05/08/2015 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

A Mom Smells Like...

Close your eyes. Think about your mother. What do you smell? Shalimar or Arpege? Fresh bread baking in the oven? Earth and grass from spending time in the garden?

For me, it's camphor. When I was 6, I had an ulcer and spent a lot of time in bed, tired and perpetually queasy. My mother would appear with a small brown bottle of camphor oil. She'd dampen a cotton handkerchief with camphor and hand it to me. "Sniff this," she said. "It will make you feel better." And with the touch of her cool hand against my forehead and the handkerchief pressed against my nose, of course I felt better. Because my mother told me I would.


In the 1980s, camphor oil disappeared from store shelves. Too much camphor can be toxic, although in some countries it's used in cooking. By then I was living in California and my mother, back in Virginia, wrote letters complaining about the absence of camphor from store shelves. Luckily, she'd bought some bottles to keep in reserve -- one of which she carefully wrapped up and sent to me. Because everyone needed a bottle of camphor, didn't they?

I used it sparingly -- for myself and my at first skeptical husband ("Hey, this smells good," he said). The bottle appeared again when my children were young and had upset stomachs. Just like my mother, I'd put a dab of camphor on a handkerchief and tell them, "Don't worry, this will make you feel better."

Like recipes passed down from mother to daughter, I've passed along a bottle of camphor. When my son went off to college, I gave him a bottle. When my daughter goes east to college in the fall I'm sure she'll be surprised to find a bottle of camphor surrounded by bubble wrap. Just in case, as my mother would say.

Camphor oil is available online these days. People swear it's great for cold sores. Some suggest it helps regrow eyebrows. True? I don't know. But when I see a bottle of camphor, I think of my mother and how much I miss her. She passed away a few years ago, after a good, long life. I'd give anything to talk to my mom on the phone again, something we did every Sunday afternoon. To get mail from her, mostly coupons and recipes clipped from magazines, occasionally obituaries of former teachers. Boxes of Martin's Bar-B-Q Waffle potato chips, my favorite, wrapped as carefully as the bottles of camphor.

A good, long life, but not long enough. I wish I could thank her for everything she taught me. What can I do to honor her? Pass along things she taught me. How to make hospital corners when making a bed. How to clean combs and brushes (ammonia and water). How to make the best banana bread in the world (recipe available upon request). To keep scrapbooks. Label photos on the back no matter what because years from now you'll want to know who those people are.

Treasure your library card. There's no such thing as too much reading. Buy a good coat, don't try to save money -- a good coat will last you a long time.

Throw away old underwear. Because -- God forbid -- what if you're in a car accident?

Put camphor on a handkerchief, smell it, and you'll feel better.

If I want to feel my mother's presence again, it's easy. All I do is open a bottle of camphor and put a few drops on a handkerchief. And she's right there with me.