During my early childhood years, my sister, mom, and I spent a portion of every summer in Philadelphia. The three of us would take up residence in my grandparents’ den, sleeping on an array of foam mats and pull-out couches that were made up at night and put away again come morning. Some years, our visit would be no more than a week or two, other years we’d be there for a month or more.
The years when we stayed for many weeks, my grandmother would enroll us in various day camps, so that we’d have structure and entertainment. She and my mom would shop, have lunch, visit relatives, and take walks around the city. In the evenings, we’d either have simple meals made at home by my mom and Grandpa Sid (Tutu did not cook much), or we’d walk to Little Pete’s or Mandarin Palace so that no one had to bother with the dishes later.
Though my sister and I would be reminded to be on our best behavior every time we visited, the apartment was like a second home and we treated it as such. We helped ourselves to the after dinners mints stashed in the bar when no one was looking, and we dug through Tutu’s closet, looking for shoes and hats to use for dress-up. When we had energy to burn, we’d slip out into the hallway and run up and down it’s block-long length until we were panting for air.
For the last 14 years, I have lived in the very same apartment where I spent those happy summers. The den where we once slept is now my husband’s domain (though the same couch still stands sentinel) and though much of the art on the walls remains the same as in their day, the traces of Sid and Tutu diminish with every passing year. However, both building and the neighborhood at large still harbor wisps of the past strong enough to regularly stop me cold.
My most recent bout of time travel happened yesterday. After a very long, cool spring, the heat and humidity of summer is here, draping itself down around the city like a sheer, damp scarf. I had walked to Trader Joe’s to pick up milk, fruit, and a trio of romaine hearts, and was on my way home with reusable bags balanced on both shoulders. Bangs damp and frizzy, and tee-shirt sticking to my back, I was singularly focused on getting through the back door and into the blessed relief of the air conditioning.
As I crossed the threshold of the building, I was hit with heady, memory-laden cocktail of scents. There was the slightly metallic tang of the cooled air as it met the steaminess of outside. A hint of griddled onions from the food truck half a block away. A whisper of garbage from a nearby dumpster. The ineffable medley of cleaning products and 50-year-old building.
The collection of those city scents made my head tumble and pull, as if the gravitational center of the universe had shifted slightly. I felt as if I was being thrust out of my life in 2016 and backwards 30 years into my seven-year-old self. Just for a moment, I slipped back three decades. I stopped walking, wanting to stretch the feeling and hold on to the possibility that behind me walked my mom, the same age as I am now, and my grandmother, still living, breathing, and offering fashion advice.
I stood there, feet frozen to the sloping ramp, alive and well in two different eras.
Soon enough, the doors slid open again to admit a neighbor and the spell was broken. My feet carried me forward into the lobby and back into the last day of May, in 2016.
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For the last year, Scott and I have been looking to buy a house in West Philadelphia. It’s more my plan than his, though he is now a willing participant in my campaign for larger, slightly less urban digs. And while the move to a home with doors that open directly onto the outside and a kitchen large enough to hold more than two people is what I want, I confess that I will miss living in a place that holds so much of my family’s history. And it will be these unprompted tumbles back in time that I’ll mourn the most.