How many significant smells made up a year? How many make up seventy years?

I recently read an essay about a search a brother and sister made to recover some of the smells associated with their childhood. That would be fun, I thought. There are so many, especially for an older person. How many significant smells make up a year, how many make up seventy years?

It's not 1945; it's not Chicago. But it is how it smelled. Photo by Moff. Creative Commons license.

When I was five, more or less, we lived for a year in Chicago because my father was in the Navy and stationed there before they sent him on a ship to Shanghai. What I will never forgot is the smell of bus exhaust on streets rent with cold wind. I also remember the smell of crayons, and how oleo smelled when my mother mixed it up with the coloring that turned it to butter. I don’t remember the smell of the apartment, but since it was low-income and my mother was a tidy German, I’m sure it must have smelled of old rug, disinfectant and Campbell tomato soup. But that’s not the remembered part, that’s the imagined part.

The other important smell in Chicago was the warm, damp smell of ironing around me while I played on the cold linoleum floor under the ironing board as Superman ended and one of those especially mature male voices that still announces most important events, told us that Roosevelt had died.

Chicago was a short, neatly defined space of time. Its smells are easily isolated and identified. Most of what we smell is associated with events that occurr throughout our lives. Special smells that evoke only one place or time are rare: most odors are too complex emotionally to be associated with just one place or one event. Like the sweet apple and space crumbly covering on my Grandmother’s dinacouva (a Volgadeutsch coffee cake). The thick acrid odor of the brown spittle of frightened grasshoppers. The wonderful scent of old wood and old books in the San Francisco Conservatory of Music – a smell that comes back to me with the sound of violins, cellos and pianos, even though I was there, in that space, just one time, the only time I ever smelled it.

Photo by pheanix300. Taken in Ben Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia.

Then there are the tastes we all recall. The tart taste of green apples that enlivened tongues dulled by milk and cookies; the drugstore rainbow float that nobody makes anymore; the jiggling of cherry-colored jello as it slipped down our throats.

The way tears felt on our cheeks at shouted insults, Lassie and saying good-bye. Ah, but here, see. I’ve gone on to other kinds of memories, still made of sensual things, but beginning to grow more complex.

All of these are like Proust’s Madeleine cake. They’re the seeds of novels, concertos, jazz riffs, paintings.

Our first memories certainly don’t come to us in the form of confessional narratives. (See my last two posts if this last segue made no sense to you!) Some of us have had lives that were patterned that way: sin and suffering, remorse, forgiveness and grace. But most of the time most of us don’t, and our memories don’t come to us in that format either.

I wonder if the passion for memoir, even for the least palatable of confessional narratives, has religious roots, and not just in its history in the West. It’s just possible that, as our era has grown more secular, our need for it has had to find other ways to express itself, and has finally exploded into the swelling rush of autobiography that we see around us today.

And for the old artist, what an interesting dilemma when art and memory are so much more….

Here are two more pages from the Roonbook of Wild Stuffs. In some odd way, I think they may be relevant to today’s post.

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