Scent of lily provided insight

Published 9:58 pm Friday, July 27, 2012

My mother seemed to have an extraordinary sense of smell. Many scents that most people find pleasurable were offensive to her. Some even made her sick. All the family recognized the way she had of crinkling up her nose at an odor that bothered her. We just couldn’t understand why things that smelled so good to us bothered her. I hate to admit it, but we never really tried to understand. We looked upon it as just an annoying quirk of hers.

Through the years, I learned that the scent of gardenias that smelled so good to me especially bothered her. Then one day she told me about something that happened on a hot summer day when she was a little girl. When a teacher died, my grandmother took my mother and her older sister to the funeral at a little country church. In those days, people gathered whatever flowers that grew in their yards for funerals. A large crowd had assembled to pay their respects to the deceased. Already uncomfortable because of the heat and so many people jammed together in the pews, my mother became instantly aware of the scent of gardenias among the abundance of flowers that bedecked the church sanctuary.

She said that she knew right away that she had a problem. She tried to protest as my grandmother directed them down the aisle and had them squeeze into a pew. Every time she tried to get Grandmother’s attention to tell her that she was getting sick, Grandmother hushed her. It seemed to her that there was no air circulating at all in that crowded little building. Her discomfort continued to increase.

With each breath, the smell of gardenias got stronger. Again she tugged at her mother and begged for relief. Grandmother finally understood what was happening. She grabbed Mother’s hand and hurriedly directed her toward the exit. It was too late. Mother could no longer control the churning in her stomach. What followed was an embarrassment to her and not at all a pleasant sight.

Mother must have thought of that any time she saw a gardenia.

Despite having heard that story, I never really sympathized with her until one night when I was recuperating from a severe attack of vertigo. I woke up and realized the night light in the foyer was off. I staggered and stumbled from the bedroom to locate it. When I bent down and fumbled for the switch, the sweet delicate aroma of an Easter lily on a near-by table floated by my nose. Suddenly the world whirled. A wave of nausea swept over me. The next day I pondered how my encounter with a delicate aroma I usually enjoyed had offended my senses and triggered a return of misery. For the first time in my life, I had a real insight into my mother’s plight.

Finally, after all those years, I felt ashamed of myself for my insensitivity to her very real problem.