“The Salinas Valley is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay. I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer — and what trees and seasons smelled like — how people looked and walked and smelled even.”
— from East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Isn’t it amazing that our memory can hold so much that even a scent can bring a rush of memories and emotions flooding back? I have always found this simple fact to be fascinating, and my memory is filled with many widely varying scents.
I rarely wear perfume, but while preparing to leave for a family wedding recently, I sprayed a spritz of perfume. Suddenly, amazingly, my memories took me all the way back to Bible School, seated beside a favorite teacher.
Mixed into that vibrant memory was the very clear smell and taste of the bright orange punch that was served with homemade cookies for our treat time. I know what you are thinking — all of that from a simple whiff of perfume?
I know, it amazed me, too, but it was all there, just clear as a bell. Bible School was one week that my sister Debi and I always looked forward to, whether we were students in the earlier days, or teachers during our high school days.
My father, on the other hand, was always a little less enthusiastic. After having waited for school to let out, he was looking forward to spending lots of quality time with his daughters doing things like picking rocks and checking all of the fences from here to Egypt.
“Bible School? Already?” he asked every single year with a certain measure of disdain.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want us to go. He simply wanted us to be in two places at the same time.
There is one hair care product that carries the same sweet scent that my dear Aunt Marilyn must have used in some form or another. While sitting in the hair salon with my dear cousin Rachelle working on my hair, I suddenly caught that scent and my memory missed Aunt Marilyn enormously, even though she has been gone from us since 1970.
Not long ago, I was walking up to an outdoor dairy window to order an ice cream cone, and the couple who passed me was most definitely dairy farmers. I would not mistake that scent of dairy cattle mixed in with Nolvasan and post-milking dip used to prevent mastitis. I think they might have dehorned calves that day, in fact.
I know my smells, and I will know this one forever. It was the scent my sisters and I so desperately wanted to shower right out of our hair and off of our skin before dressing for school each day, after having spent our very early morning hours in the milking parlor.
Every house I have known in my youth carried an unmistakable scent, which ties the memory so tightly to it. While walking through a furniture store recently, my nostrils detected a scent very much like my great-Aunt Virginia’s home, where we took our piano lessons during our childhood. I suddenly hoped I could still find “middle C” and felt that quick rush of childhood panic, fearing a piano recital was looming in my future.
Of course, the strongest (and most daunting) memory scent from my childhood came from the pig barns. While on a long drive recently, we passed a hog farm and the lingering smell as we drove past gave me shivers. It brought back the hard work of our farrow-to-finish set-up, though a small one, which was set up on a separate farm from our dairy.
There were so many jobs associated with the pigs that left me filled with something akin to fear: iron shots, weaning baby pigs away from angry sows, clamping through ear-piercing squealing — and always, always, there was that amazingly horrific smell, strong enough to bend and break the most stubborn human alive.
Along with all of these, my memory is alive with the various grasses and weeds of my youth. Remember Sudan grass? There was no other scent quite like that one, popular in this area in the late 1960s, which I vaguely remember my father chopping and feeding to the milk cows while we finished up the evening milking.
It was often my job to open the electric fence to let my father into the pasture field at the end of milking, and I always feared being shocked by a cracked plastic fence handle.
There are strongly scented weeds which carried our own made-up names that we would chop out of the corn fields as we picked rocks.
“Oh man, this is the year for stinky yellow weed!” I remember saying as we hiked toward yet another towering growth of it in the middle of an endless corn field.
Mixed right in there with all of this is also the glorious scents of youth: strawberries, watermelon, cotton candy, candy apples, freshly-popped popcorn, caramel corn, a charcoal fire cooking burgers, a camp fire, freshly mowed hay.
To this day, when I catch a whiff of freshly cut hay, I find myself thinking, “Oh, boy, there’s a whole lot of work in somebody’s future!”