Primordial Love

Some scents never change


in Features • Illustrated by Camille Velasquez


My preferred distance away from my sons is zero. Even when they were newborns, slurping milk in the cradle of my arm (further away than when in utero), I’d succumb to a craving and press my nose to the tops of their heads, first Kellan and four years later, Brendan, and absorb their patinas, which have remained unchanged throughout their lives.

At night, when they were kids, I’d creep across the hallway in our house near Seattle — our dog, Checkers, curled in Labrador-ious, leg-twitching slumber at the bottom of the stairs — and into their room.

Kellan slept on his side, a furrow twitching his brow, arm slung over his bear, Shruggy, the curve of his cheek rising, falling. His cowlick arced a lock of reddish hair, where I buried my face. His signature was a combination of dirt upon home plate, just-mown grass, thoughts stirring into form, and cinnamon. As a kid he played sports with gusto, but how could he have exuded the air of grass from his first moments on earth?

Across the room, Brendan, who rarely held still even in sleep, hauled his boy-body over and around and up and under the covers, dreaming of racing around the backyard with Checkers in pursuit. His tousled blond hair glinted in the grainy dark as I leaned close. Soap? How could this be? He considered bathing “dumb;” for the past few days, I’d pestered him to shower, knowing that if I wasn’t hollering outside the door, he would not use soap. Yet he emitted it always, along with trees, mud, and salty lemon, followed with a whoosh of fresh air. Yes, salty lemon; he reeked of it long before he ate solid food.

This sensation of primal recognition brought to mind an image of a Neolithic mom, bringing a discarded animal skin to her nose and shutting her eyes. Perhaps her son was off on his first hunt, perhaps he’d never return, but this was his odor of life, of movement and sound and sorrow and joy. She could pick it out of a lineup every time, as could I.

As my boys grew, other hints swooped in and out of each unique blend, telltales of what they were up to — a knockout punch of fruity cereal that stuck like confetti to everything; sweaty socks; mint gum; gunpowder (aha, fireworks!); a heady hit of syrup; rowdy middle-school-lunchroom; campfire smoke from our backyard fire pit (traces of marijuana?). But none of it diluted their individual undercurrents, which endured.

Later, when they each were off at college, I’d sneak into their now separate rooms, lift a t-shirt or jacket, or best of all, a pillow, and partake of their perfumes, which lingered, but faded every moment, every week, every month. My addiction to their aromas grew like a prickly bush, stabbing and scratching. Home on holiday, they’d clasp me in tight hugs and I’d detect new signs mingled in. Through Kellan’s skin: fresh grass, football games; cinnamon, beer. On Brendan: soap, aftershave; lemon-with-salt, fraternity food.

Today, Kellan lives with his wife one mile away from me. Brendan resides with his fiancé, Izzy, in Idaho, and this weekend they are coming to stay.

“We’re leaving at six in the morning,” he said over the phone yesterday, a lilt in his voice. “So glad you’re within driving distance now, Mom.”

I am up at 3:08 am in anticipation of my son and the aura that connects us, remembering the moment when it beckoned me to this place.

C’est une pandémie,” said Emanuel Macron one evening in March of 2020. He leaned on his forearms and gazed at the French people through the television I was watching in my apartment in Paris, where I’d gone for a month-long research trip.

I clicked over to CNN to see the U.S. president gesturing: “It’s gonna disappear, like a miracle.”

I’d wait this out in Paris. How long could it take? A month at most.

At that moment, Brendan was 4,888 miles away, Kellan 4,994. I fussed; had they been exposed?  Surely this virus wouldn’t infect them, but the distance between us lit up like a trail of sparklers, sizzling my stomach, searing my chest.

I’d experienced this before, on many trips abroad, had listened through my phone, incredulous, in the courtyard of a riad in Fez, Morocco, as Brendan, home from college for the summer, calmly informed me that the brakes had gone out in his truck as he drove down a hill. Just weeks before I’d left for Paris, Kellan had developed a fever of 104 degrees in Seattle as I wrung my hands at my home in Sausalito. We had been separated during terrorist attacks, hospital stays, and various monumental milestones. This was just another such case. I’d check on them often, but would stay home.

By the next night, my Paris kitchen was stocked with my necessities: citrusy clementines; dark bottles of Côtes du Rhone; asparagus; baguettes; and a collection of pungent cheeses. Both boys had assured me they were fine, would stay inside and remain alert. The sparklers fizzled out.

The next morning, I awoke while it was still dark, again sensing the span from Paris to the wilds of Idaho, from Île Saint Louis to the Space Needle. The pulsating umbilical stretched across the globe, and I felt as if I were being pulled on that medieval instrument of torture, the rack.

As my desire to gulp in my boys engulfed me, I dashed to the computer and bought an extravagantly expensive ticket for the next day, not to my home in Sausalito, but to Seattle.

They loved to visit me in Sausalito, in my new, post-divorce life. When they would come, we’d dash about with my boisterous friends, and lounge around joking and comparing notes about our careers, Kellan’s as a lawyer, Brendan’s in forestry, and my writing. We would laugh and pontificate, reminisce and debate, the tang of togetherness tingeing our spirits. I savored the timbre of each voice, the textures of their hair, the shape and color of their eyes.

After they’d depart, I would re-order my house, tidying up, tossing towels and sheets into the washing machine. I’d clean everything except for two things: one printed with green elephants, the other with orange and fuchsia diamonds. I’d keep their pillowcases on a chair in my room. By turns, I’d take up the green one and burrow into it (home-plate, grass, cinnamon), and next the pink-orange one (soap, mud, trees). Here were entire lives, distilled. After a week or so, I’d launder the cases, but it seemed an ominous act of finality. 

After fleeing Paris for Seattle, I sold my place in Sausalito, had my belongings packed and shipped, and settled into this house one mile from Kellan and 352 from Brendan. During this time of the pandemic, when that which is essential has been detected and cherished, those two scent-prints, out of one trillion that my sense can recognize, ignite a primordial love for my sons, the only prize that could have propelled me to abandon my post in Paris and leave my life in Sausalito. 

Smells mark my rituals and seasons: incense smoking out of a swinging censer, holiday feasts sizzling in the oven, the first bloom of cherry trees. Chianti on a hillside in Tuscany; a salty sea-mist; the musky embrace of a lover; a simmering pot of chicken soup — travel to my olfactory bulbs and, instead of heading straight for the thalamus as the collections of my other senses do, go straight to my amygdala and hippocampus, where emotion and memory reside and spin meaning into my life.

Perhaps that is why, long before dawn on the day of Brendan’s arrival, I am thinking of mothers of all ages whose sons have died alone in an ICU, hooked up to sterile tubes. Banned from the room, these mothers were unable to access the pillow that held the hairs on his head. Later, when closets were opened, their sons’ spices would rush into these mothers, but never linger long enough.

Vast numbers of mothers who have had coronavirus have lost this sense, so evocative of the past, so encapsulating of the dynamic present. Those who do not fully regain it may gather their sons in their arms and draw in air that registers nothing. Do these mothers recall the sensation? Is it imprinted inside their bodies to draw on?

Kellan and his wife, Jaimie, who is pregnant, come for dinner every week. I tell Jaimie that a cheery flame will illuminate her when she catches the sachet of my grandson. I hold Kellan close and surreptitiously sniff his shoulders. Is it because he now plays softball in the Lawyer League that he still smells of home plate? His thoughts have gone from those of Lego and Capture the Flag to depositions and home repairs, but I intuit them just the same.

Brendan, his Carhartt coat redolent of pine trees, will approach in a few hours as if I hold a ribbon and gather it up as miles between us decrease. Perhaps later he and I will go for a walk, elbows bumping, or sit shoulder-to-shoulder watching the baseball playoffs, and my nasal passages will rejoice as I inhale his soap, mud, and that gust of fresh air, which will spark memories of Brendan and Checkers sailing around our backyard.

This very night, Brendan and Izzy will sleep in the guest room downstairs. On the wall above his head will be the world map: Here is Spain, where Kellan studied, and New Zealand, where Brendan went on a grand fishing trip. And Paris, shaped a bit like the human heart. Look closer: There is Idaho, its blue mountains climbing out of emerald forests, the Clearwater River rushing over rocks. See Kellan’s house just a mile away, where every night he breathes steadily, dreaming of sliding into home base, his arm slung over Jaimie. Soon, their house will fill with the ambrosia of their baby.

Here at my house, the white pillowcase on the bed’s left side near the window will capture and preserve a certain salty-lemon elixir. It will be a while before it’s washed. •


Erin Byrne is author of Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France, editor of Vignettes & Postcards from Paris and Vignettes & Postcards from Morocco, and writer of The Storykeeper film. Awards for her work include a 2021-22 Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, the 2020 Grand Prize Solas Award for Travel Story of the Year, three Next Generation Indie Book Awards, a Pinnacle Achievement Award, and an Accolade Award for film. Erin is host of the LitWings event series and Illuminations Salons. She has taught writing at Shakespeare and Company Bookstore in Paris, The American Library in Paris, Book Passage bookstore, and on Deep Travel trips, and is travel writing and photography curator for The Creative Process Exhibition.