Today is the day I have to wash my 3-year-old son Jack's blankie. We both dread this weekly event. "Please, Mommy, no!" he cries as I pry it from his fingers. I try to convince both of us that this really is for the best. Every week we go through the same routine, and every week Jack is surprised, let down, and then bereft. His two primary sources of comfort, mother and blankie, have let him down.
Jack and his blankie have been together since he was a baby. Our family album holds a documented history of Jack's gradual growth and his blankie's gradual decline. Three years' worth of naps and nighttimes, countless car trips, and endless adventures have taken their toll, and his blankie has become nothing but a twisted, knotted glob of grayish white yarn.
Jack loves his blankie, not in spite of its flaws, but because of them. The more ragged it becomes, the softer it feels against his skin. The more potent it smells, the more he can define it as his and his alone. Once, after receiving it warm and fluffy from the dryer, he threw it down in disgust, saying, "it doesn't smell like my blankie anymore!"
It usually takes Jack about a week to get the smell just right. The first stage is the just-washed, fresh-out-of-the-dryer smell - Jack's least favorite. "It smells like dirt!" he yells, often rejecting his blankie for the rest of the day.
The next stage is my favorite, a mixed bag of odors that resembles Jack and chocolate chip cookies. When I cuddle with him in the morning, the bed-warmed aroma entices me into asking for a sniff myself. Sometimes Jack agrees, but usually he denies me this pleasure. He doesn't like to share, viewing the smell as a limited resource not to be wasted on the woman who will eventually wash it away.
The third stage is a transitory one, the smell degenerating from sweet to pungent, from tasty to tasteless. The chocolate-chip- cookie smell disintegrates into something much less savory.
As the week progresses, we arrive at the fourth stage - strong, with a real jolt of reality to it. Jack finds this smell irresistible..
I have found him hiding his blankie in secret places so that he can go back for illicit whiffs during the day. What he doesn't realize is that when it smells that strong, it is easy to locate.
My daughter, Alex, exhibited the same behavior with her two blankies. The pink one was named (appropriately enough) Stinky Bubbie, and the white one, for reasons making sense only to her, was named Daddy's Bubbie.
Late one dark night when she was young enough to be in a crib, but old enough to tell me what she wanted, she woke up crying and asking for Daddy's Bubbie. I fumbled around in the dark, grabbed the first blankie I could find, and handed it to her with a kiss. Before I made it back to the door, her tears had stopped, her eyes had closed, and her thumb had gone into her mouth as her blanket went up to her nose.
Then all of a sudden, Whack! A pink blankie hit me in the back of the head. I had grabbed Stinky Bubbie, not Daddy's Bubbie. That was my first inkling of the power of smell and its puzzling link to love in my children's lives.
As with Alex before him, Jack's thumb-sucking is triggered by the smell of his blankie. One sniff and his mouth opens, his thumb twitches, and his left elbow bends, executing a perfect arc into his mouth. All the while, his other hand holds the corner of his blankie up to the soft curve between his lip and nose.
So I will go and wash Jack's blankie, I will endure his indignant wrath, and I will try to understand the power of smell in my little boy's life and its strange connection to love and comfort. But I already have a hunch that for him his blankie's smell is just a reminder of the simple security and love that he knew when he and his blankie first met.