Claudia Myers column: What's that smell? Too bad I can't remember
When I say “the aged wood smell of an old fishing cabin,” do you know what I mean? Can you smell it?
Your mother holds a milk bottle up to your nose and says, “Would you smell this and tell me if it’s gone sour?” Ewwww.
The word “smell” is one of those that have several different meanings without altering their spelling. Well, huh! Your mother wants you to smell (verb) the milk for her because her sense of smell (adverb) tells her that there is a bad smell (noun) coming from the milk bottle.
One of the side effects of having the COVID virus seems to be losing your sense of smell. Not a good thing! “Tom, do I have on too much perfume? Is that why your eyes are watering?” And if your sense of smell is gone, suddenly you can’t taste your favorite pizza or mashed potatoes and cream gravy.
You'd think you'd lose a lot of weight, wouldn't you? Become your old 29-year-old self again? Just eat crunchy vegetables and things that are good for you? Nope! Not going to happen. Always hoping I’ll be able to taste that next thing.
Not only — and here's my point — not only does that loss wipe out your awareness of the world around you and your enjoyment of food and drink, but you lose the ability to conjure up all manner of memories, good and bad, that are triggered by certain scents.
When I say “the aged wood smell of an old fishing cabin,” do you know what I mean? Can you smell it? Every once in a while, I come across that distinctive odor and I not only see the good times at the family cabin 40 years ago, but the cottages we visited on the Finger Lakes in New York, when I was a child. Oil lamps, kerosene stoves, dried unfinished interior wood walls.
On the opposite end, I was working at a florist in Minneapolis when I was pregnant with our first baby. They had moved me from the wedding department, where the floors are sometimes slimy with cut stems, to dried flower bouquets so I wouldn’t fall down. The trouble came with the smell of the linoleum adhesive that was used to hold the Styrofoam bases in the flower bowls and vases. I just had to pass through the door to that department and I was off to the bathroom to lose my breakfast.
Sorry to dwell on it, but that smell still has the power to send me running.
The lilacs have just finished blooming as I write this. Most of us love the smell of lilacs and have fond memories of our grandmother’s lilac hedges. Our lilacs are right up against the front of our house. When they first start to bloom, we open the windows to let in the glorious perfume. But two weeks later, we keep them tightly closed as the lilacs pass their prime and start to reek of dead flowers. It's enough to wake you out of a sound sleep. Oh, boy!
Have you ever ridden in a sled behind a team of exuberant dogs as they explode onto the snowy trail? Whew! "Explode" is the operative word here, for what happens as the dogs take off. I had no idea.
And then, there are the good smells. Cotton candy and mini doughnuts means the state fair. Burgers on the grill smell means it’s finally summer. The smell of bacon sizzling in a cast-iron pan ties in with the old dried cabin wood walls.
Estee Lauder was the perfume my wonderful mother-in-law wore. I smell it and there she is!
New car smell. New carpeting smell. Puppy breath. Baby skin. Autumn leaves. Dirt. I like the smell of dirt. Christmas trees and chocolate cake just out of the oven.
Your sense of smell can even save your life. When we lived in our log house out in the woods, I would walk out to the road to pick up the mail. On the way back one day, I could smell a musky odor, similar to skunk. I thought, “Oh no, where is the dog? Did he follow me? Is he going to get sprayed? Do I have tomato juice on hand?” Then I looked up and there were a couple baby bears up in the tree right beside the road. Right there!
Holy cow! Where is the mom? She must be around here somewhere. They were good babies and stayed up there as I tried to mosey past without alarming anyone. Once past them, I tore down the road, rushed into the house and slammed the door. I sat there shaking on the boot bench and a funny thought occurred to me: I wondered if I smelled as bad to them as they did to me.
I mentioned in a previous column that when I was just little, my family made a yearly trek to a dairy farm situated on a trout stream in the Catskill Mountains for opening fishing weekend. Our farmer friend had always just finished tapping his maple trees when we got there, and even after 70-some years, pancake breakfasts have a mingled scent: warm maple syrup, old farmhouse and cows.
If I can send you all a positive wish, here it is: "May all of your memories be smelly.
Next time: “And many more”
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.