What do a t-shirt, car, and book have in common?

I was rummaging through the guest bathroom drawers when I found the white t-shirts. Wrapping up a short visit to my grandparents at their condo in Longboat Key, I was checking for any missing items to pack. It was a stack of undershirts. Nothing out of the ordinary – mostly Hanes brand – a few more rumpled than others. I knew immediately that they belonged to my grandfather. In an instant, I was sure I would take one. I inspected their sizes and fits (and honestly, their cleanliness – my grandfather is where I get my tendency to spill food on myself) and settled on a V-neck. Into the suitcase it went.

That same week, while getting ready to head to the climbing gym, I saw the shirt in my drawer and decided to put it on. Immediately, I was overwhelmed by the smell of it. It wasn’t a bad smell; it was nostalgic. It smelled exactly like my grandparents’ former house in New City, New York; it smelled like my grandparents. I felt simultaneously comforted and sad. I decided to throw it in the wash.

I had had a similar experience 4 years ago. On a visit to Longboat, I had lamented to my grandfather how I loved driving the family Honda Accord (affectionately named Wallace), but Wallace couldn’t handle driving to the slopes in the winter without 4-wheel drive. “You need the Subaru,” he declared. It was plain and simple. His 2009 Subaru Impreza would be mine. I would pay for it to be transported from New City to Colorado Springs, as well as all the registration fees and insurance. But that was it – his “mountain goat” car would save the day. I was beyond grateful.

About a month later, a semi-truck arrived at my house in downtown Colorado Springs and unloaded my new ride, Ogie (pronounced “Auggie”; don’t ask me why). My parents had filled Ogie with things from home, including nice dishware and my dad’s favorite New England Double IPA, Mega Boss. But after unpacking the car and finally starting the ignition, the excitement turned bittersweet. The car smelled so strongly of that scent – probably some mixture of my grandma’s perfume, soap, and my grandparents themselves – that I sat in silence for a while.

I wondered how long it would be before that scent would fade from Ogie. Friends would sometimes comment on it, those first few months. Four years now passed, I can safely say it’s gone. Which is precisely the fear I had had that day Ogie arrived: that I would lose the scent.

With the white t-shirt, I knew the same was inevitable. Maybe that’s why I threw it in the wash. But I was still hung up on The Murder Room.

While in Longboat this last visit, I finished my book. Needing some reading material for my flight home, I asked my grandfather, “Hey Doc, do you mind if I take this?”

It was a copy of P.D. James’ The Murder Room. I could tell Doc had read it already, as it was tucked on the bookshelf, unlike the numerous scattered books on the couch that he was presently reading. You could tell it had been a library book, with the sticker on the spine, and that he had used some of the blank pages in the front as chicken scratch. There were several names and phone numbers scrawled, as well as some other notes surely taken while on the phone.

“Of course,” Doc replied. “P.D. James is one of my favorite mystery writers.”

In the hubbub of travel, I never got the chance to read the book while in the air. Once nestled in bed in Colorado Springs, I thought I’d crack open the book to read a chapter to help me fall asleep. And it hit me again.

The smell was literally pressed into the book. As I began reading, I found myself distracted by it. I was enjoying James’ writing style and vocabulary in particular, but I kept thinking I should close the book. I should save the smell inside.

I tend to hoard things – another trait I earned from Doc. I am not quite equally sentimental, but sentimental enough to hold onto virtually every card I receive, whether it’s a birthday card or Christmas greeting or snail mail. As my dad noted, Doc’s letters are especially great to receive because his handwriting is so bad (he was an orthopedic surgeon for decades – technicians took his notes), that it takes you days to decipher everything he wrote. In a sense, each word or phrase you decode is like a little gift. Doc has taken to typing out his letters to me, which perhaps takes the fun away but allows him to write lengthier updates. I save them all the same.

Perhaps this clinginess is why I found myself tearfully explaining to Ryan my lack of inspiration at Crate & Barrel a week later, as I shakily prepared quesadillas for dinner.

Doc and Mim had given me a gift card as a housewarming present months earlier, and I had neglected to use it. Knowing I needed some direction, I recruited Ryan’s mom, Doris, to accompany me on a C&B expedition. With her love of interior design (and the store itself), Doris gave me all sorts of ideas and approaches I could take with the gift card. “You want to get something that every time you see it, it reminds you of your grandparents,” she advised.

She was right. And that’s why I felt paralyzed. As I stared forlornly at mirrors, lamps, plates, and wine glasses, I suddenly felt this enormous pressure to find the right thing. Like keeping P.D. James’ pages closed, I wanted something that would help me freeze time, with respect to my grandparents.

I walked out empty-handed. I increasingly tend to not force things, so I reassured myself that the right item would become clear to me, with time.

The last month was really challenging for me for a number of reasons. Some things are still left unresolved. For me, I think the best shift has been learning to let go of some things: expectations of others, negative self-talk, pressure to perform. But I think it’s also equally important to cling to those things that hold value to you. The birthday card from two years ago. The friends who fill you with energy, not deplete it. The smell of your grandfather’s mystery novel.

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March 22, 2024

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