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What the Scent of Patchouli Reminds Me Of

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I was six. She was 26. I was a chubby, dishwater-blonde tomboy. She was a lithe, brunette model. I wore football jerseys. She wore patchouli. The only thing we shared in common was a love for her boyfriend -- my dad, which is saying something because he was not an easy man to love. Not many type-A-take-no-prisoners skirt-chasing business men are.

He left my mom, my brothers and I on a muggy June day in 1968 with no warning. No explanation. Just a garment bag in one hand and a red and black electric shoe polisher in the other. He found me coloring in my room, at the pink table my grandpa for made at his working bench as I looked on. "I'm leaving", he said; somehow expecting me to understand that he didn't mean he was leaving for work or a business trip.

"When are you coming home?" I asked.

"I'm not, sweetheart" was all he said. Fade to black.

And yet he had his moments, enough to make himself lovable -- at least to those of us who were hardwired to love him. He brought me dolls from foreign lands. And though he was a work-a-holic, he tried to make up for it -- in the only way he knew how-with large expenditures of money and extravagant gestures such as a family vacation to Aculpulco or a new bobble for my mom.

One of my earliest memories is the night he came home later than usual with a box of Bazooka Bubble Gum for each of us three kids, and a bouquet of roses for my mom. If my mom and older brothers understood he was apologizing for some unspoken transgression, I didn't. I just remember thinking what an awesome dad he was for giving me a whole box of my favorite bubble gum, comics and all!

He'd sometimes sit on the hearth in our family room and play the acoustic guitar. (It's no wonder I fell in love with Christopher Plummer when "Sound of Music" was released the following year). I always requested "Drunken Sailor." He'd strum the chords and together we'd sing. Sing it loud. I remember that. And the bubble gum. And the garment bag.

My parents eventually separated. My mom was awarded full-time custody and my dad had visitation every Wednesday evening and every other Sunday. I'm not sure if my dad's having the short end of the custody stick had more to do with the times or the "fact" that my dad never wanted any kids, or so my mother informed us after the separation.

Wednesdays we went to dinner. My mother instructed me to always order the most expensive item on the menu and so I developed a liking for lobster. I suspect my dad caught on because he began taking us exclusively to the Pickle Barrel-a local hamburger joint.

On Sundays we were supposed to spend the whole day with him, however, since we were in the north suburbs and he'd moved downtown, he generally didn't arrive to pick us up until close to noon. I'd wake up early, dress for the city, sit on the living room couch and wait. My brothers and I used to call "shotgun" whenever all three of us would go somewhere in the car, however, my dad made it clear from the start that I was to sit up front with him on our Sunday outings. No more calling shotgun. Shotgun belonged exclusively to daddy's little girl.

Sometimes we'd go to Old Town and stop in at Ripley's Believe It Or Not, then stop at Paul Bunyan's for an oversized chocolate chip cookie. Oftentimes he'd take us to a Cubs game. We'd park at his friend Byron's hot dog stand on Irving, purchase some dogs and then walk the half mile to Wrigley Field. Our seats were located on the first base side just behind the Cubs dugout. I'd sit on my dad's lap and he'd teach me the rules of the game and how to keep score in the program. I could be I was the only only six-year old girl in the world to know what the infield fly rule meant.

I heard his Mark IV pull into the cul de sac just as a dog who is sound asleep hears the jingling of his master's car keys. I looked over the back of the couch through the bay window to confirm. There he was! But who was that woman with him...riding shotgun? I shouted out to my mom. "There's someone with daddy!"

I remember my mom going outside. I remember nervously watching out the window as my dad got out of the car. I remember how my mom and dad stood too close to each other on the sidewalk. I remember their lips moving simultaneously and furiously. I remember my dad storming toward the front door. I remember the front door slamming. I remember not trusting his tone when he called out "Amy Liz!"

I remember my mom coming in through the basement door. I remember my running for the steps leading down to the basement. I remember my mom reaching out and taking hold of my left hand as I scuttled down the stairs. I remember my dad chasing down the stairs after me and grabbing my right hand. I remember becoming a human rope in their tug of war. And then I don't remember. I don't remember who let go first. I don't remember falling.

I do remember the scrape I had on my knee the next day. I remember kicking and screaming while my dad carried me out to his car then pushed my head down and forced me into the back seat. I remember the model's name -- Michaelann. I remember the earthy pungent scent of patchouli in the car. A scent that sticks with me to this day. Like the words, "your dad never wanted you" stick with you. Like the silly putty I pressed into the natural stone facing of our fireplace stuck. And no matter how my mom tried to scrape and dig the putty out of the grooves, there were always going to be remnants of it. Stuck.

The patchouli is still stuck in the grooves of my memory some 45 years later. And if tomorrow or the next day I were riding an elevator and someone wearing patchouli were to get on the elevator, I'd frantically press every button for every floor in a desperate attempt to free myself from the grip of my childhood.