This morning my four-year-old son, Arlo, woke up on the other side of our king bed, pushed himself up onto his hands, looked over at me and yawned.
“Morning,” I said.
He gave me a big closed-mouth smile beneath wild blonde curls and scooted against me, as he always does, resting his head against my bare chest.
He slept in our bed until he was three or so. Now he sleeps in another room but invariably toddles in to join us around 3 or 4am. Somehow, I always know he’s coming. Do I hear his footsteps? I wake to watch him wander in the door, and I scoop him up and flip him into our bed, between my husband and me, where we all fall back to sleep.
This morning, he had a question. “Mama, why do you smell so good?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your body. It smells so good. Why do you smell like that? The whole house smells like you, it smells so good. Why does your body smell like that?”
He looked at me with real curiosity, evidently wanting a real answer. I told him I didn’t know, and kissed his head, and thought how sweet that is, a little guy wondering about the elusive smell of the mother – her skin, her sweat, her soap, her shampoo, her odor foul and beautiful.
Who knows what it is, really?
I remember my mother’s smell. I remember the feeling of being against her skin, her arm, the softness and warmth of her body. I remember it felt like home. Like everything would be fine as long as I could inhale that scent, the scent of something I knew like air, though couldn’t define or grasp.
It’s just the way we need our mothers, I suppose. The good ones, at least. The ones who mean all those things.
As a kid, I was preoccupied with the idea of my mother dying. Of her leaving and never returning. I wrote about it in my book. I would sit for hours on the couch, or what felt like hours, rocking and listening to “M.A.S.H” (her favorite show), willing her to not be dead, imagining what I would do if she were. I would work myself into a near frantic fury, sometimes crying, praying, begging God to let her come back, and in my little brain it was so real, the abandonment.
If she wasn’t in the room, she might as well be dead.
Eventually I would hear the garage door go up. I would hear her rustling on the porch.
She’d let me crawl into bed with her. I’d fold against her. Her smell.
Oh, the mother. She’s back.
My son asked me about that today, and it made me think of the children separated from their mothers at our borders, of the visceral, physical pain of a child yearning for her mother, of the actual blood craving a reconnection to all that she knows of home.
In this case, quite literally.
I wonder how you teach somebody to give a shit about that. To not care if the mother is a “criminal” who wandered across arbitrary national lines – although most of them are “guilty” of misdemeanors – to not care if she “shouldn’t” have done that thing, because we are talking about families.
We are talking about a child.
How do you teach somebody to feel the agony of a child aching for his mother’s skin? Her smell. The only one in the world.
The only one in the whole fucking world.
My mother always came back to me. Over time, I knew she would, and I could tell myself “She’ll come back.” But it didn’t help.
The yearning of a child isn’t rational. It isn’t reasonable and it isn’t intellectual. It is a yearning in the bones, in the blood, in the same blood that raced through the body we shared.
In our womb. In our waters.
I think of those children in beds alone, with no idea where their mother is in that very moment. A phone call or two. A few moments on video. But at night, in the dark, where is she?
Her actual body.
Why do you smell so good?
Because I am yours, son. Because we shared a body once, and when you’re young, it is still somehow ours – and for a long, long time, my body is, for you, that old, sacred home, the one we know in our blood but not our brains, that has no right to be tampered with, because it is our tiny shelter in a giant, unforgiving univers. For those few moments, I am all you have.
I don’t know how to make somebody care about that. Perhaps they forgot their own humanity, their own love and blood.
The smell of home doesn’t give a shit about borders. We deny a child that for political gain. To teach them a lesson. And these people do it in God’s name? The Bible?
How strange these people are, picking and choosing the book’s teachings. Baldwin calls this hypocrisy “self-serving moral cowardice.” Have you ever heard it stated more perfectly?
Because immigrants have “broken the law” (and this, you know, is up for debate), they deserve torture? Their children deserve torture?
Self-serving moral cowardice.
Well damn, I guess I should thank God I had the dumb luck to be birthed me in a nation where we could live safely, not forced to a border to survive. How noble of me!
And you apologists: Thank God you were born in a nation where you don’t understand fleeing your home with nothing but your body, and your baby, who wails for nothing but your sweet sweat. Now, “home.”
I can’t make you see a world you’ve forgotten. But how cold it must be where you live.
Every time I write about this country, if feels obscenely small and self-serving to share my book, and yet, well, I am trying to feed my family, and this is my contribution to the world right now.
Some words. Some truth. I hope it helps some people. We have to remember our creative work matters, maybe now more than ever?
So I’ll keep telling you about it, and this week, I had the nice surprise to learn that Amazon editors chose I’m Just Happy to Be Here as a “Best Book of 2018 So Far” in the
– wait for it –
HUMOR category (?).
Who knew Amazon editors had such a jacked up sense of humor? (This is not an insult.)
Anyway, that made me particularly delighted, because we talk a lot about the seriousness, and not much about the parts where I, at least, laughed my ass off writing it. Nice to see that aspect of it highlighted.
Thank you, Amazon editorial staff.
Amanda CallinMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:33
Beautiful, heart-wrenching post, as always.
Thank you Janelle – can’t wait to meet you on Cortes in September!
renegademamaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:36
Oh my god Yay!! Can’t wait to meet you. We’re going to have a great time.
KristolMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:34
You’ve done it again my love. I think about that all the time too. My son (4) won’t sleep if he is not literally in the crook of my arm. I can move him to his bed later, but he has to fall asleep in my arm. I can’t imagine those poor babies, one of them being like my son, searching for that crook, that pillow of mother and being unable to find it.
renegademamaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:36
Oh my goodness, yes. Forgot about that. That he has never fallen asleep without the touch my skin, or his father’s. Love you.
SherryMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:36
I haven’t slept properly for weeks. I twist and turn and think about those children and think about my children and I just cry and cry. My stomach actually burns most of the time lately. This is taking a physical toll on me – and I haven’t lost my child. I ache for these parents, and I can barely even breathe when I think about the kids. I hurts to my very soul. And I just can’t wrap my head around these fucking monsters who don’t give a shit.
LarissaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:23
Same for me. I want to crash into those building where they are being held and save then. So I just donate to Raices, and try and help find translators. Because they need their moms, their care takers, their home. Fleeing from trauma they arrive to be traumatized further. WITAF America.
DaniMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:45
For as long as I can remember, my mother told my brother and me, “You came from me.” She continues to say it even though we are full-grown adults with children. And now I say it to my children. You came from me. It is a familiar refrain in our family, repeated so often that it has been reduced to an acronym: YCFM But it accurately expresses what you described in this post. And if someone doesn’t get this, if a parent doesn’t get this, there is no way of explaining it to them.
renegademamaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:48
Chills. Yes, this is exactly it. Thank you for sharing.
disheveledbatTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 13:34
this brought tears to my eyes. it reminded me that my mother, whom i lost to alzheimer’s a couple of years ago, used to say exactly the same thing to us, all the way into adulthood. thank you for the reminder. and thank you janelle, for the beautifully written post.
MaryMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:47
This was so perfect. I’ve been struggling recently to articulate why it is that I keep stopping a little longer than usual to smell my sweet baby boy’s hair. My youngest is just 8 months and I keep imagining the terror he would feel if we were separated. But I can’t imagine it. So I hold him a little close and thank my stars it’s not us. And then I keep trying to figure out how to help these families. Giving money to RAICES doesn’t seem like enough. I wish I could be there with these kids and help them get back to their moms.
SarahMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 13:50
This is beautiful. I’m sitting here, an adult, a thousand miles away from my mom, and I can actually smell her. Thank you for writing this piece.
IljaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 16:55
Yes, same here. Janelle made me smell my mom from half way around the globe. Xx
Gene-Manuel WhirlingMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:08
Aaaah This is perfection. Thank you.
I spent an entire month with my mother in the hospital last year. Her last month on earth. I was with her every single day and got into the habit of kissing her forehead and smelling her. Every single day. I knew she wasn’t going to make it out of there and it was as if I needed to some how, stock up on her scent. I never really thought about it that much, the significance of it, until reading this post.
I have some of her things in closed plastic bags…in an attempt to keep her scent alive.
MaggieMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 21:56
Ang CMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:22
YES. THIS. ALWAYS.
My boys (now close to their teenage years) still wake up when I leave the house when they are still asleep……. such a visceral connection.
Sara C.Monday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:24
What a beautiful, heart-wrenching piece. You have a true gift.
LizMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:25
Absolutely beautiful. Thank you.
StephanieMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:29
Nailed it. You wordsmith bitch you.
MelMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:34
I have been having nightmares over this. Literal nightmares, where i am crying inconsolably over not being able to see my kids. I kept checking your blog for a post about it, thank you for writing this. Your words comfort and empower me, its like you are a mother to us moms sometimes:)
SarahMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:37
I had someone who actually defended the internment of children by countering with,” is it really about the kids and not the leftist agenda?? Mother’s in the U.S. voluntarily leave their kids in a place without either parent everyday..it’s called Daycare.”
I just had no words. What does one say? These are innocent children for shits sake!
Shawn Van DeusenMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:44
So my little said to me last week in the am…”MOM! THEY ARE TAKING AWAY CHILDREN FROM THEIR MOMS!”
She was horrified at 9 years old! Wish all could see the horror in our childrens eyes..there and here.
Erika PrimozichMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:45
This, 1000X over. Thanks for putting it in words, like you always do.
CassieMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:53
I used to sit at the bottom of the driveway in tears if my mom was not home right on time. I would imagine her funeral and just *know* she was dead. She wasn’t though. She always came back. She passed almost two years ago and it’s as bad as I knew it would be. I miss her. And I give a fuck about these kids and I give a fuck about their mamas.
MichaelaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 14:56
I don’t even know what to write. I just wanted to say something as this piece resonated with me so deeply; as a mother, as a child (once!) and just as a human being. A heart-achingly beautiful read. Thank you.
BrendaMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 15:57
It’s the photo that killed me. His soft smile, and your caress. I don’t think I’ll forget it for a long time.
ElleMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 16:47
These words brought me to tears, and gave a voice to all the emotions that I have been feeling about this wretched situation. I too have little, blonde boy who snuggles up to my chest every morning, and he smells me and smiles to himself. These last few weeks all I can think about are the children and mothers who are denied this moment, and I rage against those who think it is their right to do this to them. Thank you for your words, your voice, and sharing that most precious moment with us. I read your book and can not tell you all the ways it resonated with me. I really appreciate your truth and candor. I look forward to seeing what is next.
michelleMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 19:17
The stories of these children being stolen from their families fills me with sadness and anger. My father lost his mother when he was 3, and then a few years later he lost the family he was with when his father took him back. Even into his 60’s he would cry about the loss. These politicians and the ones “just doing their jobs” are heartless and gutless.
Andrea Eisen BatesMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 19:26
Just. Simply. Breathtaking.
Love this so. And I so look forward to your book. I can’t wait to devour more of your words.
KirstieMonday, 25 June, 2018 at 21:19
This is so hard for those of us in other countries to see. I’m on the other side of the world, an island nation (New Zealand) and these things don’t really happen here. We don’t have these countries close by, with people in such dire need they leave everything behind. I can’t even imagine the poor children separated. And where are the babies?!? Ugh it makes me so sad!
ShannonTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 0:55
My Mom has been gone 7 1/2 years. I still remember her smell. I still remember not ever wanting to leave her arms. I’m 34 and still cry for her some days. I can’t imagine being a child and not having her there. I have 3 kids. 16, 11 and 7. They all still pile in the bed along with me, the husband and the dog. I can’t imagine not having them there. And if all of this is really “Gods plan” then I don’t want anything to do with that kind of God!
LisaTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 2:26
Amazing, beautiful, wonderful evocative post. This is your best yet, and that’s saying something.
WeaselinaTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 5:01
Maybe in the end it is the mothers, and the women in general, who will put things right.
We let the men run things (right, we know they took it all by force) and now we need to take it back and run things the way nature intended. Women will always make better decisions as a whole, as we are the ones making children, and for men to use them as pawns in their power and war games is obscene.
We need a modern day Lysistrata project, but we would need to rescue all the children/women who have been trafficked, which is probably what will happen to all these kids in border camps. So many children have been taken from their mothers for so long to serve the Oligarchy and the hawks that we are long overdue for a global effort to rescue them and put an end to this bullshit men created.
JohnnaTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 17:30
Yet again, you’ve brought me to tears and made me relive so many sensory memories. For me, the smell of my mom is inextricably linked with the sight of her hands. Veiny and tan from working outdoors. Simultaneously strong and gentle. Her favorite show is also MASH and I remember so many nights lying in bed with her watching it, and yes, smelling her all around me, while she would play with my hair and caress my arms until I fell asleep.
JohnnaTuesday, 26 June, 2018 at 17:34
I should add, that’s probably why the image of the little girl crying while her mom is taken into custody wrenches my heart out. Thank you for speaking to a thing so core to our humanity. I haven’t known what to do, but I’m realizing I must do something.
LisaWednesday, 27 June, 2018 at 8:54
Relevant and relatable. For everyone with a heart at least.
MargoThursday, 28 June, 2018 at 16:05
Your words are beautiful. Your language is amazing. You speak truth. As God does.
Not one that judges or condemns. But believes, as you do that children belong with their family, in the safety of knowing the smell of their home. Their mom. Their safe harbour.
They’re misusing Gods name. And its horrific…
VictoriaWednesday, 18 July, 2018 at 15:09
I love how you wrote this and it is so true. I am also horrified and think about those kids and mothers constantly; I want to run down there and just FIX IT.