When I was a kid, our family belonged to East San Diego Presbyterian Church. Going to Sunday services made me admire my shoes. Black patent Mary Janes. There wasn’t much else to look at. Sometimes I gazed at the tall brass pipes of the organ, but I soon wore them out as a topic.
I smoothed my dress over my knees and felt like a frog in taffeta. I entertained myself by watching dust motes drop in slo mo from the high ceiling. Halfway down, they disappeared and reappeared through bands of red, green, and blue sunlight churched by the stained glass windows. The specks fell softly with the cachet of a secret in plain sight, and they explained the dry scent that sighed through the sanctuary.
The highbacked, dark-wood pews smelled of corners: right angles harboring mites and must. Their cousins, the hymnals, smelled the same. This fit the songs. We mouthed the words, verse after verse, wishing for salvation.
Flowers were laid out in tall vases on either side of the altar. Sprays of pink gladioli, yellow-orange alstromeria, white carnations, magenta stargazer lilies backed by ferns. Outside, in the world, blossoms typically opened and spilled their sweet scent like wanton barmaids. But in church, flowers stalled out and festered, drowning in their own water.
Since ceremonial food had been promised, I hoped that delicious smells were on the way. But at communion, the wafer erased itself. We had been told that it was Christ’s body showing up as bread, but where was the loafy smell -- that scent of yeast that made a person feel expansive and worthy of butter and jam? Likewise, the odor of the little tippance of communion wine danced for an instant and then evaporated too.
From the parishioners rose the faint smell of humans scrubbed presentable: Lifebuoy soap, Brilliantine hair pomade, Aqua Net hairspray. A nip of Old Spice. Sometimes a wisp of perfume slid by that was more Saturday night than Sunday morning: White Shoulders, Hypnotique, Primitif.
But in the summer, since air-conditioning was not, we suffered. Most people didn’t trouble themselves with that newfangled antiperspirant stuff. So we smelled. But being Presbyterians, no one spoke of it. At the end of the service, we stepped out into superheated air with the scent of abraded iron. Families drove straight home, where parents threw off their shoes and put their feet up on the hassock, fanning themselves with a pleated section of last night’s Evening Tribune. Kids kicked up a wet grass and mud smell in the backyard by chasing each other with the hose.
But except for hot-weather sweat, Presbyterianism didn’t smell much. Scent felt excessive. Foreign. Papist.
In a short romance with the Catholic Church, I attended mass with a circle of black lace bobbypinned to the top of my head. But Catholic-smell shocked me. Ecclesiastic candles swooned everywhere, waxing the air -- a thousand tiny fires burning like Saint Teresa. Incense smoked down the aisle in steaming metal pots swung by altar boys. This was not democracy. It was a monarchy of scent and everyone knelt to it.
And, whenever we smell something, we feel it before we can think about it. Maybe that’s why smell tells us where we belong. I eventually found my sanctuary in the piney Sierras, and most of all, in the fresh scent of the sea.
- Anitra Carol Smith