I coast past the entrance to the lower lot, remembering too late that the upper lot is closed for paving. I got emails about this and those bright orange cones are tough to miss. But I’m already in my weekend state of mind. Relaxing into the glow of end-of-week dusk. So I loop around and find a spot in the lower lot. This is a one-time thing. The upper lot will be usable by Monday morning. But my mind still searches for the optimal spot and tucks the knowledge away for future use.

I settle the baby on my hip and as we climb the steps we never climb, my mind drifts again. To summer. And childhood. Shiny, black tar. My dad, pushing it along the driveway behind our house. We later called it ‘the little house.’ It had two bedrooms and my sister and I had to share. When we moved to the suburbs and each of us got our own rooms, there was no turning back.

At the little house, things were close. Physically. My sister and I and our shared room. Shared walls and driveways. And parking spots because nobody had a garage. They were close in other ways too. When you can hear your neighbors’ TV at night, you grow close to people.

Every summer, the men of the neighborhood would get together and repave the alley/driveway behind our houses. Or, at least, that is how I remember it. More likely it wasn’t every summer and not everyone would help and maybe they even paid someone to come. But I remember my dad and the smell of tar.

It’s not a good smell. And as I walk past the shiny black sea, I worry about my kids inhaling it. That chemical smell can’t be good.

But still, I love it.

To me, the smell of tar is my childhood. It’s summer. Even when the paving was done and weeks had passed, the heat of the sun would bake the driveway and you could still smell it. It’s free-spirited playing. Running with friends. Bringing dolls and blankets outside and playing ‘house’ in the front-yard. Sitting outside after dinner, before bed, maybe in pajamas, and eating grape popsicles in the shapes of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. It’s smiles and laughter and hugs because, when you’re small, the adults will hide the frowns and cries and arguing and troubles.

Now three instead of two, we walk back towards the parking lots and I warn my daughter, as she runs ahead, to stay on the sidewalk. I tell her that they paved the parking lot and we can’t walk on it. Can you smell it? Yes.

Will she remember this smell? Probably not. And I wonder what smells will, one day, bring her back to this time. I hope they are ones she can find when she is older and wants to, for just a moment, feel free-spirited.


  1. Some of my loveliest childhood memories involve smells that aren’t necessarily “nice,” the chemicals from my father’s office, being one of them. I would know those smells anywhere and would probably smile and cry and the same time from them. I, too, remember the smell of tar and summer and also wonder what smells will bring my children back to their past when they are older.
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  2. The smell of tar gets me too. And you’re right that it can’t be good, but it can’t be all bad either the way it makes me feel.
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  3. I already look forward to the blog your daughter will write. For me, the smell is mowed grass, and the smell of the lawnmower gas on my dad’s grass-mowing shirt. It smelled like grass mowing, even after it had been washed.
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