I can't get over the smell of burnt dust, warm dust, cooked dust, baked dust; really when you think about it, it's mostly skin—which is creepy—but I remember Winter in Utah and my grandmother would bring a blanket to the heater on the floor and I would smell the blanket and it wasn't washed for months, was dusty, and then the grill of the heater vent was dusty, warm. The smell of rose milk and grandmother's cupboard full of Sen-Sen flower mints mixed in with all of that, and so did the occasional strange, mysterious female things that were also strange and mysterious for having been the habit of decades past.
So all of that, all of my grandmother's house and its smells, rest behind the front door of the warmed dust, the scent of the house itself and its decay as it pumps through the chill air, as it mixes with and fights against the cold. I remember that when someone opened the door and there was any kind of a wind a gust of cold and the scent of cold would rush in, would spear your nostrils and shock them with cold, and then all of a sudden, in the very next breath, the warm dry air of the house would wash all of that away, lull it away with the delicacy of grandmother's decades old blankets, with the soft give of the velvet couches, with the faint yet ever present smell of the old cleaners she used downstairs, the strong cleaners—also rooted in another era—stronger and (I assume) less mysteriously toxic.
Everything had a much more honest smell in my grandmother's house; more than anything, more than the television shows or newspapers or books or whatever, I always felt the smells from the past were more honest; that smell was the one thing the modern (or post-modern) world attacked most ruthlessly; smells were simpler.
My grandfather's wool hat smelled like the warm dust kind of; men's clothes in general smell very similar. Also, things in that house could smell like metal in ways that nothing else in my world seemed to; grandpa's watch, the lamp with the lit-glass base, the gooseneck lamps, and indeed the smell of dust as it warms on a light. My grandmother would bring me plates of food, usually lunch but sometimes dinner too, as I sat on the floor at the heating vent. The smell of shipwreck, and maybe corn or steamed green beans, would mix and mingle with the dry, warm, powdered air. After there’d always be desert, of course; my grandmother supplied us with Otter Pops, sherbets, ice cream, anything with a sharp fruit taste. The best desert, though, was when she still had raspberries left over from her garden. She and grandpa used to be farmers; they knew how to grow things like how most people don’t. Raspberries smell even more when they’ve been frozen then reheated; she’d usually mix them up with milk and sugar. So much of my childhood was dust and bursting raspberries.
Another distinctive smell, something I wasn’t used to in my everyday life, something I only encountered at my grandparents’, was the smell of the ditches outside of my grandparents' house; also, there was the smell of the canvas and tin and wood of the irrigation that my grandfather used to divert the ditches to the grass, to the garden. I had no idea you could even do something like that, but I guess farmers were used to taking on engineering projects for their farm; the idea of setting up his own irrigation was not more foreign to my grandfather, no more strange or surreal, than Model T cars or black and white television. I could smell the ditches and the silt and dirt in the ditches and really they were just like the baked dust, except on a different wavelength, at a lower energy. Instead of winter and cold, though, this dust smell reminded me of summer—the smell of green from crushing leaves between fingers, the smell of oil as my granddad lubed the Radio Flyer so he could take me to the park. Somehow, the park and the ditch irrigation were always existentially at odds with each other and yet also inextricably tied to each other.
The only other childhood dust I remember is saltier than the rest; we first moved to California when I was seven; our apartment was near the beach. More importantly, my school was near the beach. Itself a survivor of my grandparents’ era, the school had large, metal, rounded rectangle heaters suspended from each ceiling; they connected to the building with ducts and were painted in what I can only describe as a pastel brown. Those heaters in the winter intermingled with the dust and salt already in the air, the smell of tired schoolchildren and the ocean beckoning them, always on the very edge of awareness. For me, that was what winter in this strange new snow-less place smelled like. It didn’t happen clearly or cleanly, either, it snuck up after summer and didn’t really leave so much as fade and slowly warm into spring. These were the smells I remember from then: wet cotton from my shirt, wet polyester from my backpack, sweat and wet hair, fresh paper battling beneath all the smells, barely winning the first day of school, losing easily from there on after.
- Brian Thedell