When I was little, my mother would sometimes bake cookies before I came home from school. I’d smell the chocolate and sugar and vanilla as I walked into the house, and when I saw my mother standing at the top of the stairs, I felt the love she had put into my afternoon snack.
If love has a scent, for me it is that.
For my older four children, I think the scent of love is the fabric softener sheets I put in the laundry. Sometimes I catch them inhaling deeply as I hand them a load of still-warm towels. “This smells so good, Mom,” they always say, and I smile and think that one day they will be adults and they will catch a whiff of fabric softener and they will remember my fingers brushing theirs as I handed them freshly washed laundry. Perhaps, too, they will remember the yeasty scent of home made bread. It is something we make together often, the kids and I. Many hands measuring and kneading and shaping. Many eyes pressed to the oven door as loaves rise and brown and send out the scent of comfort and patience and anticipation. One day they will bake their own loaves of homemade bread, and they will remember how my love carried them through childhood and adolesence and on into adulthood.
For my youngest daughter, the scent of love is much different.
We stood, you see, me and my little girl, on the curb just outside the grocery store. A car passed by, bathing us in a white cloud of exhaust. I wrinkled my nose at the stench. Disgusting. Filthy. Horrible. Those were the words I was thinking.
“That smells good, Mommy.” Cheeky said, her comment taking me by surprise.
“What?” I asked, knowing she couldn’t be talking about the horrible cloud of exhaust.
“I don’t know.” She responded, and she frowned, lifting her head and inhaling deeply. “It smells like Chongqing.”
And I saw a thousand memories in her face.
Just a few days later, we went for a walk. Me and the entire crew. We walked down our road toward the school and the library. The day felt like spring, and I am sure we all felt renewed. An old truck chugged up from behind us, its engine spitting out a thick gray cloud of pollution as it passed.
“Gross!” My four older kids cried, with various over-exaggerations of coughing and gagging.
“What?” Said Cheeky, her head tilted to the side as she breathed deeply. “It smells good.”
And she reached for my hand, squeezing tightly. “It smells like Chongqing.”
She didn’t say more, but I heard her unspoken words. Words that come from something deep inside my precious girl. Words that I know are there but that she cannot yet put her mind to. Exhaust is not just the smell of the packed and hectic city she was born in. It is not simply the memory of a place she once lived. For Cheeky, exhaust is like chocolate chip cookies and fabric softener and home baked bread. It is the scent of home and the feeling of love that goes with that.
Eight months after bringing my daughter to her new life, I am struck anew by all she has left behind. Familiar faces, familiar arms, familiar laughter and voices. The sounds and feel and scent of all she had ever known.
And I crouch down on the road with her, I lift my own face to that cloud of exhaust, and I picture China Mom holding my daughter’s hand. I picture China family walking along the busy streets of Chongqing, guiding the white-haired beauty they were loving for another family. I feel their love as surely as my daughter does, and I take it in, drinking it deep into my heart.
“That,” I say, as I hold her hand and look into her clear blue eyes. “Is the smell of your China home. And when you are an adult and you walk down the street and you smell that smell, you will think of your family there and you will remember how much they loved you.”
“Really?” She asks and smiles.
“Of course.” I say, wrapping my arms around her as my other children skip ahead, still coughing up the billowing gray smoke.
And Cheeky leans in close, and she presses her face to my old leather coat and inhales deeply.
And I wonder if perhaps one day that will be the scent of my love for her.
The photos above are Cheeky on her last day in Chongqing and on her first big hike in fresh Washington air. The ones below were taken those same days. The juxtopostion of old life and new is striking and reminds me that to truly love my daughter I must always strive to value and maintain the memories of her other home.