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  • June 10th, 2008 | 6:17 AM
Tuesday Memory Challenge

Sensory details add so much to our writing. There are some smells (or the memory of that smell) that take me instantly back to being ten-years-old again.

Sawdust. When my grandfather worked with wood I would watch the shavings gather beneath the sawhorses, snatching them up by the handful. When he ran the power saw and the sawdust would pile into little hills I filled my pockets with the little chips of wood.

Mercurochrome. That stinky, smelly, stain your fingers red, antiseptic stuff that all my friends parents used but we never did.

Bactine. What we used instead of merchurochrom.

Mud. I have always loved making mud. Still do. As a child I would make rivers of mud all over the backyard whenever I could get away with it. I'd make little boats from a half a walnut shell filled with mud and then I'd stick a twig in the middle with a leaf speared on the twig for a sail. I'd race my walnut shell boats, spurring them on with a burst from the hose until I got yelled at by my grandmother.
Orange blossoms. There were three oranges trees on the side of the driveway and when they bloomed, the smell was everywhere. I could open my window upstairs and the whole room would smell like oranges.

Tar. It filled the cracks of the sidewalk and on hot days in the summer I would watch it nearly bubble. I'd poke it with a stick until someone caught me.

Burnt rubber.  We had a floor furnace with a big metal grate. In the winter time the house was freezing and I would straddle the furnace. But sometimes I would stand on the grate until the rubber on the bottom of my tennis shoes started to burn.

Dinner mints. I think that's what they were called. Little white hard candies with a mint center. My grandmother kept them in the china cabinet and when I opened the door, the mint smell would hit me and I would have to swipe some.

The incinerator. Yes, we used to burn our trash. Every Saturday my grandfather would fill the incinerator barrel with the week's garbage and lit it up. I loved to go out there with him and watch the flames. The outside of the barrel was rusted through in spots and the ashes drifted out.

Old Spice after shave. It was the only after shave my grandfather ever used. 

Mimeograph machine. My grandmother belonged to the Druids and was in charge of the monthly newsletter. Every month she would cover the kitchen table with newspaper and bring out the mimeograph machine. She'd put on her gloves and coat the roller with purple ink then crank out copies of the newsletter until the smell of ink filled the kitchen.

Singed ducks. After a good day of duck hunting my grandfather and my uncles would pluck all the feathers off the ducks. Then my grandfather would hang them in the basement and get out the blowtorch to carefully singe any remaining feathers from the birds.

Aquanet hairspray. The smell of hairspray makes me gag but it also reminds me of the high beehive hair my mother would wear and how she would spray for several minutes to glue it all into place.

Body powder. My grandmother had a white container filled with powder and a big powder puff that she used after every bath. I loved to open the container and smell it but I always got powder all over everything.

What are some of the smells you associate with your childhood?

There are so many stories only you can tell.Tell them, please.


( 19 comments — Leave comment )
June 10th, 2008 01:25 pm (UTC)
This is so lovely and detailed! I try to do exercises like this with my students and I think you just blew them away!
June 10th, 2008 01:38 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much. How about one childhood smell from you?
June 10th, 2008 02:15 pm (UTC)
Smog--that was driving to my grandparents in L.A. Good smell, as a child.

The smell inside my grandparents house--musty? Never knew what it was, but I know when it comes back.

White shoulders (?) perfume. My grandmother wore it delicately and one of the 1st grade teachers (a really sweet person) wore so much of it, you could smell it when you walked by OUTSIDE her classroom.
June 10th, 2008 02:34 pm (UTC)
Oh my great-grandmother's house had that smell too.

I've been trying to remember my mother's perfume and I can't. And powder. My grandmother had the big powder puff and I loved to open the container and smell it but I always got powder all over everything.
June 10th, 2008 02:44 pm (UTC)
My mom wore Chanel #5, but that smell came into adulthood with me (I love that perfume!), so it doesn't feel so much a memory, I think.

I remembered two more on the way back from bus drop-off:

The mix of stainless steel and high-intensity cleanser in the exam rooms and ward at my parents' veterinary clinic.

The smell of sunshine, heat, dirt, and plants (manzanita?), while we hiked on my grandparents property.
June 10th, 2008 02:18 pm (UTC)
Cigar smoke
There were plenty smokers in my family. Grandma's on both sides. My step-Dad. And most of their friends and visitors. But it was all cigarettes. Camel, Winston, Pall Mall, Marlboro, Kent....

But I was the lucky grandchild. The oldest of them all. Son of oldest son. Of oldest daughter. That came with privilege. I got to go to Boston with Grandpa. Hotel. Subways. Fenway Park.

And somewhere, some old man (they usually were. white hair. dressed up for Sunday on a Friday) was smoking a cigar.

And in this day and age when all smokers are criminals, it seems kind of funny. As a young boy of 7 or eight, I would purposely stand in the direct path of their second-hand smoke.

And when I would encounter the smell of a good cigar, my thoughts would go immediately to Boston. And Fenway Park. With Grandpa.

They still do.

Edited at 2008-06-10 02:21 pm (UTC)
June 10th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Cigar smoke
I bet you have some great Grandpa stories.
June 10th, 2008 02:37 pm (UTC)
I bet you have some great Grandpa stories.
They may not all be great, but I got a lot of 'em.
June 10th, 2008 02:22 pm (UTC)
Incinerators and Old Spice....

Sometimes, I swear, we had the same grandfather!
June 10th, 2008 02:35 pm (UTC)

I used to peel away the rusting flakes on the incinerator. Man I'd get in trouble for that but it was like picking a scab and I couldn't let it go.
June 10th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
You remember a lot of smells! Really cool.

I'm not sure if you can call it a memory, because my grandparents' house still smells like this, but I still associate it particularly with childhood. It's an aroma that I think is from browning meat, roasting meat, and frying bacon, at least one or two of the above, yet it always smells the same no matter what she's making. It was a powerful lure to me as a child, since my mom's cooking was largely vegetarian, and whenever my own cooking starts to smell like Grandma's I feel hugely accomplished.
June 11th, 2008 03:13 am (UTC)
Thanks. I'm TRYING to remember so that helps.

Roasting meat. oh yes!
June 10th, 2008 04:10 pm (UTC)
Manure My grandparents lived on a dairy farm with horses. The smell of manure meant I was with them, and in a good place.

Hay Not quite for the same reason, but I'd go hide in the hay field so that I could relax away from the family. Sometimes one of the dogs would join me and we'd lie in the hayfield and read, or watch the bugs fly.

Lake Erie Grandpa used to go fishing, a lot. And every once in a while would take me with him.

Churches Okay, this one may sound weird, but my father was a minister and the church sanctuary always smelt like Murphys and beeswax, as well as ruffled pages of the hymnals, and if it was Sunday afternoon (after church, but before evening church) it still smelled like an amalgamation of old lady perfumes, and breath mints (I've still no idea why). This... is not happy memories, but it definitely is a trigger.

Ozone The smell on the air, hot, sharp and tangy just before a storm. I love this smell, because it always meant Grandmother would let us play with the flashlights.

Pears There was a pear tree at the end of the driveway to my grandparents' farm. The smell of pears let me know I was almost there.

Apples My grandmother, no matter what she was doing, smelled like apples.

Engine grease My grandfather almost always smelled faintly of engine grease and oil.

I may have grown up with my parents, but... my happy memories are with my grandparents.
June 11th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)
Oh you have some wonderful smells here. I love that your grandmother always smelled of apples.
(Deleted comment)
June 11th, 2008 03:16 am (UTC)
LOL on the ink. I know!

Oh yes, the basement. Ours was so dusty and I would crawl underneath and get covered in it but dust makes me think of that basement.
June 11th, 2008 12:17 am (UTC)
Wonderful post. I love how scents can bring back so many memories.
June 11th, 2008 03:19 am (UTC)
Thank you
June 13th, 2008 03:16 am (UTC)

Childhood smells like fireworks and fresh rain.

Oh, and pig manure. :)
(I grew up on a farm and the pigs outnumbered us one to sixty).
June 13th, 2008 03:17 am (UTC)

Childhood smells like fireworks and fresh rain.

Oh, and pig manure. :)
(I grew up on a farm and the pigs outnumbered us sixty to one).
( 19 comments — Leave comment )

Who am I?I was born on the Cancer/Leo cusp and share a birthday with Ernest Hemingway and Robin Williams. The similarities don't stop there as I can go from depressed to ecstatic without ever passing go. I feel scared most of the time though my friends call me brave and I find it easier to believe in my friends than to believe in my own abilities to make what I want out of my life.

Who am I? A wife, a mother, a daughter, and even, gulp, a grandmother.

Who am I? A writer who never gets tired of playing with words, even when the words are hard to find. A writer of books for children and articles for grown-ups and many things in-between.

Who am I? A motivational speaker, writing instructor, workshop leader and full-time follower of dreams.

Who am I? Read and find out.

Susan Taylor Brown

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