Just after my mother died in May, I searched her dresser for a piece of clothing that retained her smell. I didn't find any.
Then I went to her closets. T-shirt by t-shirt I took them out and sniffed them like I was some lost puppy who wanted to desperately find home. As my children lie in bed watching their frantic mother (I didn't care that it was way past their bedtime), photographs flashed in and out of my mind with each t-shirt. That was the one she wore when we ate ice cream cones in Connecticut. She wore that one the night my son was born. She wore that one when we carved pumpkins with the kids that Halloween. I only remember these pieces of clothing because I have photographs of them. What I really wanted more than the shirt or the memory was one that still held her smell. The one that I could seal in an airtight bag and bring out to sniff on days when I most need to remember her and on days when I most needed to return home.
When it was becoming clear to me that I was not going to find one piece that smelled like my mom, I turned to my children and asked for help. Maybe my nose was tired. I needed them to smell for me.
"Does this smell like her? Does this smell like Nanny?" I asked as I threw shirts their way.
"No. No. No, Mom. Sorry, Mom, it really doesn't smell like her," they repeated over and over again.
Nothing. We didn't find one piece of clothing that retained her smell.
But I did find this. Tucked deep into the corner of a shelf I could barely reach, I touched a sealed plastic bag. Inside was a neatly folded woolen blanket and a carefully handwritten note my mother had written nearly 28 years ago: My Mom's woolen blanket. One of the last things to retain her smell. For a moment, I smiled and knew that she was like me and I am like her.
I didn't find her smell that night, but in her handwriting I found the shape of her thoughts and it was enough.