Surrounded by flowers exotic and expensive to maintain in the chilly northeastern United States (orchids, bougainvillea and the sacred lotus to name a few) I was surprised that it took me several days to be present, to stay focused on the beauty around me. I kept wondering about what was blooming back home.
The ferns had just unfurled when I left. The first trillium, a white one, appeared beneath the trees behind the house. The scent of lilies of the valley was just taking hold and the daffodils were completing their spring run. I hadn’t weeded enough and wondered if this year’s jewelweed and bittercross would overrun my carefully planted bulbs by the front steps or in the hosta garden.
In Viet Nam, we arrived on the cusp of the summer season. A tropical climate, “winter” itself is relative, and the country is in an ongoing cycle of floral bloom. By the time we reached the small town and countryside of Hoi An, the explosion of color put me in sensory overload, and I let myself just stay in the place I was in. In the ground surrounding our hotel were lilies, peace lilies. They were so abundant that they were frequently plucked and deposited in a vase in our room to enjoy. “Trees” growing around town I realized were bougainvillea. In their myriad of colors they draped the houses and walls, echoes of the delicate paper lanterns lighting walkways and balconies.
How could I memorize my new passion for air that was heavy and wet with the smell of jasmine and gardenia? How could I remember the appreciation for this hot, damp country, loaded with fragrance—at once erotic and intoxicating? I tried to recognize and make each scent indelible. Did I know the scent of a lotus or was I cross-pollinating my own olfactory? There is no technology to preserve and share scent the same way I can bring home photos, video or audio recordings of my surroundings. On the final days of my tour, I panicked that I would lose the smells. I kept taking moments to close my eyes, to try and block out everything else around me, and just inhale. I wished so desperately to have these scents and sights at home—not in potted purchases, but in a heavy, hot dampness of the air around me. Would I be able to recall these smells at home? I don’t think I fully exhaled for the nearly full day of flying and layovers to get back to the states.
Finally home, I turned in my driveway to the sight of my Pennsylvania favorites—those wild-growing volunteers of my childhood. Stretching far across the grass, along the creekbed and disappearing over the bank were forget-me-nots. The blue-on-blue of a clear Pennsylvania sky was scattered across the ground. Happy yellow buttercups promised to lie to me if I put them under the chin of a childhood friend and asked if she liked butter. A chilly breeze, crisp and familiar, brought the scent of phlox down from the wooded hillside.
I abandoned my car and all the obligations of getting the house back in order that could wait another day, and wandered the yard, plucking a bouquet as big as my hand could hold. I remembered the two-fisted bunches I would bring home from near the creek as a child, cementing those exact colors of yellow and blue as my favorites, memorizing the smell of phlox as the smell of purple, a kind of self-induced synesthesia that tangles itself occasionally with lilacs in color/fragrance overload.
I realized I could no sooner forget the flowers of Viet Nam than I could these in my own backyard. It had nothing to do with the final days of closing my eyes and trying to memorize the smells around me. It was simpler, surprisingly easier. Like that first two-fisted bouquet I brought home to Mom, the flowers of Viet Nam remain with me, in their own layers of nostalgia—a dirt-path bike-ride through palm trees, past water buffalo and long stretches of rice paddies. Neither are alike, yet both are somehow the same: a sense and a memory.