Wednesday, November 28, 2007


The world of childhood is very, very small. One or two blocks, a school, some friends, your parents, your grandparents, your brothers, your sisters. Nothing much else. And as it shrinks smaller things grow. Like smells, like odors, like scents. Only an idiot wouldn't be on Proust's side. Of course his Madelaine's could conjure up a world. Of course.
But what smells and where. Start in our basement at 206 W. Mantua Ave. The chlordane wafting from beneath the porch, the smells of melting plastic toys over the ping pong table, the chemistry set and it's sulphur, the oil from the oil tank, the oil for the tools, the bleaches and soaps and detergents. The smell of Lava for removing the oil from the tools and the tank. Maybe the floor had just been painted deep red so there is the smell of the new oil based paint. The mildew. The cool rush of cold from the freezer and the smell of that cold as it fills your hot face on a summer's day. The smell of your dirty shirts and socks piled by the washing machine.
Then up the stairs and into the kitchen and of course there is the smell of food. But also the ever present cigarette smoke and the wax your mother applies to the linoleum and the dish detergent. Joy. And on the kitchen window sill there is an old ceramic bowl with an old, old hard boiled egg and one day the egg breaks and there is that dense sulphur too. And garbage on a hot summer day. Bacon frying on a Saturday morning and butter browning in the iron skillet to make scrambled eggs. On the holidays a turkey in the oven and stuffing and those glorious smells and then out the back door to the garage and the smells of all the things stacked there.
Around the garage the wisteria, purple and thick with scent driving the carpenter bees insane as each of them devour the garage. The tar of the roof shingles, the oil on the floor of the garage from the cars, the three in one oil for the bike chains, the smell of chrome polish, the odor of the wax candle as you rub it on your sleds runners. The paint cans, the cobwebs and dust, the dry smell of old, old wood, dry in the South Jersey heat.
Just to the side the smells of the vegetable garden, the rotting lettuce, the tomatoes thick with smell, the sweet corn, the deep rich brown earth, nearly black and thick with the scent of decay and rebirth, behind the garden the compost and the tree and the scents of barks and old rotting leaves. The air in fall always thick with the smell of rotting leaves.
When Johanna and I were in Barnsboro for Thanksgiving we sat and watched thousands of leaves swirling from the trees in the wind and she said it never smells like this in Jersey City and it never does. The smell of burning leaves mingled with the smell of the cigar from the man tending the fire in the street mixed with the scent of new macadam. Almost like licorice.
And grass and hay. New mown grass, piles of rotting grass, fresh uncut grass. Hay, and weeds, and skunk cabbage. Dead squirrels on a path. Dead mice under a log. The swamp smell of the creek and the creek mud. The smell of your wet woolen shirts and gloves.
The smell of your dog or your cat just in from the rain. The smell of the air just after a thunder storm. The smell just before it snows. The smell of the chlorine pool, the cedar lake water, the smells of my grandmother's paints.
Too many to name too many to remember.
Not enough time to sit back and inhale and recollect. They come rushing in like unwanted ghosts at inopportune moments. When I was very ill and lying in my bedroom I realized my room smelled just like it did when I was six. How odd. How unbidden. How unwanted.
The smells of your first sex and your first after shave and your first blood wiped from your nose in your first fight.
Breath them in. Breath them out. It's like watching or listening. Attend.

1 comment:

Jim Maddox said...

Your parents would smell of Old Spice and perfume on the nights they would "go out". Kiwi shoe polish and lipstick, and Aquanet hairspray and then they'd be gone.