Please welcome today’s guest writer, Megan Nollet. Megan graduated in 2010 with a major in English and a minor in writing. She lives in Grand Rapids, MI and works as the communications manager of Words of Hope, a nonprofit working to share the gospel in hard-to-reach areas around the world. She reads voraciously, experiments with new recipes compulsively, and dreams of owning a hobby farm.
What’s the first smell you can remember?
I always liked the way my dad smelled after mowing the lawn. I grew up in rural Iowa, and mowing the huge lawn of the parsonage was quite an ordeal. It took him hours. An overprotective man, my dad didn’t let me play outside while he was mowing for fear the blades might kick up a rock. Not only that, I was eventually forbidden from watching him out the window when he mowed as well. (Said devious rock could shatter the glass, no?)
When he finally came inside for dinner on lawn-mowing days, I was hopping-anxious to see him. He would head to the bathroom to wash up for supper, but I’d bound into his arms for a hug first. The smell I remember was a mixture of sweat, warm grass, and gasoline. A nose-wrinkling mixture to be sure, but the sentiment attached to that smell lingers years later. That scent meant order and peace. It meant warm food being dished up for the table. It meant hearing my mom call my dad and I “big honey” and “little honey.” It meant that after supper my dad would take me outside so we could play in the fresh-cut grass.
Smells are strange that way. A smell doesn’t have to be particularly pleasant to evoke a wonderful memory.
Do you remember the smell of places you’ve lived? Our backyard in Iowa always smelled faintly of hog manure from the surrounding farms. In Wisconsin our house was next to a large cheese factory where aging dairy products frequently curdled the air. When I studied for a semester in York, England, every walk to class harbored the scent of lightly burnt brownies wafting from the Cadbury factory.
What about the smell of certain soaps? Mountain Fresh Dial soap pulls me back to washing my hands in my middle school best friend’s downstairs bathroom. Perfumes? An old bottle of Lucky perfume was so closely linked to memories of an ex-boyfriend that I threw it away.
I guess good smells can evoke bad memories too. If grassy, sweaty gasoline smells like comfort and home to me, candy apples are quite the opposite.
I was a freshman in high school when my mom lost her mind. By that time, my mom and dad no longer called each other “honey.” Due to a shortage of money, we’d downsized to an apartment, meaning my dad no longer smelled of lawn mowing. I hadn’t seen my mom and dad kiss in years, and I often listened to their tense voices whisper-shouting behind closed doors. One strange morning, my mom told me that she felt like she was caught up in a game—one that everyone around her knew the rules to, but that she could not learn how to play. She pleaded with me to understand as she huddled in the recesses of our big blue armchair, her bathrobe cinched around her like sage green armor. And that’s when I noticed the way she smelled.
She smelled like Winter Candy Apple, a Bath and Body Works spray that was popular at the time. It’s still popular I’m afraid. The stores re-stock it every Christmas, and it still turns my stomach. The spray comes in a festive red bottle. It smells sweet—very sweet—and that morning my mom reeked of it.
Now of course I didn’t mind the smell yet. I think I may have even spritzed some on myself occasionally. But that same afternoon one of my teachers pulled me out of class. He had found my mom hiding under the desks in the computer room at my high school. She told us that people were tracking her on satellites. Somehow she thought the computers were the only things that could block their signals from getting through.
As the days and her disease progressed, she spent more and more time locking herself into the bathroom, and deluging the air and her clothing with candy apple scent. The smell seeped out from under the door, coming in sudden bursts every time she darted from the room to peer out the front door, or hit a high note on the piano, or beg me to save the tiny people she saw dying in our carpeting.
If sweat and grass smell like peace and order, candy apples smell like fear and chaos. Nowadays, these smells are mostly absent. My husband and I also live in an apartment, so there is no lawn to be mowed. And my mom only occasionally smells like apples, mostly if she has a relapse. But whenever those scents do sneak up on me, they carry this host of memories with them.
So what about you? What stories linger in your sense of smell?