Thursday, April 14, 2011

Something in the Air

They say that the sense of smell is one of the strongest triggers for memories, and I was reminded of that fact the other day while driving home from work.  It was a welcomed warm spring day, and I was finally able to drive with the windows down.  In front of me was a small car driven by a man puffing away on a cigar.  The smoke drifted back and soon the smell of tobacco surrounded me.   I was immediately transported back to my early childhood when I would tag along with my parents to afternoon softball games.  The team was the Anchorettes, a women’s fastpitch softball team that played at a field on Sherman Drive located on the east side of Indianapolis.  One of the players, Miss Wetzel, was the physical education teacher at my elementary school, so I was greatly intrigued to see her in a role outside of that parameter.  However, other than the remarkable speed and power of those pitches, the thing I most remember of those hot, summer afternoons was the smell of cigars and popcorn. It was the first thing I noticed when entering the bleachers, and it lingered in my nose even on the car ride home. The same smell greeted me a few years later when my parents would take me to Busch Stadium to watch the Indianapolis Indians play an exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds during the era of the Big Red Machine.   I come from a family of mostly non-smokers and generally detest the smell of cigarettes, but that particular blend of cigars and popcorn always stirs happy memories.
I have already mentioned in another post how the smell of wood smoke or burning leaves is a most effective time machine for me.  My most obvious connection to those smells is my early years at the lake.  From sunup to sundown, a fire was always kept burning in the outdoor fireplace.  On cold days we huddled around its warmth, and at all times we relied on it to cook some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.  In the morning, the first one up had the job of rebuilding the fire for the day.  When the task fell to me, my goal was to find some still glowing embers from the night before and rekindle the fire without the aid of matches.  With bits of newspaper, small twigs and lots of blowing, I would soon have the fire springing back to life.  In the autumn, those campers who did not live adjacent to the woods, would rake their leaves into the road to burn.  A constant haze of smoke hung over the camp, but it was never unpleasant.  Even to this day, if I step out of my house on a cool evening and smell a fire burning in a neighbor’s fireplace, I am a boy back in the woods warming myself by the fire.

At home each year, my father would prune the trees that filled our property.  The branches would be piled high on the garden to dry, and then one evening in late summer, Dad would burn them in a giant bonfire.  I can remember sitting in my swing watching the fire light up the backyard as dusk fell, waiting for the pile to burn low enough that we could then roast marshmallows.   It was a great ending to summer.

The lake had another smell which, although not as pleasant as smoke, still evokes a unique response.  Each morning we would get up early, gather our fishing gear and head down to the boat to get a head start on the day’s fishing.  As we approached the water there was a very distinct smell which hung heavy in the wet morning air.  It was a mixture of wet clay, fish and lake water.  Initially, I found it unpleasant, but through its association with all those good times, I grew to like it.  I now have the privilege of having a large creek run through my property.  On certain days when the temperature is hot and the air is humid, the same smell will drift up and touch me, placing me not in my backyard but on the muddy shoreline of Raccoon Lake all those many years ago.

An equally powerful memory booster is, oddly enough, the smell of Johnson’s paste wax.  My parents were faithful practitioners of the age old practice of “spring cleaning.”  Early each year the house would be scrubbed from top to bottom.  The commencement of the process would be signaled one morning by the sudden appearance of mattresses in the hallway.  Taking one room at a time, Mom and Dad would dismantle the beds and move all furniture out of the bedrooms and into the living room and hall.  Walls were washed with Murphy’s Oil Soap or freshly painted, the curtains were laundered and ironed, and then as a final touch, the hardwood floors were waxed and polished with Johnson’s paste wax.  Mom would coat the floors with the wax, and Dad would buff them to a high gloss.  I would celebrate the completion of the task by charging into my room and sliding across the floor in my stocking feet.  And of course I would whistle and shout and listen to my voice echo off the empty walls and floor.  That night I would snuggle into my clean, fresh smelling sheets and drift to sleep with the scent of wax still lingering in the air.  To me that smell  meant cleanliness, and it still brings back cherished images of my parents working side by side to give us a wonderful home.

There are assorted other smells that also create snapshots of my childhood.  If you mention Easter, I don’t think of flowers and green grass.  Instead I smell the vinegar that we used with the dye to color Easter eggs.  Mom would get her family China from the cabinet and line up the tea cups to use for dying eggs.  It was the only time of year they were ever used.  Mom would carefully measure out the water for each cup, add vinegar and then drop in the tablet of food coloring.  The eggs looked so pretty soaking in those fancy tea cups, but the sour smell of vinegar was ever present.  After Easter came the month of May which meant the peony bushes that lined our backyard would begin blooming.  By Memorial Dad you could be sure the entire yard would be perfumed by their sweet fragrance.  I have transplanted a couple of those bushes to my own yard, and each spring I walk out, grasp a bloom in my hands and bury my nose in the pink or white petals and breathe in the scent of my childhood home.  June followed May, and the scent of freshly mown grass replaced the smell of the peonies.  Although I paid for much of my college by mowing lawns, I did not mow my own family’s lawn.  However, as a boy, I enjoyed sitting and swinging while watching Dad mow, and it is that association that still clings to that smell.  It is the labor side of lawn care that comes to mind when I smell gasoline, but to me the fragrance of cut grass means enjoying a summer afternoon watching my father working in the yard.  Speaking of gasoline, when we were kids, my sister and I loved it when my parents would drive behind a city bus, and we could smell the diesel fumes.    I don’t know what our attraction to that was, and I don’t believe it is a smell I enjoy as an adult, but it is one which I can distinctly remember from my youth.

I do have one grown up association with a scent.  It is the smell of the baby lotion I rubbed on our two children each night after their baths.  Evening was my bonding time with my son and daughter, so while my tired wife got a rare moment to relax, I gave the children their daily bath.  Afterwards, I would lay them on a towel and massage them with lotion, and I would breathe in its clean fragrance as I held them tight or tucked them into bed.  How I miss those times.

In my adult years, my sense of smell has become greatly reduced.  I no longer seem to be forming those bonds between scents and memories, but how thankful I am that occasionally a certain smell from the past will drift by my nose and carry me along on its vapors to another time and place. 


  1. What a beautifully written blog post. Sounds like you had a really happy childhood.

  2. Well, what a wonderful evocative post, yet again. And see, you DID find something to write about after all!
    You stirred some smelly memories for me.... living in a fishing town there was the ever present tang of salty sea air, and sometimes the hum from the fish processing factory if the wind was in the wrong direction!
    I remember school trips, banana sandwiches in brown paper bags (me) and Bazooka bubble gum (the renegade in the class). The smell of the Russian cigarettes my father sometimes smoked; the 4711 and Coty face powder favoured by my mother; and the smell of baby talc has the same effect on me as baby lotion does on you.
    Thank you... our smelly memories are such an important part of our memory bank, so much a part of growing up comes back with certain smells, like music memories too. I bet you have a few of those!

  3. Hi Scott,

    Let me be first to say it: this post really stinks! Hahaha

    Seriously, though, great stuff and well written too. We had peony bushes on the border of our lawn as well. I remember watching the big black ants that were common in our yard crawl all over them before they bloomed. I always wondered what the heck they were doing.

    I wonder why smells are so memory-evoking? I suppose something was to creatures' advantage for this to be so. I wonder what research has been done on this...


  4. Smells do trigger memories and hopefully all them good ones. At times I can still smell the cologne my mom wore and she's been gone 31 years. That's definitely a good memory. Scott, I was surprised to learn your location. I worked at DeJa Vu in B'burg for many years and my husband lived there back in the early 80's. We now live on the west side of Indy, close to Avon.