When I was in third grade, I lived in a pretty rural area and I walked to school. The curving road I took seemed endless and dull, so one day I created a shortcut through the orchard of a nearby farm. My path took me uphill, weaving between rows of olive trees and some other trees to which I never put a name. When I got to the top of that hill, I wedged myself through a hedgerow, breaking a few twigs and crushing a few leaves as I pushed through. I popped out near my school, having shaved off minutes of that tedious winding road.
That became my regular route, and every time I went through that hedge, the leaves that I bruised gave off a very distinct smell. I now know that the shrubs were a variety of boxwood, which has small, dark, shiny leaves. On the rare occasion that I now come across one, I can't resist plucking a leaf, crumbling it between my fingers, inhaling that smell. When I do, I am instantly transported back to that time in my childhood.
That's what I was thinking about, after a recent conversation with Bethesda Cares' Executive Director, Sue, and "Lisa," who called from the local legal department of a national hotel chain. Lisa was speaking on behalf of 10 of her colleagues, all of whom wanted to do something for Bethesda Cares' clients during this holiday season.
"We'd like to help someone homeless, or a family who is really in need," Lisa said. "What can we do that would be useful to them? Can we buy gifts for them?"
Sue explained that our clients, living in parks, sleeping on benches, probably would not benefit from "traditional" gifts; they would have to carry them around, and the potential for theft is high. "Warm socks, scarves, gloves... those are all items that they would really appreciate. Or, how about some cookies? If you each baked a dozen cookies, we'd have 11 dozen cookies; what a festive tray that would make for our Drop-In Center!"
"Cookies?" Lisa asked, musing. "I know it's the holidays, but maybe something healthier?"
"Well, no. Cookies. Think about it this way," Sue said. "For lots of different reasons, our clients generally are not currently in close contact with their families; if they were, they might not be sleeping on the streets. But they have families, of course, and they have memories of them, childhood memories, memories of holidays, of traditions. Homemade cookies might really help underscore that connection, at a time when they are particularly feeling its absence. Just smelling those sugary smells could actually help reinforce whatever tenuous ties they have to their pasts. Sure, they might seem like 'just cookies,' but the tastes, the smells, and the fact that you troubled to make them will mean more than you might realize."
As Lisa and I digested Sue's remarks, I realized that Sue had plucked from the idea of 'donating cookies' the essence of what makes home-baking special: time, effort, attention. That was the moment in which I thought of the enormously evocative power of those boxwood leaves. To me, the scent of boxwoods evokes sunshine, independence and youth. To our clients, I'm hoping that the smell of those cookies will bring forth feelings of comfort, warmth, and maybe even love.