Preserving the moment in … smells?

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Charlie and Kip posing for me on the first day of school this year. This day seems like it was yesterday, and this place is forever in my heart.

Tomorrow is Charlie’s last day of preschool ever and I’m wondering how badly I might want to smell that place a year from now.

In his backpack tonight, I found the zip lock of spare clothes we sent with him back in August. For nine months, his way-too-small-now superhero underpants and blue shorts have steeped in the tempera-crayon-playdough-wood-water-glue fragrance of his school. I opened the bag and inhaled the preschooly perfume embedded in his clothes. I quickly zipped it closed and held it to my heart. I think I need to save this, I thought.

It’s not a traditional way of preserving childhood milestones, but a whiff off an olfactory scrapbook would give me a Technicolor trip down memory lane a year from now. And I might want that. Which of our five senses has more power to evoke vivid memories than that of smell?

When Brian and I first met, and we lived 1,500 miles apart, I mailed him one of my tank tops. I didn’t know it until later, but he sealed it in a zip lock bag and, whenever he felt restless from the distance between us, he opened it to catch my scent. The bag is still in tact and in his sock drawer, long forgotten (by him), but I know it’s there, and I like that. It reminds me of a mystical time.

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This was us a million years ago, madly in love, fresh out of the sea and on our way to eat the fish Brian had just speared. I like that he’s held onto my plastic-bag-encased tank top from about the time this pic was taken.

So what if I held onto my big kid’s vacuum-sealed underpants so as to sniff them later as a reminder of the place that started his school journey and shifted our world.

This is the place that said, “We’d love to take him. We have a lot of kids like him,” when he was three and still in diapers, having meltdowns that lasted for what seemed like hours and newly diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. Not much later, they’d say, “He’s a complete doll. We love Charlie. He is such a wonderful kid.” We’d barely ever heard that from anyone before. You can imagine what unconditional acceptance, appreciation and understanding of a little kid with special needs does to his tired-out, frazzled-nerves, perma-worried mother.

It’s life changing. For him, for me, for our family. This is the place full of people who, whether they realize it or not, empowered me to make the best choices imaginable to support my son and assist him in his school, home, social and inner life.

And now, after two years in the inclusion program of this beautiful little preschool, where teachers, aides and his friends have lovingly tended him, and every child, like a garden, he’s embarking on kindergarten. All day and, per endorsements from a few experts, with no special needs considerations, no Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), no inclusion aide, no extra anything. I can’t even believe it, but he’s ready for it. He’s a five-year-old boy venturing out into the world of elementary school with wings given to him by a place I love so hard I’m not ashamed to admit I want to smell it.

I’m keeping that plastic bag of spare underwear, and so what? It’s not just the scent of my kids’ beloved preschool; it’s a reminder of sun and hope, of light and faith and, ultimately, of the buoyancy you feel watching someone you love come into his own.

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Some may see a mess, but I see fine-motor triumph. Judging from his propensities now, the kid will have a proper sleeve of tats as soon as he turns 18, but instead of the loopy scribbles of old, he’s taken to drawing actual pictures on his forearms. Here, portraits of Mommy and Daddy. Rock on with your kindergartener self, sweet baby.