The Smell of Home

“When my oranges bloomed” my mother used to tell us, talking about her family’s orange trees in Palestine before 1948, “You could smell their blossom all day and all night and for miles around.” We would be sitting around her absorbing every word she had to say about her family’s farm in old Palestine, about her father who was so good in grafting orange trees he was hired by neighboring farmers, both Arab and Jewish, to do theirs. I remember how a smile would slowly appear on her face whenever she talked about “her oranges”.

In her seventies, a few years ago my mother’s mind mind started going down the Alzheimer’s path of mental blankness. At first she started to forget things then people, including her own husband and children. Alzheimer’s is, as many people who have had to take care of their loved ones know, a terrible affliction. It has left her body sound yet deprived her of all sense of her environment. It usually torments older people, depriving them of all the precious memories they have gathered over their long lifetimes. Like many Alzheimer’s patients, my mother began to insist on “going home”. She would be sitting in her house and suddenly she would get up and demand to go home.

Once when I asked my father what first attracted him to my mother, he told me it was her smile. He would walk by her family’s farm every day on his way to work, and one day her noticed this young woman standing in between a grove of orange trees smiling, and he was smitten by that smile. My parents became refugees in 1948, a few months after my eldest brother was born. They were faced with a hard choice: Stay and risk the death of their family at the hands of Israelis soldiers or leave their home and farm and become refugees. To leave their homes, their land and orange trees, I believe was the hardest choice they ever had to make,

Two years ago I went to visit my family in Jordan, when my mother would demand to “go home”, I would take her for a walk around the block which usually calmed her down. We would meet many neighbors and look at the faces of children playing in the streets and the alleys. Most of these neighbors were also Palestinian refugees. The older ones remembered their trees in Palestine and the younger ones, like myself, remembered their mothers’ smiles when they would talk about those trees. Every one dreamed about “going home”. Those faces, like my mother’s, were faces of men and women, boys and girls, with names and lives, with passions, hopes and fears. Some of them were healthy while others, like my mother, were not. They are not the amorphous human clump they are portrayed to be on the screens of our nightly news, they are not the nameless masses referred to on the pages of our newspapers. They are all my mother, all wanting the most basic right: to go home.

My father passed away last April, and from talking to my sister who is care giver to my mother, she is not asking to go home any more. Some people say that the sense of smell is the strongest and longest lasting. I believe it. My mother lived only a few miles away from where “her oranges” grew. The land now belongs to an Israeli family, also with names and faces, even though I don’t know them. I always wonder what goes on in my mother’s head. Does she recognize anything? Does she know people without actually being able to express herself? Does she have any self knowledge? And most importantly: Can she smell anything? And if so, was she able to detect a faint smell of her oranges in bloom when she would insist on going home? Were her oranges calling her home?

The smile completely departed from my mother’s face eventually. She, I believe, came to the realization that she would never go home. That she would die and be buried in exile, as the refugee she had been for the last 53 years. It may be too late for my mother, but it is not too late for those children in the neighborhood. Some of them will grow up repeating their mothers’ stories about the orange trees, others will refuse to be nameless, shapeless and homeless and will do something about it. We all can put an immediate stop to this and find a way to rediscover the smiles on these children’s faces. They just want to go home.

Rizk Ikhrais lives in Bastrop, Texas. His mother passed away last May. He was not able to bury her in her beloved Qatra.