Right now the air is heady with the scent of early summer. Roses? Orange blossoms? Strange late spring concoctions? Who can really say. But the waft is distinct and hits me like a soft, warm wall on my bike ride home each evening. This is summer! The feel of grass. The smell of rain on hot payment. How could I forget it?
Smells are odd -- we have no convenient syntax for recording them. Yet they're wired right to our brains' memory centers. Each smell, while temporarily forgotten, is immediate and transporting when remembered. The smell of summer brings on sweet nostalgia for me. Even a cigarette hanging in the evening rain reminds me of my grandmother.
I made scones and clotted cream for my grandmother's wake. I used to go over to her house with my dad and have orange pekoe tea and cookies. She was northern irish, but always carried herself like a proper english lady - at least by my understanding of those islands' cultural denominations. So when she died, a proper afternoon tea seemed the right way to toast her off into the unknown. I broke out my red and gold covered anniversary copy of the Fanny Farmer cookbook and set to work. We had tea, scones and clotted cream. I was 21 when she died from lung cancer.
When I was a teenager, my love for British high tea was strong. At every opportunity, I would get my mom to take me to tea and I would marvel at the towers of delicacies before me. The tiny sandwiches were not much interest back then -- too exotic combinations for my picky, controlling palate. I was in this for the scones. With clotted cream. With raspberry jam. And in Hong Kong, replete with British history, with rose petal jam.
I was 16, traveling with my parents on a business trip, and I'd never been to Asia before. Hong Kong has a strong British influence, so it wasn't surprising to find afternoon tea. The rose petal jam, however, was a revelation. It tasted like a smell and set strong memories of the trip. The few times I went back to Hong Kong, I would go and buy a jar of that jam, and bring it home like a lost treasure. For the next month, I'd feast on the flavor, conjuring up old memories.
One afternoon, a few weeks ago, I passed a corner house with an overflowing, pink rose bush out front. Less than a block away from my home, it's a part of town that feels more rural than urban. The houses lean together, the flowers grow taller, there are more alleys than roads. And unless you know about it, you don't go there -- by car or on foot. This little strip of land lies between my house and the best coffee shop in Cambridge, so I trespass on this small community frequently. It's a lovely short cut. You can walk straight down the road without having to worry for cars. And it's shady there.
An older lady was outside this house, tending to the bush, so I told her how much I loved her roses. She thanked me and proclaimed that she had forgotten to trim them last year so they were all a bit overflowing. She went on to recount the story of an old man -- a truly old man, she clarified -- and how he had tended roses. The lady was old enough to be my grandmother, but she didn't assert the role. Instead she carried herself like a young woman trapped inside an older lady's body, as if she had missed the last 60 years. She had life, youth, whimsy and roses.
We all feel this way -- surprised by our age. Caught off guard. Where has the time gone? But when the wind whips you summer scents, drawing out memories involuntarily, you reflect. You haven't smelled the rain on hot payment in a while. Or the smell of orange blossoms. Another year has passed. You are another year older.
When I passed by her house a week later, the older lady had placed a hand written note on the back of some old cardboard. "Feel free to take some flowers. Just please, use the scissors so you don't harm the bush." Free, sweet roses for the taking. Scissors provided. I was overjoyed.
When I got the first one home, the smell was intoxicating. And back it transported me, to being 16 and seeing Hong Kong for the first time. To eating afternoon tea with my mom. To afternoons with tea at my grandmothers. So back I went, to get three more roses. After hunting down a recipe for rose petal jam, I was off. The smell of the cooking petals was heady. The taste was strong and immediate -- the taste of memories.
Let's pass this year like that lovely lady -- with generosity, openness, youth. And a willingness to share our blessings with complete strangers. Go borrow some roses from a neighbor and make yourself some memory-building rose petal jam. You can pay your neighbor back with a jar. And when you taste the jam again in 5 or 10 years, memories will flow, and you'll reflect that time has passed. But you'll know you've savored it. You made time to stop and taste the roses.