Story by Kristen Schmidt

Among the things I piled into my 1989 Ford Thunderbird in the summer of 1999, when I moved from my parents’ home to the tiny town of Berlin, Maryland: An air mattress. A folding chair and a tiny plastic patio table. Brand-new Liz Claiborne black jersey separates and a Jones New York suit. And a small collection of recipes—an early repertoire of magazine and newspaper clippings, ink-jet printed Word documents from Mom, and several hand-written recipes from my grandmother.

I was netting just $536 every two weeks in my cloistered, unfriendly new hometown of 4,000 people. Family recipes fulfilled a two-pronged mission. One, to feed me for days on the cheap, and two, to combat the alienation and homesickness I felt.

That winter, I made one recipe over and over. It was the only one I couldn’t eat. “Aroma of Christmas,” reads the note in my grandmother’s familiar cursive handwriting. The instructions are simple: Place several spices in a saucepan. Cover with water. Simmer. The final instruction, unwritten but mandatory: Inhale. I could fill my small apartment with the Aroma of Christmas for an entire weekend and feel comforted, soothed, in an abruptly warm and familiar place. As the water reduced, I carried the pan to the sink, filled it again and set it back on the stinking electric burner with a sizzle.

Each year, as the weather grows colder, I become a bloodhound for stronger scents, starting with cloves, cinnamon and other spices in the fall, and progressing to fir trees and wood-fire smoke in the winter. Little wonder I collect candles with the nose of a seeker, lifting jars and canisters to my face, breathing deeply and waiting for a memory to be sparked to life.

No candle or perfume does quite the job of the Aroma of Christmas, though. As soon as that scent wafts through the kitchen and extends its gentle fingers into other rooms and eventually the whole house, I am transported back to my grandmother’s house at Christmas, even though I can’t remember her simmering this potion herself. With a breath, my other senses are also reborn.

I hear the clapping of wood to wood as people draw their heavy dining chairs to the table. I can hear my grandfather clear his throat and speak in his deliberate, deep voice. My great-aunt laughs her spirited laugh. Metal clicks on porcelain as a spoonful of cranberry sauce is scooped onto my plate. I taste the intense sweetness and tartness. I feel the fuzzy wool sweater vest my great-uncle wears as he draws me in close for a hug.

In reality, so many of these things are gone: My grandfather and great-uncle, the house where my grandparents lived. But in my mind, and through something as simple as a simmering pan of aromatic water, it all lives again at a time of year when I miss it most.

The Aroma of Christmas

3 cinnamon sticks
3 bay leaves
Scant ¼ cup whole cloves
⅓ lemon or two sections
2 pieces orange peel
1 quart water
Simmer and add water when necessary