The Scents of My Past: A Letter to Foster Parents

2015-11-10 09.16.09

The scents of our past often haunt us, bringing a barrage of memories that flood out all reason and logic. A familiar smell has the power to render us useless for a moment in time, as we are exported from who we are now to who we once were.

What is the scent that does that for you?

Is it the scent of ginger because it reminds you of Grandma’s house and those ooey gooey cookies that she made every year at Christmas? Is it the autumn candle that teases your senses and brings you back to the very first day you plunged into a pile of crunchy leaves, blanketing yourself from the crisp cool air around you? Maybe it’s that Old Spice aftershave your husband wears because this is the smell of nestling into the crook of daddy’s arm when you were six and snuggly years old.

For years, my favorite scent was…

you ready for it …

it’s a little disappointing …

but here it is …

the smell of cigarettes and cheap perfume.

Confusing I know. But not if you understand my past. For these were the scents of my mommy.

This is what kissed my senses with her eventual presence when she would bustle in 30 minutes late to the family visit that the Department of Social Services had set up for us.

The air around her wasn’t the first thing I would notice, though. The first thing I would notice is the bruise on her cheek. Or maybe that swelling around her lip. My gut would clench in the agony of not being there to protect her from the man who felt the need to paint his immaturity across her face time and time again.

Sometimes, I would notice that her weight has changed, and she didn’t look like my mommy anymore. Not the one whose belly I used to bury my head into, anyway. Her soft and squishy curves suddenly appeared as sharp and hallow angles.

For a minute, I would want to hide from her. It was weird to know that I was about to have to hug this person that I wasn’t even sure was my Mommy. Before I could hug her, I would pinch her cheeks to make sure an alien hadn’t abducted her body. I would fidget in discomfort upon noticing that she was looking at me with the same skepticism in her eye. Did she want to pinch my cheeks also?

But all that skepticism would fly to another land as she moved closer into the air around me, and whisked my breath away with the smell of her menthol cigarettes and Baby Soft perfume. That’s when I couldn’t help but remember, with undeniable certainty, that she was mine, and I was hers.

I would get lost in the smell of this complicated woman who had both given me life and taken it from me in so many ways. My heart always chose to settle on the fact that she has given it to me. All the negative things about our shared history would fly to another land, because her scent most strongly reminded me of the times when she would draw me close- the times I could actually capture her.

Isn’t this what we all want to hang on to? Don’t we most desperately want to cling to the good in those who helped create us? For it is through that good that we cling to the hope that we- children of such brokenness- have inherited the very best parts of the dynamic and complicated people who share our genetics.

When we, as foster parents, struggle to understand how important a child’s birth parents are to them, I urge you to do this…

Take another minute to think about the scents of your own past. Remember Grandma and Autumn and Old Spice and all the other things that told you that humanity is about holding onto those things that remind us of how we became “us.” How we became broken- how we became whole- how we became human.

Respect your child’s humanity in all ways, so that they can learn to respect yours.

Love, Lizzy



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Liz Hunter

Liz is a Social Worker, Foster Alum, Adoptee, Foster & Adoptive Parent, Writer, & Public Speaker. She is currently in the process of publishing a memoir, chronicling her 15 year journey to adoption and the 7 years she spent in the American foster care system. Her degree specializations are Psychology, Sociology, Social Work, & Criminal Justice. She founded Foster Noise/Adopt Peace in hopes of creating a forum to elevate the voices of the real life heroes and survivors of the foster care system.


  • Annalisa says:

    This is one of the thing I found with a 5 month old baby I fostered. That after visits she was effected most by the smell of mom’s perfume. This took awhile to click but she would have less negative behavior or nightmares if I bathed her right after visits. If only I had made the connection months before it would have lessened the impact.

    • Liz Hunter Beth Hunter says:

      Good for you for noticing how affected she was by that physical memory of her mother, even as a tiny baby. These memories do haunt us and define us, even when we are not in their presence.

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