The Essence of Home

What felt lost was actually here all along 

By Jennifer Bringle


The holiday season always makes the absence of someone you love more pronounced. The sharpness of the hole they’ve left in your heart — whether fresh or a cavern that grows deeper — seems craggier, more dangerous with each passing year. Tears are quick. Memories surprise you at unexpected moments, dredging up feelings you thought were long buried.

Of course, I bring some of this on myself. I willingly repeat rituals that remind me that my mother is gone. Hanging her ornaments on my tree. Baking the gingersnaps she made each year. Listening to Judy Garland — her namesake — croon mournfully about missing someone at Christmas.

I lost my mom in a car accident more than 20 years ago when I was 21. Her death so unexpected, my father, younger sister and I were left unmoored. My mother was the nucleus of our family, and without her we felt like a table missing a leg — wobbly and off-kilter. The home, once complete, suddenly lost its center.

Mom and I were always in charge of decorating our house for Christmas. I would help her put our ancient fake tree together, untangling the scratchy limbs and figuring out which strands of lights still worked. Then we’d hang the ornaments — vintage glass balls from her mother’s collection, glitter-and-glue-covered “treasures” made by my sister and me, sparkly seashells and other souvenirs from family vacations.

The first year after she died, we didn’t have a tree. We were all too devastated to get into the festive spirit. But the next year, I hauled out the old fir and sorted the limbs myself. I wrapped it in twinkling lights and hung each bauble and bulb. I did this task alone, but I could almost feel her presence alongside me. Though she was gone, it felt like a little piece of her had returned home.

As the years passed, I moved into my own home and became a mother. And I began replicating the holiday traditions I’d shared with my mother. A few years ago my son joined in as I hung ornaments. He also helped scoop flour and lick the beaters as I mixed the gingersnap dough. Once again, I could feel my mother with us, could feel the warmth of home that I thought died with her.

That sense of her presence intensified on Christmas morning. My husband gifted me a bottle of perfume — Estée Lauder’s Youth-Dew. Youth-Dew is not a young woman’s scent. Even the bottle — cinched in the middle with a dainty gold bow — has a vintage air. Its heady, spicy aroma is not the type of thing you lightly spritz on a spring day. This is a grown woman’s scent. It’s the scent a woman might wear when she wants to feel fancy, luxurious, beautiful.

My mother loved Youth-Dew. It was an indulgence for a family on a budget, so when she got a bottle, she savored it, only wearing it on special occasions.

I carefully opened the signature blue box and gently removed the glass bottle topped with a gold cap that matched its delicate bow. I held it in my hands for a moment, feeling its weight, then I slowly uncapped it, spritzing a bit on my wrist.

That first inhale was like one of those life-passing-before-your-eyes highlight reels in a movie. My mother at church. My mother on Christmas Day. My mother at my graduation. My mother smiling with a confidence she didn’t often feel. It smelled just like her, a scent I hadn’t smelled in more than 20 years. It smelled like home.

But the longer I wore it, the scent began to change. Perfumes tend to do this — alter slightly with the body chemistry of the person wearing it. It still smelled like Youth-Dew, but a little different. A little more me than her.

Like the Youth-Dew, all the traditions I carry on feel just a little different. For a long time, I did them solo, trying to recapture that sense of home I lost with my mother’s death. Now my son joins me, building our own traditions on the foundation of my mother’s. While the essence of her love persists, the rituals feel different now, as if her spirit is simply a part of me. And that feeling of home, I realized, is still very much alive. 

When she’s not decorating for the holidays, Jennifer Bringle writes for various outlets from her home in Greensboro.

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