Sunday, September 9, 2012
There's this particular scent that I catch sometimes, that smells like nothing so much as my grandmother's house. To be around it, it's almost as if I had just walked in off her front porch, on to the atrocious yellow carpeting that had probably been installed in the 70's, and in to the kitchen where she was over-boiling green beans. It reminds me of sitting cuddled up on her pseudo-suede couch while she read through one of her catalogues, showing me the things she thought were pretty, or pointing out articles in the Jonesborough Herald and Tribune, or trying to explain the bizarre comic strips that ran in their paper, like Snuffy Smith or Andy Capp or the Phantom. I can barely, nearly even hear her voice - and her sweet country accent - explain her opinion on various characters in the panels. Sometimes she would save clips from the paper, and after she passed away, as we went through the clippings, my cousin remarked wonder at whether she saved a clip because one side was about the king of England abdicating, or because the other side mentioned a sale at a department store.
The house was an old country farmhouse, the farm itself across the road. The basement was line stone and full of pickles and canned goods and I was never allowed down there. I wasn't allowed in the top story, either; my cousins may have told me there were monsters, and my more honest cousins may have told me there were rabid mice, and I think my mom told me there was broken glass from old Christmas decorations. The way upstairs was through what I guess was a sitting room, once, before it became filled up with old clothes and jigsaw puzzles piled on top of the old piano.
I remember her silly cow throw blankets on the sofas. I remember the tick-tock-tick of the clock on the far corner of the living room that would always keep me company at night when I stayed there. I remember the Ghost Buster backpacks that I guess belonged to some of my cousins that they left out in the garage that I cleaned off once and played with, and I remember the fascinating dungeon-exploration board game my other cousins left stored under a cabinet in the living room (which was filled with old Archie and Popeye comic books, amongst many other things) and how they never let me play it because it was too complicated, and how we did play it once (and I remember nothing about playing it). I remember, also, my Papaw, sitting down and sprinkling sugar over his not-frosted flakes, and my sister and I laughing at how funny that concept seemed to us, and then he would walk over to his chair (with electronic adjustment controls) and watch game shows on their old wood-panel CRT television.
My grandma had a cat, Angel, who she resigned to outside-only after she knocked over a bookshelf that stood just next to the fireplace (which wasn't a fireplace but some alien-looking iron panel attached to a chimney). She also, later in life, got a dog, Charlie, who was a purebred of some dog breed that I don't know, but who would always get tangled in his leash around the old maple tree that stood in her front yard (which was perfect for climbing), while Angel got to run around all over the yard and all over the cow pasture, and all through the old garage filled with my cousins' old toys and bicycles.
I remember once, when I was much younger, waking up early to find Mamaw hopping over fences to do something with the cows (I always want to say she was milking them, but her cows were for meat and no adults ever really told me what she was doing), with a spry energy that could not possibly have corresponded to her age, and then give a little laugh that I can only describe as slightly crazy; that craziness of someone who loves being alive. It was a laugh she gave often, whether she was excited or shocked, or just totally baffled by some offensive thing I didn't know enough not to say.
When you walked in to my Mamaw's house, you parked between the garage and the old white "security" car that probably didn't even run anymore (and who would know if it did?), on to the porch where the cat was often coiled up in the collection of chairs and old tennis rackets, you'd open the screen door and hear the pneumatic arm wheeze, then open the old wooden farmhouse door, you'd place your foot down on that yellow carpet, and you'd hear Mamaw call from the kitchen, "Howdy" as she washed dishes or finished making a dish for Thanksgiving. Papaw would be in the living room, in his armchair, watching television, and he'd call out "Hey" until you came and gave him a hug, which may have been the most his stroke allowed him. So you'd give Papaw a hug, then walk in to the kitchen, past the door to the "sitting room" full of jigsaw puzzles and the forbidden and nailed-shut door to the basement, past the bookshelf that Angel knocked down once, in to the kitchen with the rotary telephone, and you'd see Mamaw smiling her excited smile and wiping her hands, and more than likely Aunt Mary perched along the far wall smoking and chatting and waiting for you to get there, too, tapping out her cigarette in to an ashtray on the table where the Thanksgiving food would be piled and where the family played Rook later.
It's that experience the most - of walking in to the door and in to the kitchen - that I remember when I catch this smell, like I am physically undergoing that movement as it fills my nostrils. It's like the green beans and country ham and turkey and the cat and the old bicycles and the terrible carpet and my Papaw in his armchair and my Mamaw's slightly-crazy laugh when you first walk in are all there in the room with that smell, wherever that smell is, and now I'm coming to visit again for Thanksgiving.
Their house is how I remember them, and that smell is how I remember that house the most. I don't know if I ever caught it when they were with us, the scent, or the memories attached to it, but lately I catch it more, and it brings me back, way back, to all of that all over again.
Yesterday, I learned that smell is mothballs.