When I was six years old, my parents began building a house on a tiny island called a “hammock.” We lived on Wilmingon Island at the time, in a ranch-style house in a small subdivision. Wilmington Island had several neighborhoods, but it was pretty far out in the boonies at the time — 10 minutes outside of Savannah, Georgia. Cable TV wasn’t wired out to the island, and we couldn’t even get pizza delivered.
The house my parents were building was even further out of Savannah, near Tybee Island. Unlike pizza-free Wilmington, Tybee was an incorporated town. There were restaurants and the elementary school where my brother and I were bussed every day: across the bridge by Williams Seafood, along the eight-mile causeway through wide expanses of marsh, and across another bridge that shrimp boats docked beneath. We could see the Tybee lighthouse, the Savannah River, and the Atlantic ocean from the second bridge.
When the house was under construction, the neigborhood consisted of two dirt roads and a handful of houses, all with waterfront access. The island is a narrow finger of land, surrounded by tidal rivers and creeks: salt marsh in the west, and the wide Back River then the ocean to the east. There was a small bridge to the island, then a rutted dirt road. We’d take a right turn after the bridge, and down the dusty road on the left, we saw the smooth concrete slab of our house’s foundation, and the yellow lumber framework that would become the kitchen, the living room, our bedrooms.
The place was littered with nails and steel and all sorts of sharp objects. My brother and I didn’t care. There was nothing more exciting in our childhood lives than exploring our house-in-progress. Our parents often took us out there in the evenings, after school. Every time we visited there were new parts: the framing, then plywood walls, then bathtubs and drywall and windows and doors.
The best part was the smell: salt marsh mixed with the scent of freshly cut lumber. Brined air laden with the woody fragrance of sawdust. The scent was of newness and nature, of shelter, of creation.
Whenever I smell lumber, whether at Home Depot or on a sidewalk next to a building-in-progress, it takes me back. Back to the construction site of my childhood home, where I’d inhale deeply to take it all in: the salt air, the sawdust, home.