The Magnolia Tree and Its Gift

The slightest scent can take you back — and up.

Excerpt from the book “They Call Me Orange Juice” by Audrey McDonald Atkins

There is a cranny way back in the farthest corner of my brain. In that cranny lives a memory. Buried far beneath the births, deaths, tragedies, joys, holidays, and everydays that have piled on top of it, this little fragment has languished, long undisturbed. 

At least, that is, until the other day when, Ka-blap! Just like that, it came rushing back all at once. A deluge of images. Like watching telephone poles race by the car window. 

What, you may ask, drew this memory out from its peaceful, dark hidey-hole? 

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A magnolia — rather the scent of a magnolia. 

It was about dusk. Husband and I decided to take a stroll through our neighborhood because that’s what you do on a hot, summer night when you’re too restless to stay inside but not motivated to do much of anything else. You walk. Slowly. Aimlessly. Feeling the still night air wrap you in its swampy embrace. 

When the air is motionless and heavy, the summer scents seem enhanced, heightened, ponderous. And as we passed an ancient magnolia tree, the sweet, lemony tang of its perfume engulfed me and lifted me up to the tippiest of its tip-top branches, and suddenly I could see out over the piney woods of South Alabama. At least in my mind’s eye. 

You see, as a child, I was a climber. I’d climb any tree just to see if I could, and I had decided to climb Granny’s magnolia tree. The one way down by the road. The one by the gate. The one I’d never conquered. A relatively low-hanging branch was all I needed. My arms reached for it. One great heave. Get a knee up! A leg! Push! Push! 

And just like that I was on my way up. 

Like a ladder, I climbed that old tree. Climbed until the branches were thin and the trunk swayed under my weight. Climbed until I couldn’t climb anymore. So I sat. I sat in the shade of its thick leaves, shiny and velvety. Sat among the blossoms. Sat breathing in the fragrance of its great, white blossoms. I sat for what seemed like a long, long time drinking in the sounds around me, the sights, the smells. 

Looking toward Granny’s house, I wondered if it was getting close to lunchtime. Had they called for me? Would I even be able to hear them? Would they hear me if I called out? Would they even miss me if I got stuck in that tree, never to be seen or heard from again, pecked apart by the buzzards that always seemed to circle? 

The number one thing a tree-climber learns is that going up is easy. The trick is getting down. And now, for the first time, I wondered if I could. 

With hands slick from sweat and grimy from the bark, I slowly made my descent. Don’t look down. Just feel your way. Don’t panic. One foot. One hand. There’s a good branch. There’s another. Hold on. Breathe. Just fill your lungs with the soothing scent of mother magnolia, and she will gently let you down to earth again. 

And that she did, way back then, and the other night when a faint breeze blew the scent and the scene away. 

Olfactory memory. That’s what it’s called when a mere smell triggers something deep within you. 

A gift. That’s what I call being transported back in time forty years straight to the top of a tree.

Born and raised in Citronelle, Atkins shares stories about growing up and living in the South in her book, “They Call Me Orange Juice,” and at her blog

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