by Ian Robertson
It seems whenever Britain in the 'sixties' is mentioned in the media, it is either 'swinging' or 'groovy.' As a three year old living in a four-room back-to-back terrace home, complete with outside toilet, in the impoverished north of England, I can testify that it was anything but.
Post-war Britain saw the majority of these cold, damp, rat infested ‘slums’ demolished, to be neatly replaced by brand-spanking new, high density, housing estates.
I remember moving in to number 34 with its cheery, cherry red door. The house was finished yet the estate was still under fervent construction.
I had my own warm bedroom with huge windows lovingly draped in the soothing aroma of fresh plaster and soft window putty; keeping the damp out and the warm in. No more waking, crying in the night to the acrid stench of rat poison and anti-mould.
I remember walking hand in hand with my Mother as she proudly gave me the ‘Cooks tour’ of where I was to spend my next twenty two years. It wasn’t the sight of heavy machinery or the dusty, shirtless labourer offering a shy three year old a stick of ‘Wrigley’s Gum’ that first springs to mind, it’s the smell. Appealing and coarse, my freckled nose would sometimes ache from sniffing too hard, trying to inhale as much into my lungs as I could, thinking, as only a three year old can, that anything that smelt this good, had to have the potential to make one grow-up tall and strong. Each time the excavator’s toothy bucket dug, the smell increased and I would drag my Mother closer to the hole to gaze at the delicious mix of bright orange clay and clean, white chalk. Even as a three year old, I knew that whiff of the earth represented a new start and a better future.
Then there are the dessert perfumes; the odours that got every soccer mad school boy excited.
Like most projects undertaken by the government, things don’t normally run to schedule; as was the case with the housing estate. When I turned five, the council ‘seeded’ all the bare patches, and I swear I must have been seven before the grass was long and sturdy enough to be cut. Oh the sweet scent of damp grass being mowed. Even to this day I get the urge to grab a ball and run and kick until my lungs ache and my knees (and usually white shirt) are stained a vivid green.
The Pièce de résistance has to be the sweet, oily fragrance of freshly laid bitumen over the coarse, unforgiving blue gravel that randomly picked new school shoes at will and, without thought or malice, would scuff them so badly that backsides regularly received similar treatment. This, of course, was before the days of political correctness ruined it for every parent attempting to raise a spirited offspring.
So from a ‘Boy from the Black Stuff,’ three cheers for warm bitumen saving my shoes and my derrière.
by Casey Yocks
The summer two years ago was the most carefree I can remember. I envy the girl that was myself there only years ago, lounging around in warm sand feeling salt water rush through her toes. It feels like a totally different person experienced that summer. Through the hectic days off college classes and starting to see the real world for the first time, I take every chance I get to close my eyes and go back to that free summer. Every once in a while I catch the wafting scent; I know it all too well, coconut perfume. Every day that summer I wore the coconut perfume my best friend Martha gave me as a good-bye-for-the-summer gift before I left our cozy little town for the wild coast. It was the perfect gift, the perfume was light and filled your whole head with the smell of milky, tropical coconut. At some times I could almost taste the smooth coconut milk on my tongue as I took a deep breath.
When we first arrived at the beach house we were to stay in, I was in heaven. It was everything a girl from the landlocked Midwest thought it would be. There was sand on the wood plank floors that would never come up even if you tried; a salty warm breeze whipped the sheer white curtains in small circles around the windows. I walked over to the windows and pulled back the light curtains that felt like sunshine brushing over my skin so softly. Out our very back window was nothing less than the most scenic beach you had ever seen. I was convinced God had taken a magazine and cut out this beach just for me to look at out the window everyday that summer. The rest of the quaint little beach house coordinated perfectly with the beach feeling. There were bowls of dried star fish on sinks and blue towels with fish embroidery. Melon yellow tiles gave a cheery backdrop to the small kitchen and a hose lay outside the front door for hosing off sand that would always get in the house anyways.
My first morning in the beach house I awoke to a seaside sun kissing my face awake. I didn't even bother unpacking yet I simply opened my bag grabbed my swim suit that I had strategically placed on top changed. Before I left I grabbed a large floppy sun hat and saw the coconut perfume lying by my bag, I quickly sprayed my hat with the perfume and ran out the door. I slowed when my pace when I felt the warm sand between my toes. The sand smelled of crabs and day old seawater, and the breeze smelled of salty coconut trees. With that smell I almost went looking for the tree that bore this sweet smell, before I realized it was my own scent I had put on my hat. For days I lay reading books on the beach and gently floating in the water. After reading for sometime on the hot sand I would take a dip in to cool refreshing water. It had a green tint to it from the forest of seaweed beneath my feet, and if I dozed off and a wave caught me by surprise I would get a face-full of bitter salt water that burned the eyes and soured the tongue. I would then quickly run from the water and fan my burning eyes with my big sun hat as my eyes dried I began to calm and the smell of coconut from my hat would fill my head.
By the end of the summer books, beaches, sheer curtains, dried star fish, little beach houses, and sandy bed sheets all smelled like coconut perfume and every time I smelled perfume those memories would come rushing back into my mind taking me back to the beach house. Every time I smell that warm fresh coconut perfume I take a moment and let myself go back to that summer, that summer of coconut perfume.
by Cecille Anne Kinnear
(Pretoria South Africa)
There is the smell of rotten eggs and the ground outside is soft and as thick black mud which oozes between our toes.
Our maid Grace smells like herself in the dim warm interior of our kitchen with its tattered grubby nylon curtains. She moves in a comforting haze of sweat and wood smoke that blew on an ocean breeze from her home amid the sugar cane lands to linger in our kitchen. When she bends down to scrub those waxy white circles on the red painted floor she smells of Cobra polish which she scoops up with a rag from a flat round tin. Her knees are protected with round coils of yellow cloth and her brown calloused hands are wide flat with pink palms.
She looks at me and laughs. "How!, you give the old nanny a fright Annie"
"You want peanut butter on the bread?"
"Yes please" I say.
I am wearing a red dress gathered in at the waist with a white collar and small silver shoes. I am fingering the cameo on a chain that my Granny in Pietermarizburg gave me.
Grace always says "How" followed often by shock, surprise, sorrow or gaffaws of loud laughter. Her emotions are all on the surface but mine are hidden. White people hide things behind their tight mouths and their hard blue eyes. Sometimes their eyes soften when they feel kindness. Even then white people never exclaimed "How" as Gracie did.
"There is such a bad smell here Grace"
"It is only the big tree in the garden Annie, a beautiful tree that children musn't climb and fall out of, children are always thinking how clever they are falling out of trees."
Grace likes to exaggerate in order to keep me safe.
Tiny birds are twittering outside in the stinkwood tree and then a dog barks. She is always barking, not at people but at monkeys because we live at the end of a rough track and receive few if any regular visitors who in any case would roar along in their motor cars churning up dust from the dirt track that cuts a whitened scar inland from Port Shepstone to wind through the coastal forest, the sugar cane fields and the pineapple plantations.
A small leather bag sags unhappily in the doorway some loose jackets and a school suitcase.
"Come along now dear" say my mother smelling of powder and her scent "You can eat that in the car although heaven only knows why, you only had breakfast an hour ago. You are a big girl now and boarding school is the only thing we can do dear, don't snivel dear, say good bye"
So I did to Grace, to that luxurious tree dripping smelly resin after the rain and to the cry of the bush babies in the night and the heavy rotten egg smell of the forest.
(San Diego, CA)
One of the most pleasant memories I have from the years when I lived at St. Paul's Orphanage is the spicy and sweet aroma of apples during the cold winter days. There was a large orchard and we could always have apples to eat. They were picked when they were fully ripe, not like apples we now buy at the supermarket that have been picked while still green and usually don't fully ripen on their own.
When our cottage wanted apples two of the chosen girls would go down a long underground hallway in the basement of the main building. Past the boilers that provided heat to all the buildings was the cold storage area. We were given a bushel of apples that we would then carry back. I do not recall all the varieties, but one of the favorites was Red Delicious. Sometimes we would polish them on our sleeve and bite into the crisp and juicy flesh immediately.
But at other times there was a way to bake them. In Livingood Cottage the large room on the ground floor had a row of flat, cast iron steam radiators suspended from the ceiling at the one end of the room. When the radiators were on and the outside was cold and snowy, we would climb the iron circular stairway that led to the sleeping area on the second floor. By standing on tiptoe we could place an apple on the flat surface of the radiator between it and the ceilling. It usually took several days, and the smell of those apples only made the waiting more enjoyable. Finally you could retrieve yours. It was warm, but not hot enough to burn your hand. When you took that first bite, your mouth was filled with sweet juice. You could hold it there for a few moments before swallowing. Then you could hardly wait to finish it down to the core and quickly get another to place on the radiator. I still love the sweet smell of apples baking, but they never taste quite as good as they used to when they were baked on the radiators.
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by Cara Achterberg
(New Freedom, PA)
There is a distinctive smell to my house that I’m only aware of in the first few moments when I walk in the door after being gone. It smells like “home”.
On a daily basis, I don’t notice the smell, but after time away it is a precious bouquet of safety, comfort, and love. In my home there is a faint scent of baking bread, with overtones of Murphy’s soap and lavender. When I breathe deeper I smell grass and wood and animals.
When they were babies I craved the sour, sticky, sweet perfume of my children. When frightened cries or my own fears drove me to the nursery in the dark center of night their familiar scent calmed me. Snuggling the sweaty, limp body close I breathed deep and wished I could bottle the scent. Now they are teenagers with their own potent aroma- a blend of hormones, sweat, and hair products.
Before the days of processed food and home security systems, we probably relied on our sense of smell more. Now it’s only useful for detecting food we’d like to eat and knowing when the cat has peed in the basement. The flowers that bloom in the months they shouldn’t have only a whisper of their former perfume. And powerful “air fresheners” strip the world of its natural scent.
Smells can transport us back to our grandmother’s kitchen, the tree fort of our childhood, or the halls of elementary school. The big business of “aromatherapy” speaks to our need for smells that comfort and uplift us.
Citrus, lavender, rosemary, thyme, even a pungent tarragon, all lift my spirits, Basil conjures up summer in the dead of winter. The scent of garlic, onions, and olive oil will make my stomach grumble in anticipation.
Diesel fumes renders me instantly nauseous, conjuring up afternoons perched on the “hump” in the back seat of my parents’ station wagon squished between my two brothers for a trip to visit another relative I don’t remember.
The antiseptic smell of a sterilized environment like a doctor’s office or a dentist or even a county building, makes me anxious.
I dropped my daughter off for her oboe lesson at the local college and the scent of the cinderblock building brought back the nervous feelings of moving in to my college dorm room. How can the smell be the same 20 years later and several states away?
As I write this, I’m inhaling the fragrance of “white chocolate coconut latte” tea. In only a few months it has fastened itself to my writing hours, its scent becoming my muse.
Perhaps the power of smell explains my fascination with hound dogs. Beautiful, multi-colored, floppy eared, nose-to-the-ground, they can distinguish between thousands of scents, hunting down dinner or saving lives.
Our sense of smell is nothing compared to a hound dog, and it no longer protects or informs us as it once did, but it has vast power to launch a memory, motivate a mind, and still our souls.