My sense of smell is the least effective sense in my body, having been dulled, I suspect, from over 55 years of sneezing, snuffling and blowing, courtesy of allergies, seasonal colds and frequent bouts of bronchitis. I may have singled handedly kept the facial tissue industry in business. There are several scents that I associate with memories throughout my life; most but not all are pleasant associations.
Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, is the sherry making capital of the world, at least it was in 1975. If you never saw a sign that said that, you would draw that conclusion on your own if you spent any time in Jerez. All you would need to do is to roll down your car windows as you drove through town. In a matter of seconds your nose would be assaulted by the pungent aroma of orange, grapes and alcohol. If you failed to roll down your windows, I have no doubt that the smell would reach you in time. The only chance of escape would be to drive fast and elude la Guardia National.
Four ounces of sherry in a glass maybe an invitation to sip, but inhaling sherry through your respiratory system gives one the sense of being mugged. Living near Jerez ruined me as a sherry drinker. Before moving to Spain, I had enjoyed an occasional glass of sherry and even had a favorite brand. But that ended abruptly; not only did I drive through Jerez, but I made the mistake of attempting to drown my sorrows in sherry later that week. I may have made a mistake, trying to down a drink with a smell that had become worse than medicinal to me, but I had hoped that sentimentality would win out over scents. Maybe 1975 was not a good year for sherry; it was not a good year for me, except of course for the birth of my son, earlier that year.
It is funny that the scents that are associated with memory seem to hold such power over us. For instance, when I was quite young, I developed a fondness for something most people find repulsive; cigar smoke. It is strictly sentimental. My father smoked El Producto cigars. Now, I am no connoisseur; I probably could not pick out the scent of an El Producto cigar from the stench of a cheap stogie; but, just because all cigars remind me of Dad, I love cigar smoke and pipe smoke too.
No matter how strong, cigar smoke can transport me backwards through time. I remember the crackling sound as he peeled off the cellophane wrapper and wadded it up in a ball. He would look down at me and say, “Do you like music? Here, have a band.” Then he would slip the paper band off the cigar and put it into my hand. I fell for that every time. I stuck it on my finger, as though it were a ring. I admit that may sound more Freudian than I would like, but he was a special part of my life and has been gone a long time. Cigar smoke, for me, is a trigger that has the power to connect experience with memory, the past with present.
Some scents recall memories in clusters, like a bouquet of flowers. Many girls outgrow a fondness for dirt when they leave behind mud pies and sandcastles. But I have a grownup memory of dirt that will stay with me for as long as my mind does. I lived with my in-laws for six months, when I was pregnant with my third child and my soon to be ex-husband was at sea. My son was 17 months old and regarded his playpen as a prison. He developed the strongest arm muscles I have ever seen on a toddler, because he would lean his hands on the edge of the playpen, lift his body up and hold it at an angle like a gymnast resting on the parallel bars and scream non-stop. There was little dissuading him from this course.
The playpen was necessary because my mother-in-law’s idea of childproofing her home during our stay was moving the china closet with her Hummel collection from the living room about six feet away, into the dining room. To give my son a break from the playpen, and roaming free was not an option, his grandfather built him an outdoor play area. He fenced in an area about 10’ by 12’ that included a tree. He put in a gate, and my son had his very own outdoor playpen.
The dogs had the area outside the pen, but the whole yard was fenced in. The dogs spent part of their time running around and the yard, and my son’s portion. They would run back and forth the length of his play area, stopping occasionally so he could pet them and try out his vocabulary on them, “Doggies!” My father-in-law would work around the yard and keep an eye on my son, and his sister and I would sit on the stoop talking and watching him until morning sickness would get the best of me. He could stay there, happy and content for hours, never screaming once.
When it was time to bring him in, he always needed a bath. He was dirty from running his cars and trucks around the pen and the base of the tree, and sitting or crawling around on the grass. I would hold him and press my nose to his shirt. He smelled like dirt, grass and puppy dogs. There were grass stains on his clothes, His cheeks were warm, red and streaked with perspiration and dirt. He was content and so was I.
As a single parent, I always abhorred the phrase “Quality time.” I am not sure there is such an animal. It always seemed to me that in order to have quality time there had to be enough time that was not dedicated to other activities such as preparing meals, doing laundry and driving to daycare and work. Perhaps it is not so much the notion of quality time, but the elusiveness of it, that was and is frustrating to me. I can look back on that time with my children and see it divided into three categories: all the things we did apart, (like working and school) cooking and car time. At one point all three children were in different schools and I could almost hear the Lone Ranger’s theme Song (The William Tell Overture) as I drove from one school to the next picking them up from daycare.
When my youngest child was five and the oldest seven, an inspiration grabbed me that I hadn’t really thought out. The youngest one walked into the kitchen while I was adding spices to a meat loaf and I said to her, “Here, honey; smell this” and held the spice jar under her nose. Thus, began a ritual that ultimately led to cooking lessons and cooking together for all three children. They would come to the kitchen when I was cooking, and I would offer them spices to smell. They would wrinkle up their noses like little rabbits and say, “hmmm, Mommy, that smells good!”
They gradually moved from smelling spices to stirring lessons. It is no small challenge to teach a young child the difference between stirring and spilling. Children can make as much mess stirring dry ingredients like flour and sugar as they can with liquid; but they learned. They graduated from stirring by hand to holding the mixer with the same neatness. They moved from mixing a part of a cake to doing the whole thing. I would put the ingredients in the bowl in order and they would do all the mixing.
Eventually, they moved from cakes to packaged foods like the “Helper” meals and on to real foods. All the while, they got older and I hardly noticed. At this point they were each helping to cook dinner once a week. The triumph for them and for me, came the Thanksgiving they were eight to eleven years old. Their grandparents, my former in-laws came for dinner and brought the turkey, dressing and gravy. The children made everything else, all from scratch.
I directed from the edge of our small kitchen while they made spinach souffle, mashed potatoes, potato rolls, a cheese ball, pumpkin pie and a lemon meringue pie. By this time, I had years of practice letting them do the stirring without taking the spoon from their hands and “showing” them until it was all done. I still talked them through the recipes while they did the measuring and pouring. Truth be told, they didn’t need that much coaching from me, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Except for getting things in and out of the oven, I stood my ground on the edge of the kitchen, feeling like the conductor in an orchestration of foods.
Because I loved baking and seldom used packaged mixes, they learned to bake from scratch. Whether I took apple pie, or carrot cake, or brownies to the office for an occasional celebration, the women I worked with would look at me and say, “Okay, ‘fess up, which child made this?” By this time my son was convinced that we should attempt a family catering business, but I didn’t have the know how or the nerve. The work I did with the children in the kitchen was a way to be together, and a way to grow. I suppose the biggest surprise to me came when I realized the youngest child had learned to read a recipe. My days of being needed were numbered, but now and then when I unscrew the cap on a spice bottle, I remember.
Not holding back the tide,