Honeysuckle. I smelled it before I saw the bush. I was walking on a street in my neighborhood in Springs when, triggered by the scent, my mind leapt to a summer’s day in Virginia Beach, half a century ago. Pedaling a bike, my body sticky in the steamy haze of summer, I was a strong and fierce animal, riding on unpaved roads in the countryside near my house. Though I didn’t give it much thought at the time, the world beckoned me. I knew I would be on the move soon, away from my parents, away from Virginia. I would have adventures. I would have romance. I would go everywhere.
I picked a few honeysuckles and sniffed them on my way to Clearwater Beach, intending to watch the sunset there. More memories flickered, like faulty lighting, just offstage in my mind. I was back in Virginia, back in time, before the losses to come and the worry about the future, before the sudden death of my brother. Just for a moment, I viscerally knew again—not as a memory but as a felt sense—what it was to be young, to be beautiful, to have it all ahead. A teenager, driving in my car with the top down, feeling sexy, Santana on the radio.
It almost made me cry.
The sky at Clearwater Beach was now swathed in gold, magenta and purple, as though enormous colorful saris had been draped there by the gods. Having lived near this shore for the past year, I still marvel at being able to watch the sun drop into Gardiners Bay—sunset on the sea, a rare sight on the east coast of a continent. It was a clear evening. I could see Connecticut, a pencil line floating on water. A young Hispanic couple sat on a bench watching a small boy play ball with an older man, perhaps the grandfather. As the child tossed the ball into the bay, the older man laughed and spoke to the boy in Spanish. The child answered in English, though he clearly understood his familial language, and squealed with delight as the old man waded in, barefoot over rocks and shells, emerging, triumphant, with the ball.
I left Virginia in my late teens and lived in faraway lands over the next forty-odd years. I had adventures, outer and inner. I had romance. I saw the world. Something burned in me. I wanted to both stretch my mind and to tame it. I looked for answers to big questions and sought anyone I thought might have them. I didn’t find a philosophy that held up for long, but I had a grand time on the search and made a lot of friends along the way.
I am now considered a senior. It seemed to happen overnight. Young men, the kind of young men whose eyes used to follow me, began calling me “ma’am,” if they noticed me at all. I qualify for senior discounts at the East Hampton movie theater and the IGA on Wednesdays. I don’t get through a week without hearing of someone’s diagnosis, someone’s death.
My parents are in their mid-80s, my father with Parkinson’s, my mother newly widowed with the death of my stepfather. To be older than most people in history and to have both parents alive, as well, is a particular privilege. Though I had moved to Australia, I decided it was time to come home, back to the East Coast. And here, on the eastern end of Long Island, I have found an area hauntingly reminiscent of the one of my childhood in Virginia. Watery bays, and ocean, and honeysuckle in summer.
Walking back from the beach, I noticed that the air at dusk was subtly fragrant with the smell, the world entire trying to seduce me into the past. As I turned onto my street, I thought I might later put the small bouquet I still held in my hand on the nightstand by my bed. Perhaps the scent would enchant my dreams, remind me of those innocent times. Perhaps I would pick honeysuckles for the rest of the week and surround myself with them day and night. They would be my portal to a gentler realm.
But as I strolled up the drive to my house, I gave the now-crumpled flowers one last sniff and casually tossed them into the evening breeze.
Catherine Ingram, of Springs, is the author of In the Footsteps of Gandhi, Passionate Presence, and A Crack in Everything. She has led retreats and public sessions called Dharma Dialogues around the world since 1993. And she is currently leading a series of Dharma Dialogues in Sag Harbor on Thursday nights throughout the summer. For more information about her work visit catherineingram.com.