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Monday, 07 October 2013

Can You Smell It?

By Marcy Belson

Marcy Belson

I am always surprised, when remembering a summer day, what I remember first is the smell.

There was the wonderful smell of excelsior, used to pad the desert coolers. The water ran through from the top to bottom and the fan blades moved the air over that pad with a result of humid, cool air rushing out of the window box. I loved that smell.

I remember the smell of Kool-Aid in a frosty clear pitcher set on a refrigerator shelf. It was so sweet but with the addition of ice cubes, another way to deal with the terrible summer heat in the desert.

I remember the smell of hay. My father, uncle and cousin would come back to the house for lunch each day.

The routine was for the radio in the corner of the living room to be set on news with Gabriel Heatter. Then, all three of them would take a spot on the rug, lie down and use their arms as pillows for their heads, listen to the news, catnap and wait for my mother to call out, "Lunch is on the table.”

Because they had spent the morning baling hay in the fields and men's pants had trouser cuffs in those days, my routine was to sit at their feet and clean out the hay that had accumulated in their cuffs. I suppose my mother then used a broom or vacuum on the living room rug to pick up the hay I dropped.

I don't remember her ever telling me not to make a mess but then, she was in the kitchen getting a large hot meal ready for three hungry men.

That was after she had fixed them breakfast at 5AM, sent them off with thermos of lemonade, then started the washing and ironing - all three of those men put on two ironed long sleeved shirts, six days a week. I suppose, on Sundays, they only dressed once.

She washed and starched the shirts so I figure she did 39 starched shirts per week. I'm not getting into the pants she washed and ironed, plus my school dresses and play clothes. She never wore anything but ironed dresses and heels and a starched apron.

She did wear women's jeans to fish in the boat.

She was the last of the real ladies.

She canned food, she did most of the yard work, she did all the bookkeeping for my father's business.

She decided the nuns were going to convert me to Catholicism when I was in the fifth grade, so she marched over to the convent and informed them that while the rest of my class studied catechism, I was to be given extra math. Without a word to me, that was exactly what happened. My mother was pleased with her solution.

The nuns never said a word. Maybe they knew they had won that battle and graciously let my mother think she had won. I was baptized as a young adult.

Well, back to the smells of summer. The town of Julian was a smell in it's own category. The temperature would rise in the afternoons to about 80 degrees in August and the waist-high weeds were perfume to me.

We had a porch the length of the summer cabin with wicker chairs and big cushions. My cousins and I would sit out under the shade of the big trees and play Monopoly or some other card game drinking lemonade and the heat of the day would bring that smell. I can't identify it, it was heat and weeds and it will always be my favorite summer smell.

Then there was the smell and feel of the thunderstorms in Arizona. You could look west and see them coming from the Sea of Cortez.

It would be hot and humid and suddenly a crash of thunder and a zig-zag of lightning. The fresh smell of rain, lots of rain, the streets flooded, the dips in the road filled, tempting drivers to try to outwit the fast moving water. Every year, at least one death from that attempt.

Another summer smell was my grandmother's house in Arkansas. I think those cedar closets had a stronger smell of cedar when the days were warm and the house was still.

Then there was the smell of chicken and dumplings, fresh green beans from the garden, milk from my grandfather's cow and a dining room filled with family, all laughing and complaining and now - all gone. I am the last of the old ones.

There are a few younger cousins, they are the kids, now in their sixties, but they have their own memories.

I have no idea what the smells were in the cities. I only know about little towns where people worked outside no matter what the weather and a tiny mountain town.

They will always be there, unchanged, in my memories.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Please read instructions for submitting.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


How powerful a memory jogging!! We really do not realize how our sense of smell figures into a lot of decisions. Just like animals, I guess, certain people smell better than others. I mean the pheromes, not bad odor.
My partner and I cannot smell anything anymore, a blessing and a curse, ha ha.

Ah, yes, summer was so full of wonderful smells. I can understand Marcel Proust getting inspired to write by the smell of French cookies! ;-)
Haying was a big part of my life in Maine, too. I learned how to drive at age 12 because my legs could reach the tractor pedals, just barely.

I don't think my sense of smell is very well developed. I had a friend who was very adept at identifying smells and I had no idea what she was talking about. She, like you, would remember events by smell. I, on the other hand, have one smell that takes me back to childhood. Whenever I pass a new-mown lawn or hay field, I immediately remember driving horses from the ladder-like front of the wagon with the hay loader beyond. Besides the pungent smell of the hay were 2 other sensory memories; the feel of chaf down my neck from the mound of hay rising behind me. The other sense was my hearing my dads voice yelling to me, "Hold back those horses. We can't keep up with the hay loader. We need time to move the hay to the front."
I don't remember the smell of the sweet cherries we picked from the huge cherry tree on the side of the lane. We were allowed to sit on the top of the load on the way to the barn. They really tasted great after the hard work in the hay field

You sure started my memory bank to emerge and I had to share this one with you. I always enjoy your stories.
Michigan Grandma

Lovely writing and lovely memories, Marcy. Is that you and your Mom in the photo? Great image - save that one! Like many others who commented, my sense of smell seems to be weak. I remember images - visuals - more than anything, and sometimes there is no sound track associated with them, but they are clear as can be. Your "smells" memories call up images for me. Thank you!

Daddy and my brother hated it, but Mother cooked Finnan-haddie (a typical Scottish, smoked-haddock dish) on Fridays fairly often. Because she was Catholic, weekly tuna-fish casserole got awful boring. Daddy and Jere got hamburger steak for those dinners. (But the fishy scent won out over the hamburger).

Cooking Finnan haddie creates as fishy a smell as exists, I believe. It's covered with milk,parsley, a little paprika and steamed gently to poach it.

Mother and I loved it,though, Daddy and Jere went outside during the prep time.

I tried fixing it once for my new husband, but never again! I got to eat the whole thing.

Years later, on a trip to Grossingers in the Catskills and another on an Alaskan cruise, I found it on the breakfast menus. But it wasn't quite the same because I missed the pungent scent of it cooking. I should have asked to check out the kitchens!

I haven't had it now for years. Oh woe.

I've always had a keen sense of smell and nothing recalls memories for me like a fragrance.

My younger son was in chef's school, which *required* us to check out all kinds of restaurants. One lunch we were in a small hole-in-the-wall Chinese cafe which catered mostly to the city's road repair crews.

We were sitting there eating our excellent meal when an old man at the counter lit up a cigar of the brand my Dad always smoked. We'd always complained of the sickening stench of those awful things, but he'd been gone 15 years and that smell conjured him up faster than any medium could have done.

I looked across to my now adult son, to see tears running down his cheeks. I was crying too. He reached across the table and grabbed my hand and said, "Who'd ever have thought *that* would smell so sweet?"

He told me recently that he celebrates his granddad's birthday by sitting on the back steps alone, smoking his one cigar a year.

And like you, our dining room was filled with family, all laughing and complaining and now - all are gone. I too am the last of the ones to remember my grandmother's generation.

Oh Deb, what a sweet memories you have given me! My Dad smoked Roi Tan cigars and always gave me the band, which I wore as a ring. When I married, my husband had the jeweler made a
gold cigar band for me. 53 years later, it's still a showstopper!
And Karen, yes the pix is of my mom and me, 1939.

I loved reading about your memories of scents. Well done, Marcy. I read somewhere once that smells bring back memories the most of any of the senses. I have found that to be true, and have written essays about the odors that bring back my childhood and my parents to me.

What a wonderful and vivid painting of your summers as a child you have drawn, Marcy! And you did it by describing the smells you remember! Simply magical! I experienced it with you when you described it. Although grew up later and in a city, my grandfather had a house in a small village near the capital and we gathered grapes and planted our own vegetables and did some gardening. And my mother was the one to wake up the earliest and go to bed the latest. Only now many years later we realize how much there was on her shoulders after my father died. She is indeed a hero. And many or our mothers were and are. Thank you for this gift, Marcy!

Marcy: I got so caught up remembering my own favorite smells I forgot to tell you how much I enjoyed your writing style and use of description.

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