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Smell: Mint or camphorous

Scents Memory

“Those pancakes are burning! Can’t you smell them?” 

In fact I cannot, as my mate well knows. Ditto garlic sizzling in hot sesame oil, and spice cake just out of the oven. Likewise the Mexican marigolds in the garden, their foliage bruised by a tossing wind, and the cold, wet-cardboard smell of a rare rainy day. Too the cedarn atmosphere within a stand of redwoods—my favorite fragrance—and the aura of heat blowing in from the east: a Mississippi of air.

I savor these only in memory. My sense of smell faded about a decade ago, a sign (I found out later) of progressing Parkinson’s disease. It was a loss so gradual and unobtrusive that I didn’t notice until the sense was quite gone. Because they’re so closely linked, my sense of taste is crippled as well: I can detect only saltiness, sweetness, or the burn of capsaicin (which causes the heat you feel when eating chili peppers, and which I’m not even sure is a flavor). The smell and taste sensations appear to me as phantoms—brain-invented illusions without basis or cause—in the most incongruous situations. Lingering in bed in the morning, dozing and waking in short cycles, I’ll catch the salty splatter of bay water and the sinus-stinging smoke from cheap gas churning in the violent wake of the ski boat my family had when I was a teenager. Working the odorless decomposed granite that answers for soil in my vegetable plot, my mouth waters from the smell of popping corn or the taste of hot chocolate.

It’s hard not to be bitter over what I’ve lost: two-fifths of my interface with the world (though, being honest, I’d rather live without taste and smell than sight and hearing). I try to focus on and be grateful for the mechanism, whatever it is, that still allows me to relish the greasy aroma of fat rendered from browning bacon, or the sharp, astringent perfume of lavender soap, even if the former comes during a performance of act two of La Boheme and the latter while driving to the DMV to renew my license. Most of all I treasure the odd, disorienting moments when my senses suddenly return, and I breathe in the incense of the week-old garbage I’m carrying out to the bin. Seconds later, my burden is again odorless, blank as ice, and my memory book one glorious, fragrant chapter richer.

- Jim Brega

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

George Washington School, circa 1960

Sawdust, waxy crayons, and sweaty boys with Brylcreemed hair
A dank cloak room full of cubbies and hooks, battered metal lunch boxes all in a line
Sturdy clunky saddle shoes protect busy feet, sagging thin socks rimmed in lace
Legs cross Indian style on sleek waxed linoleum, hands fold, eyes straight, lips purse
Squeaky bottoms slip on polished wood chairs, teddy bear name plates taped to each desk
Peppermint paste sticks to chubby fingers
Cinnamon graham crackers dunk in miniature cartons of warm milk
Thick graphite pencils scribble on dittoed worksheets, the odor fading as they pass down the rows, pages still damp with a chemical smell
Slight whiff of teacher’s floral-scented perfume as she bends down to correct “borrows” and “carries”
Fat clumsy hands clutch stubby dull scissors jaggedly cutting stiff bright paper
Dusty chalk on an old green board, piles of yellow flakes billow out
Freshly mixed paint drips, powder and water bubbling thick in used cottage cheese containers
Flimsy pastel paper clipped to a towering easel awaits the first stroke from a clean brush
Stale chlorine rises as water leaks out of a rusted faucet, white powdered baking soda soap wet, hardens as it dries in lumps
Rough brown paper towels like compressed bark stick and tear as they wipe wet hands
Rainbow colors swirl into brown as they suck down the moldy drain
Smooth pages of glossy books, the plastic odor of a new doll
Dick, Jane and little Sally, baffling book people with their stilted dialogue and perfect mommy
George Washington Elementary School, a universe of possibilities

- Carol Schnaubelt


The best part was the beginning where the pages were first separated. The color was purple, the paper flimsy, and sometimes the small letters would be blotchy. The page could have been a test, or a math problem, or connect the dots which revealed an image. Sitting in rows of small wooden desks, we could not resist the odor, and would hold the page to our face to smell the smell more directly. It was oddly intoxicating and quick to fade.

- Lisa

Horseflesh and Tropical Coconut

She leans over me, her still wet hair quite literally dripping water onto my shoulders. The light tropical scent of her shampoo wafts over me; the same shampoo she's been using for 10 years. 

The first time this smell was etched into my memory was a night 9 years ago, when I had stayed with her overnight. Just lying awake in the small bed next to the person I would in the future come to love. Her window was always thrown wide open, without a screen, and the night breeze brought with it the smell of her horde of horses. The musty warm smell of the steady horses was one others would complain to me about, but one that I secretly delighted in. Just outside, weeds threatened to invade the room, growing tall and wild, strong bitter and rustling with spider webs. Crickets and birds were so loud and close it sounded as if they may have been in the room itself. Next to me she slept soundly in the place she had always lived, smelling of coconut. 

These would become the aromas that would always, without fail bring up her image.