If Lucia Berlin’s life could be distilled into perfume, it would open with the heady rush of lilacs in bloom. Welcome Home, the unfinished memoir in the pair of latest collections to be published since the writer’s death in 2004, is accompanied by snapshots and letters to form a rough map of Berlin’s first thirty-odd years. One of her earliest recollections is of the pull of a lilac bush outside her family’s house in the mining town of Mullan, Idaho. She would stand beneath it and take in its scent until she grew lightheaded. “Maybe these were early warning signs and lilacs my first addiction,” she writes, foretelling her eventual struggle with alcoholism.
Lilac is just one of many fragrance notes peppered throughout this volume. In the foreword to Berlin’s 2015 breakout — albeit also posthumous — collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lydia Davis lauds Berlin’s ability to capture the reader’s senses by getting “all synapses firing.” Scents in particular are sharp and plentiful in the early years of the memoir, and the details are not merely sentimental. As Davis notes of Berlin’s writing, every word serves a purpose.
In Welcome Home, Berlin’s goal was to catalogue and characterize each of the places she lived. And even in a child’s voice, her discernment is as sharp as her observation. On a train journey to El Paso with her mother, she marks the difference between two passengers and the train conductor exchanging pleasantries, “laughing in a good way,” and “the wrong laughter” heard from the men in the smoky club car down the hall. Childhood smells follow the same instinctive delineations, falling into the category of “good smells” — cinnamon, tree sap, “the crisp fragrance of pine” — which put Berlin at ease, or “bad smells” — metallic smelter, chalky caliche, smoke, liquor — which often betray difficulty or danger. Every scent is laced with purpose, too. And with these shared scent notes, the reader feels in their gut what Berlin can only confirm with hindsight: whether a place is safe or suspect, and whether or not it is home.
Smell isn’t like our other senses. The information we take in from what we touch, taste, see, and hear proceeds through our brain with more order, signing in at reception — the thalamus — and awaiting directions. A scent slips in another way, happening upon the olfactory cortex and the nearby emotion-processing and memory-making departments (the amygdala and the hippocampus) of the brain first. Before it is even recognized, a scent has already leaked into our recollection of a particular moment, mingling with the essence of what we were feeling at the time and teaching our brains to conjure it all up again with one familiar whiff. Unlike our memories in general — the majority of which we tend to form over the second and third decades of our lives — our scent memories peak in our first ten years. Studies have also shown that we’re able to recall far more detail, both tangible and emotional, from memories with scents attached to them. A particular note from these bygone days — lilacs in the breeze through an open window — can trigger some of our most vivid and powerful memories, multiplied by the potency of our nostalgia for the time and complicated by all that we have learned since.
At least some of Berlin’s scent recall could be attributed to this “reminiscence bump.” But Berlin’s writing can be characterized by her ability to capture the details that so many others miss. And even though the smells she records from her childhood are common to plenty of upbringings — fragrant blossoms in the spring, sweet spices from the kitchen — there is always more to the picture. As in the case of the lilacs, Berlin often laces a scent with a deeper or double meaning. She comments on the smell of soap on the miners in town, and also the darker realities of their hard, grimy work. “Miners always smell like soap,” Berlin observes — and of beer and cigarettes, too — “surely because they get so dirty.” Yet some otherwise bad smells, like “urine and sour milk, dirty feet and hair,” convey only the earthy, chaotic comfort of spending time with a family from the neighborhood and their many children. “The Lord’s Prayer takes me to that kitchen,” she writes.
Berlin’s father is sent overseas during World War II, and her mother takes the rest of the family to stay with her parents in El Paso, Texas. Here cloves and vanilla may tease from the pantry, but the house has other kinds of smells, too: “sulfur, wet, dirty laundry, cigarettes, whiskey, Flit,” and “potatoes or onions that were rotten.” And in the house are the adults who each reek of their drink and smoke of choice — Camels or Delicado cigarettes, and whiskey or rum or vodka or tequila — each of which the young Berlin knows well enough to distinguish between. In the house, the cloves and vanilla are mere smoke show that cannot disguise the true base notes. The picture is wrong; the house is not home.
After the war, her father relocates the family to Santiago, Chile. His rising station grants the swift exchange of a hardscrabble existence for the comforts of high society. Maids lay warm bricks at the feet of cold beds, and gardeners diligently tend and rotate beds of lush flowers: sweet peas, lilies, and roses for the summer, dahlias and chrysanthemums for the fall. This house in Santiago, Berlin recalls, “always smelled like hyacinth, although this must have only been for a few weeks,” as the flower blooms for only a short time in the early spring. The admission of an unreliable moment in memory, the recorded glitch of a fleeting scent that defies all reason and lingers, imbues the time with both the charms of its luxury and the murmurs of its inevitable instability. Many of Berlin’s friends from this time were either killed or killed themselves in the revolution that followed the coup of 1973. Their way of life had vanished, and they watched it crumble before them or knew they would soon have to.
As Berlin grows out of childhood, scent fades from the pages of the memoir. After finishing high school, she leaves Santiago to study at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. There she falls in love, marries, divorces, remarries, and gives birth to two of her sons. After an affair with the man who would become her third husband, Berlin and her second husband move to New York City for a fresh start. But soon enough, the third husband to-be whisks Berlin and the children away to Acapulco, Mexico, where at last there seems time, or at least enough pause, for her to stop and smell flowers again: roses and tuberoses, gardenias, and datura. After a few months, they return to New Mexico, where Berlin finalizes her divorce and the new couple marries, and where her third son is born.
Throughout these later years in Welcome Home, the sudden absence of scent is striking, but perhaps familiar to the reader, too. Besides the occasional flower, there are only the pungent fumes of the ham-smoking factory beneath the loft in New York City, which cling to Berlin’s typewriter for years. Otherwise there is no time to stop and smell — there are children to raise and homes to tend to, just as mounting responsibilities seem to pull our attention away from reveling in our senses as we grow older. And for Berlin, there are new and real fears. Her third husband’s heroin addiction brings terror and uncertainty into their lives. In these years, what remains of scent memory is only what is powerful enough to break these daily patterns.
Welcome Home ends mid-sentence, amidst the memoir’s final, awful smells. Berlin recalls “cold and wet and new smells, chicken shit, cow shit, goat shit,” as her husband’s withdrawal and her children’s flu force them to seek shelter in a barn while on the road in Chiapas. Yet the memoir portion truly, and thankfully, concludes about two decades after the moment of the cliffhanger, with a dispatch from a different world. In the intervening years, Berlin gives birth to her fourth son, divorces her third husband, struggles with her own addiction, supports herself and her sons, pursues a master’s degree, and sees her writing published. (As Davis remarks, Berlin’s life was “enough to fill several lives.”)
“The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived In,” a list drafted by Berlin in the 1980s, footnotes the memoir portion of Welcome Home, condensing her personal geography into a litany of each location’s grievances, whether grave or humorous. Also incomplete, it ends with a hopeful status report from Oakland, California: “No catastrophe. So far.”
Home is found somewhere in these pockets of hope, where no catastrophe is brewing, and where the flowers you know should grow are taking. Every place will collect its troubles; this is the very premise of Berlin’s list and perhaps even her memoir. But knowing home is as innate as knowing a flower or a gut feeling, and as easy as recognizing a scent.
By Lucia Berlin
Paperback Published Nov. 5, 2019
Missy J. Kennedy is a writer, editor, and illustrator in Boston.