exasperated by the number of animals I kept, but for some reason she took over caring for Ben the instant he showed up in the bottom of a shoe box. He was just a chunky, fuzzy blob the day he arrived, but in no time Mama had him fat and feathered.

We had a huge screened porch where Mama kept Ben, so he was able to fly as he grew. Ben was satisfied to stay on the screened porch and land on the arms of neighbors who came to visit. People would always ask Mama, “Doesn’t he go to the bathroom on you?”

“Ben would never do that.” Mama always said.

As weeks passed and summer went by, Ben became an adult and began acting interested in other robins in the yard. Mama worried about it, but not wanting to hold him back, she decided she would let him go out to see what he would do.

He flew away.

In an hour he was back. Mama tapped on a can, something she’d done each time she’d fed him, and he flew back to the screened porch. He spent the night there but the next day the pattern repeated: Free to fly in the yard all day, sit on the gutter over the back door which was now favorite spot, then back to the screened porch at night. After a few days of this, Ben no longer returned to the screened porch at night but still spent a lot of time on the gutter over the back door.

“He’s going to sit up there and go to the bathroom on you.” Daddy would say to Mama as he laughed.

“Ben would never do that.” she maintained.

Mama would tap on the can, Ben would fly from the gutter to the porch railing to be fed, then off to the yard somewhere to socialize with his own kind. This new pattern continued for a few more days then we stopped seeing Ben waiting on the gutter. As weeks went by we saw the occasional robin on the gutter, or one in the yard that didn’t seem particularly afraid, but robins never really do. As fall and then winter came the robins disappeared and we wondered if Ben had adjusted well enough to leave with them. We hoped he could survive.

We thought about Ben often during the winter.  As spring came, the more robins that showed up the more we talked about him. One late spring morning I went outside to see a robin on the gutter above the back door. It didn’t fly away. I called Mama who hurried and started talking to the bird. It cocked its head at her but made no effort to move. She stepped inside, grabbed a can from the recycling bin, and came back. As she tapped the can the robin cocked its head again. When Mama tapped a second time, the robin flew down from the gutter to sit on the railing.

“Hi Ben.” Mama said. The robin sat still as she talked. “Hi Ben.” she said again. The robin cocked its head once more and actually hopped along the railing towards Mama. It sat still, staring at her. Then, in a flutter of wings it flew away over the pine trees and was gone. If it was Ben, we never saw him again that we know of. Mama still talks about Ben to this day.

As I sat on that bench in the cemetery remembering Ben and the many, many animals we took care of for short periods of time, I felt a little wistful. There’s a feeling we animal lovers get from having them around, the interaction, the bonding, and the comedy they can provide. There was a feeling of melancholy that came over me remembering Mama’s success with Ben and how I really do think that was him who came back for a visit the next spring.

Feeling full of nostalgia, I turned to the plump robin still sitting on the bench beside me.

“Hi Ben.” I said.

The robin cocked its head at me and just before flying off, it unceremoniously went to the bathroom down the back of the bench.

Ben would never have done that.

Stuart M. Perkins

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Scent of a Memory

When I finally moved away from my parents’ house I still lived only a few miles away. I moved occasionally over the years but never more than a twenty minute drive or so from their house and the place I grew up.  A couple of years ago when I decided to make a bigger move, Mama clutched her breast at the travesty of my moving so far away. “It’s only two hours from Richmond to D.C. It’s not a big deal”, I tried to console her. To her though, I may as well have been taking part in efforts to colonize the moon. She couldn’t hide her distress when she asked “But won’t you get homesick?” I had never lived far from home maybe, but I had traveled to other countries, for years I went on annual week-long beach trips with old friends, and I’d had countless weekends away over the years. Homesick? Silly Mama, that’s not something to worry about. I’d never felt that way in the past and couldn’t see why I ever would. I made the move and homesickness was never a thought.

Until I smelled a cantaloupe.

While growing up, summer days always saw a cantaloupe in Mama’s kitchen. A huge bowl in the refrigerator was always full of a recently sliced melon and another would be waiting in the wings. There could be one in the large kitchen windowsill, maybe one on the floor by the stove, and probably one on the counter sometimes cut in half just waiting for Mama to return to the task. The smell of cantaloupe was always in the kitchen. After hot days riding bikes with cousins or building forts down in the pasture I looked forward to that bowl of cold, sliced cantaloupe that I knew would be waiting.

I would simply walk into the kitchen and smell cantaloupe.

These days I ride a bus to work each morning. The only smells are those of exhaust from passing traffic and bus fumes from the 4A as it picks me up, takes me a few miles away, and drops me off at a Metro station where I catch an equally smelly shuttle to cross the Potomac into Georgetown. One morning as the shuttle neared the university and stopped at a light, the greasy smell of the vehicle combined with the odor from asphalt pavers working on a side street. It wasn’t the best way to start a morning. As we sat on the shuttle waiting for the light to change the woman next to me began to rifle through her tote bag. She momentarily opened a plastic container and the aroma hit me. She had cantaloupe.

I felt a strange feeling come over me and for a minute I closed my eyes, unsure whether it might be the acrid odors of exhaust and asphalt that were finally getting to me. No, that wasn’t it. I was homesick. The smell of the shuttle, exhaust, bus fumes and asphalt disappeared. Instead, the smell of those few small chunks of cantaloupe took me back to Mama’s kitchen, building forts in the pasture among the blackberry bushes, and lazy summer days riding bikes with my cousins.

I had smelled a cantaloupe.

Stuart M. Perkins

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