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20-30 years ago

The Faint Scent Of Color

Color—all of it, all colors—has no smell except the smell of crayola wax because for me, it’s the very first time I remember pure color, a vivid color, one that I could work to my will, one that was part of my world and was something more than the phantasms of adulthood. The wax seemed to smell differently depending on the color; I mean of course it wouldn't, but somehow hot pink smelled different than burnt orange smelled different than plain purple. Or maybe, because it was always wax again, and because the colors were so pure, the wax was like a blank page, a blank screen with a blinking cursor, a photo film coated in silver waiting for an image to be exposed onto it; wax was the medium carrying the smells of memory, the smell of sharp lemon that went with the lemon crayon, the smell of rubber and dirt and grime that went with the dark greys, the smell of grape juice with the purple, the smell of flamingos, fishy and bird droppings, that went with the neon orange, the smell of fear that went with the dark browns, the dark greens, the grey brown murky colors.

Maybe the reason little kids scribble isn't because they're not aware of the lines, it's because they've got something more interesting than the lines, they've got a smell-picture in their heads, and the exact combination of colors in scribble perfectly conjurors up the smell they're thinking of.

Did I mention I used to jam crayons into the center of a box fan, to watch the wax melt into circles of blur and color? Wax and dust was the smell. Also when I was really young I used to smash crayons into the grill of the space heater, to smell the wax as it melted against the warm dust coating the inside of the heater. I wonder now why my mother would let me get away with something so messy, but I realize that she probably figured, in the grand scheme of odd things boys do to clean up after, that wasn't such a big deal. Maybe she also thought the colors were pretty, and didn't mind so much because of it. Or, maybe she too has some sacred memory of crayons, the wax trapping the scent and the memory as sure as it traps the color of the crayon. Maybe she couldn't bring herself to rebuke grade school—coloring in the flags of the world, the crayons she held in her hand, the crayon she broke when grandma cried out because the radio just announced President Kennedy had been shot, the sharp smell of wax every bit as deadly and grim as gunpowder, the plastic smell of childhood itself.

- Brian Thedell

Simple Man

Salt of the earth Southerner. Drag racing enthusiast. Bearded since 1972. My father. 

When he held me my head laid on his collar bone. Beneath his beard his neck was always freshly shaved. Creamy wafts of sweet soap and musk: Barbasol shaving cream. I loved the smell so much I would take the small puffs that remained on red, white and blue can and wipe it under my nose leaving a white mustache. As it dried the scent faded to a cool soft wisp. 

He has chewed tobacco since the age of 15. My parents promised one another to quit their tobacco habits when they got married. It’s the only promise my father hasn’t kept. Kodiak Wintergreen, the green and black can with a grimacing bear. Mint with wet tobacco overlaid with notes of spit, tar, and black licorice. His spit cups were not to be knocked over. Resting on his collarbone the creaminess of the Barbasol mixed with the harsh tobacco spearmint together creating a scent that is greater than itself. It's the essence of a way of life, a place that is home.

- Jeanette Price

The Smoky Back Room

Several years ago, my husband and I were spending the weekend out on Long Island, and stopped at a bakery to pick up croissants for my in-laws. I saw a sign for the small town of Sea Cliff, where I often visited my grandparents as a child. Their house was sold shortly after my grandfather died—I was thirteen back then. I hadn’t been there for more than twenty years, but was somehow able to get us there, without consulting a map. 

A man was mowing the front lawn (I suddenly had a vision of my grandfather raising the flagpole with both British and American flags. I’m told by my mother he would sometimes wake his five children up in the morning by blaring Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.) My husband encouraged me to get out of the car; the man invited me in and graciously shepherded me, room by room, through my grandparents’ old house—a place, I realize now, that was strangely dearer to me than my own childhood home.

What I most remember is a vague but real coziness: a feeling of autumn, warm shades of amber and gold, and the smell of my grandfather’s pipe. Now, whenever I smell fresh tobacco, I am with him in that house, before I even register the thought “tobacco.” I know little about my grandfather firsthand—my aunts and uncles have described him as eccentric and something of a Walter Mitty character. He was a salesman in Manhattan during the Mad Men era; my mother says he frequently entertained clients at home and managed a prominent account for Campbell Soup. According to her, he was a charming businessman but also a deep introvert. 

There were thirteen of us cousins, all boys except for me and my younger cousin Bridget. He hardly spoke to us, and always called me “sis” or “lass.” I got the feeling he saw us as a mess of grandkids and may not have known my name. We knew we weren’t allowed in his study—otherwise known as “the back room.” It was often locked, filled with treasures like an old typewriter and adding machine, and the strong smell of cigar smoke. He also sometimes smoked a pipe. Every once in a while, he’d let me in there, as long as I didn’t touch anything—perhaps he trusted me more than the boys. I always wished I were more like my daring cousins, who climbed trees and sat up on the roof of the garden shed. But I was quiet and cautious, and probably less likely to break something. I liked being there with him, without having to talk. It’s the same way I feel now at parties, when I can steal a few moments to study the host’s bookshelf or cabinet of curiosities, instead of having to strike up a conversation with a stranger over Cabernet.

When I got older, we’d drive up to see my grandfather every month or so; my mother may have felt compelled to check in on him. One Easter, he left us a pot of very spicy chili on the stove and a note saying he wouldn’t be back for a few days. These disappearances never bothered me much. He bought a motorcycle after my grandmother died and would take us on rides around Sea Cliff. Sometimes he’d get up in the middle of breakfast and say things like “let’s blow this popstand and go check out the old ladies at the post office with blue hair.” He once took me out to a beefalo burger joint, where they served hamburgers made out of buffalo. 

A few weeks before my grandfather died, we spent the better part of an afternoon laughing over a 1980s movie starring Burt Lancaster about a Texas oil executive who visits a small village in Scotland. We had never laughed together like that before. At his funeral, lots of people came from the bar next door to pay their respects—he’d obviously been a regular. A torn photo of him from World War II somehow came into my possession—he’s handsome and not quite thirty, in fatigues, smiling outside a tent. As it turns out, I live in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a few blocks from where he grew up, running gin back and forth as a kid during Prohibition, back when the neighborhood was Irish. My son, Henry, plays in McGolrick Park, where his great grandfather and namesake might have also played as a boy. My mother said he worked hard to get rid of his working class Irish accent and spoke like a Kennedy for much of his life; it never seemed odd to me. I barely knew him, but trust the silence I knew in that smoky back room.

- Rachel Safko

Brief Breeze from Childhood

Goat’s smell – strong, stubborn, spicy and spiky, but warm, worth a long hug, like a sun-dried hay embraced. Even though it smells like shit, it fills me with love every time I meet that smart sharp-eyed animal.

- Milda Laužikaitė

Extended Smell of Childhood

Snowy road, salted deep blue. Colored with yellow ochre sand rests its hump . The smell of brick chimneys breathing. Bluish grey rolling down the hill, easy, slow, quiet – no one is around - snow stays whole. All the feet rest home by the fireplaces or central heating. We walk alone. Sound of my shoes opens the curtain of smoke, I see the valley filling up with the morning light. Snowy road, salted white. I carry a bag of frozen boiled potato skins. By the time we get to the river, my warm hand wakes them up and they talk with smell. Dog rushes over ice, barking, excited about friends he is going to meet. Clapping their soft wings to the cold water stream ducks fly quacking loud, ready to share another morning with us and, of course, tasty snacks saved for them by mom. 

- Milda Laužikaitė