Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's not so surprising, really.

The olfactory center of the brain is right next to the place where you process and store memories. That's why the smell of a pot roast, or the scent of somebody's perfume can take you back to 1959, when you were at that jazz club with the skinny guy named Frankie who had the bad bow tie.

Today I smelled two things: pine needles in the middle of a very hot day, and the combination of my dad's mother's perfume and chlorine on a woman who'd just gotten out of the pool.

The first took me back to weeks at Mom's parents' house in Saint Jo. We had tomatoes for dinner that had had their finishing on the kitchen windowsill. Granny's kitchen was all steel; I still lust after solid-steel countertops and steel cabinets.

We'd eat dinner, and then I'd have a very small demitasse cup ("demitasse" pronounced in the French way by my grandmother, who'd learned her French both at school and from the maids at the place where they spent their winters in Bermuda) of coffee, while watching my grandfather pour cream into his iced coffee. The Coffee Fairies would make the cream hit the bottom of the glass and swirl up into amazing patterns.

In the morning (after I'd laid awake, thanks to that demitasse of boiled percolator coffee) we'd go walking, because the doctor had recommended that Granddad walk for his heart. We'd feed biscuits to the various dogs on the route, who knew when we were coming. I knew them all, from Molly the enormous mop-like sheepdog to Sheriff, my favorite, a giant Schnauzer with a star on his chest and a lovely curly black vest on his back. Then home, for tiny bowls of cereal with cream and strawberries, and eggs and toast (endless toast, warmed with the butter melting in the toaster), and my grandmother asking if I'd like more "wipie kweepies"--my toddler name for Rice Krispies.

Then, finally, the smell of pine needles: that came after Granny parked the Mercedes convertible (I was relegated to the nonexistent back seat, which I savored--the smell of dust and leather and the fabric liner of the hard-top) at the country club and we walked up the path between the pine trees to the pool, where we swam--always a careful hour after lunch.

The country club pool wasn't as cold as the one that Dad's mother took us to. Dad's father was a Shriner, complete with fez, and the Moila Shrine in Saint Jo had a pool that had been built out of post-World War Two surplus steel. Even at two or three in the afternoon, it was cold. It lost heat quickly at night (when the mourning doves and cicaidas would sing) and wouldn't gain it back until sometime in August, long after we'd gone.

The Moila pool had, in addition to the iciest water this side of the Comal, a high dive. I remember quite vividly being eight years old and standing on the high-dive board, wondering if I would die if I jumped. It was a detached, impersonal wondering: the other kids visiting their grandparents had already gone, and I knew I wouldn't last long at the pool if I didn't jump too. The next summer, thanks to the experience of beating Eric Burch up during a soccer practice and thus exorcising all my childhood fears, I went off head-first. The sensation of my hair parting as I hit the water was memorable, to say the least--there was no bubbler for that three-meter high dive.

Granny II would lie on a chaise longue (not a "lounge", thankyouverymuch) with her silver rings and bangles and occasionally let me get a disappointing ice cream bar from the cart at the edge of the pool. She'd then make me sit for ten minutes before I was allowed to swim again.

The baby pool was always warm. The real pool, the one my sister and I were allowed in because we knew how to swim, was always ice freaking cold and required some getting used to.

And I always smelled my grandmother's perfume along with chlorine and hot pavement and the burnt-cotton smell of the towels we used. I know she didn't use the same scent every day, but it's always the same in my head.

So when I was gravely sorting through cucumbers today at the local Indie Mart, it hit me like a sledgehammer, to smell chlorine and pool water and maybe Youth Dew or Chanel #5 or whatever it was she wore, and to turn around, expecting to see a short woman with white hair in a bun, wearing white linen and silver. Instead, I saw a tall, slender woman who must've been a well-preserved seventy, with wet hair and workout clothes.

Sometimes I go to Michael's, the craft store, just to walk through the aisles where they keep the dried flowers. Sometimes I tempt fate and pull off the road to cut cat-tails in the fall, in order to dry them and keep them in a big floor-standing vase in my kitchen, near the back door. Sometimes I make myself toast out of Pepperidge Farm bread (very-thin sliced, please) and keep it warm in the oven for breakfast, when I drink tiny cups of boiled coffee.

Barton Springs, while lovely, doesn't match the Moila. And the Comal, as nice as it is to tube down, doesn't match the quiet calm of the country club swimming pool: the smell of chlorine, and hot dogs, and pine needles, and the hot, hot Missouri afternoons.


IMQTPI said...

Very nice :-)

Thanks for sharing that!

RehabNurse said...

I smelled one of those plug-in air fresheners this summer that reminded me of my childhood friend's Hawaiian Tropic suntan oil.

If I smell Youth-Dew or Emeraude, I think old lady, too, 'cause my granny and her sisters wore them at various times.

And if toast is done just right, with a little cinnamon sugar, I smell my childhood at preschool all over again.

Done those freezing MO pools, too. Know exactly what you mean...did not encounter colder water until I went to MI once...that was a bone freezer!

'Drea said...

Enjoying the storytelling...

Earl said...

Right now I'm watching "The Last Picture Show". Talk about a trip down memory lane.

I'm glad that your today was a good day for memories.

messymimi said...

Memories of grandmothers -- those wonderful people who always have time.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing - your words took me back to some sweet moments in my own childhood, too.
you are a great writer, no matter what the topic, Jo.
stay cool.

Celeste said...

Absolutely lovely piece.

I smell tangerines and I'm 4 at Christmas time. It's some crazy kinda wayback machine. (((sigh))))

Penny Mitchell said...

Another vote for Emeraude. My Mother wore it. I have her last bottle of it, wrapped tightly in plastic to preserve the molecules. One little whiff of it is Instant Time Machine.

Chris said...

I love it - my grandma used to make toast out of Pepperidge Farm bread too! I remember, too, their toaster (which my mom still has). It was stainless steel, and my grandma would put it on the table next to my grandpa and plug it in. When you pushed it down, it made a "tick tick tick" noise until it popped up........the things that stick in your mind, like the smells....