What was I thinking—signing up for a workshop based on memories evoked by smell? I can smell and I do enjoy fragrances—flowers, spices, perfumes. But my “smell” memories aren’t deep. My memories seem to be triggered more by sights, colors, sounds and such.
My husband would have been great at this. He was very smell oriented and had a keen sniffer. He often entered memories through their smells. And I have one granddaughter who wanted a shirt of her grandfather’s at his passing to remember his after-shave. My daughter describes her as “my smelly child.”
During one workshop exercise-- a scatttergram --I wrote down a few things but I mostly “cheated” by hitchhiking on other people’s thoughts.
Now I’m expected to write a 1200-1500 word olfactory memoir. Yikes!
My only hope is to do a stream of consciousness kind of thing with all my scattered smell scraps. I’m afraid it’s going to feel like the writing scene from “ You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in which Lucy tries to wring the required number of words out of a book report on Peter Rabbit. She counts and recounts the words.
My earliest memories are from my grandparent’s little corner tavern, The Silver Dollar in Grand Rapids. It was always dim in there, day or night. I remember the musty beer smells coming form the limp rag my grandmother would swipe across the counter with a deftness from the repetition of wiping up so many spills. An attendant smell came from the overflowing ashtrays with yesterday’s cigarettes.
That makes me remember Sunday mornings and old cigarettes in my home. My parents—mostly my dad would have had a Saturday night party—my mother was basically the caterer and would have happily forgone the whole event, I’m sure. Daddy was the party boy. And when I came downstairs the next morning there would be the unmistakable odor from overfull ashtrays, cocktail glasses not quite empty, and soggy sandwiches on platters. Maybe this is where I got my taste for yesterday’s food. I’m perfectly happy with a tuna sandwich on bread that’s almost entirely sogged-down with mayo and pickle juice.
Thinking of food reminds me of another of my childhood tastes, the daily slice of bread with butter that I dipped in my thermos lid of Campbell’s Cream of Tomato soup. The butter would turn glossy from the heat and pool on top of the soup. As an only child I had to eat by myself because the school closed at lunchtime. All the kids had to walk to their homes. My dad was off in the Navy, and my mother was away at work across town as a bookkeeper for a lumber company. Everybody was doing their share for the war effort. Me too, I guess. I remember those lunch hours as seemingly endless and lonesome.
Maybe it was during those long lunch hours that I played one of my favorite games in my bedroom upstairs. I would borrow my mother’s small burgundy throw rug with the curved gardenlike paths for my dolls to “stroll” around. Part of the play was to light candles for the dolls. That very strong fragrance of snuffed candle smoke trailing in the air is one I do remember fondly. To this day when birthday candles are blown out, I think of those days on my bedroom floor. How did I not burn the house down? Maybe because of that thought, today I only use scent warmers and tea lights with batteries to “odorize’ my home with lilac being one of my favorites.
That preference for lilacs relates to one of my best memories—a genuine olfactory one. We had a huge lilac bush under my bedroom window. I delighted in it’s fragrance coming in on the breeze. My mother didn’t like cut flowers in the house for some reason so they died on the vine so to speak. There was a once-a-year exception. She would cut a big bouquet for me to take to my teacher. A wonderful day for me, and I hope for my teacher. Does anyone remember the Marston’s Department Store in downtown San Diego? In the spring they would fill the store with lilacs from their Julian ranch. I worked Saturdays in a small department store across the street and I would spend my lunch hour sniffing my way through Marston’s just to absorb that marvelous smell.
Thinking back to the birthday candles, I remember my first grade birthday celebration at school. All the kids made me cards and as I was walking home, struggling with my umbrella in the lionish end of March in Michigan. The wind was strong and erratic and a vicious gust caught my umbrella and turned it inside out. I dropped all my birthday cards in the slush and I remember telling God that I didn’t think this was any way to treat a birthday girl.
A few blocks from this spot on my walk was the bus stop, which I recall from another birthday--my eighth. I was waiting for the bus to go downtown. I was celebrating myself. “I am eight years old!” I remember thinking I was extremely accomplished to have attained such a benchmark. I was on my way to the YWCA where I took swimming lessons. One of my very strongest odor memories is from this experience. They had a heavily chlorinated foot bath for us to walk through; it was housed between two swinging doors, hemmed in on both sides by walls with those tiny, old-fashioned white tiles. It was too far across to jump so our only choice was to step through the chilling water and kill whatever livestock or fungus we may have had. We weren’t exposed to all the current commercials that cartoon-ize and otherwise elaborate on the woes of athlete’s foot; we didn’t even know why we were subjected to this momentary torture, but to enjoy the glories of the pool on the other side we had to face that nose-stinging, eye-burning journey.
Thinking of things that sting the eye, I recall my mother’s slathering me with Vick’s Vaporub at the least sign of sniffles. I never remember having a really bad cold so it must have worked, but I do remember hating the chill of the gel as it came out of the blue jar and touched my girlish chest just warm out of my pajamas. Then that pungent odor that literally invades the sinuses would bring tears to my eyes. A bulky terrycloth towel would then be fastened around my neck with a safety pin and I would be put to bed to “get over it.” I’m sure that mentholated “perfume” followed me for days.
Speaking of perfume, I remember feeling very put upon because perfumers were always discontinuing my fragrances. When I was very young we all had little vials of Midnight in Paris. Remember the blue bottle with the silky blue cord tied around the top? I don’t remember even liking the smell, but everybody had to have it. I hope it was discontinued. As a teen I wore Faberge’s Straw Hat. Their cylindrical bottles were wonderful. My bottle top was covered in straw material and had a brim like a straw hat with a red polka dot band. My mother wore Tigress and her bottle top was covered with a furry tiger striped fabric. But then they discontinued my fragrance. Not fair. Even more recently I had worn Giorgio’s for a long time and all my grandchildren associated it with Grammy. One of my granddaughters was in a prayer circle with her mother and she leaned over to whisper that the lady next to her smelled like Grammy. But then Giorgio discontinued it! Just as a point of information-- knock-offs are just not right. I’ve tried.
Thinking about my children and grandchildren makes me remember that my son always said when we came to visit, ‘Smells like Papa.” He must be a “smelly kid” too, come to think of it. My husband wore two fragrances inter-changeably for all his 78 years. One was Old Spice and the other was Brut. I loved them both and I miss his getting ready in the morning and smelling all shavey and fresh. Now suddenly I realize that I can’t call those fragrances to mind. I gave the remainders of the bottles to my grandsons. I can’t remember smelling it on them either. It’s probably too old-fashioned—and by the way, I hate that term. It implies something that’s no longer desirable.
And I would love to have that fragrance waft in on the early morning air --just one more time. That would be an olfactory memory to cherish.
Since I only have 1457 words to this point I will list some of my scattergram memories so that when I read this in the future those thoughts will still be here for further elaboration. And maybe it will trigger something for you, dear reader.
Popcorn at the movies with Don
Concord grapes in the backyard arbor
Wet dog smell on camping trips
Lilies of the Valley in Michigan
Orange blossoms on the desert air on the way to California Pine forest campgrounds with bacon cooking in the morning Fudge smell on Mackinac Island Wet wooly mittens on the radiators at Alger School The smell of gas pumping at the gas station before “recapture” nozzles
There’s 154 more—1572 total. Mission accomplished!
- Sheila LeCompte