While hunched over, rolling paint and letting my mind half wander, I was suddenly struck by a distinct odor. It wasn't at all a bad smell, or a wonderful smell, but it was pleasant and warm and so darn familiar. And it had little to do with the paint.
I've always had a super sensitive nose (especially versus my average to below-average sight and hearing) and, as many do, I've always attached memories to the smells.
One of my first memories were of my dad's beard. Sure, I remember how scruffy and downright painful it felt when he hugged me close with the stubble rubbing on my soft little face. Mostly, though, I recall his sweet-smelling Old Spice cologne -- not too much, not too little -- after a shave. Those memories are all I have of him anymore, and I cherish it. That being said, I HATE the smell of Old Spice now. It's just too bitter a smell. (Not literally.)
I remember what our favorite dog, Brie, smelled like. When you stuffed your face in her super-soft black fur and fell into a nap. So fresh yet earthy, with dry flakes of white skin dotting the black. Then, the distinctly goopy smell that accompanied her in-need-of-a-cleaning ears. Ick. Poor thing.
But, the most important smells that I hold closest to my heart were those that wafted from my mom's parents' house. After Dad passed, we spent a hell of a lot of time there, whether as a family unit or one-on-one. It was like stepping back in time to a simpler place, where the structure of certain known rules and uncomplicated fun had a major calming effect.
The house itself gave forth scents that I've never again experienced anywhere else, excepting for those rare, brief "is there a ghost about?" moments. Grandpa's basement workshop (and the room with the bar and pool table that we played on, under, and around) wreaked of dusty sweet sawdust and musty coolness. Grandma's pantry hit you in the face with pungent spices far stronger than any at our house of some long-since-spilled herb or spice; maybe nutmeg? Clove? I always thought about it when we discussed the spice trade in Social Studies. I loved sticking my head in that cupboard.
Of course, there was also the ever-present smell of smoke, which somehow didn't seem to overtake the house. Grandma was known for her unfiltered Camel addiction, which she gave up only after being permanently hospitalized after a heart operation. (She famously said that her doctor told her it would be BAD for her to quit. Scared, we tended to believe her.) Being both bulldog and nurturer, she would notoriously blow it in your direction when you started winning at gin rummy; I think she was hoping it would burn our eyes and lower our game. Tricks she undoubtedly learned in the Marines on Parris Island.
Grandpa went through his bouts with tobacco, as well. He had long since quit smoking (and quite easily, which I admired), but at times would sneak chewing tobacco (which he hid under the driver's side seat of his car and told us "not to tell Grandma") and, others, openly smoke a pipe. I so loved the bittersweet smell of a pipe that I smoked one for about a semester in college. Yes, seriously. It was the smell of the thing, and the memory soothed me.
Their breezeway, too, contained a distinct, nice smell which led to an earthy, wet garage and second work area for Grandpa. He built a kennel with a little pass-through (which we kids used as much as our beloved border collie, Bri...said "Br-EYE" ;-)) with an abrasively sweet-smelling, ever-present leaf pile -- one of my all-time favorite smells.
I still recall vividly the imaginative games my sister and I would play in their massive backyard. We would collect pine cones and acorns, pretending that we lived in the wilderness, sitting on the soft bed of pine needles under perfectly-sized trees. That same timeless smell would get kicked about when we took "nature walks" with Grandpa behind our nearby elementary school (always so much more special to visit there with him than with any classmates or teacher). It was what I imagined it to be like when the "Indians" lived there, long before us, running amongst the birch. I'm not sure if the locals referred to that hill as "Mount Suribach" (a slightly altered reference to Mt. Suribachi, the Japanese hill the Marines famously took) or if it was just my grandfather's nickname for it, but it was a glimpse into his past. It feels like we were born knowing about his involvement in the war, without actually knowing.
I could talk about the smells of the molasses cookies we helped to bake or the laundry detergent we helped to pour, but it all just leads down the same road. It was a home away from home that was harder to leave behind when it was sold just last year than our true childhood home (which was sold shortly after my graduation from high school, with all of its ghosts still haunting us and all the music we filled it with still ringing softly).
And that smell -- the smell of THEM -- hit me like a slap as I rolled and slathered that blue-gray paint into those wood crevices. My first thought, as with any time the smell finds me, is whether Grandpa is okay. There's no point in worrying. We know that his time will come sooner rather than later (he's doing okay in his assisted living facility, but the dementia is setting in and he's by far not the vibrant character that once protected and guided me). But the concern still arises.
Then, I wonder if it's Grandma, or any number of past loved ones, reaching out to me in a moment of solitude. I was recently reminded that it's the 5th anniversary of her passing, so this could very well be the case.
All I know is that I'm grateful to be reminded, at the most mundane of moments, by the simplest of smells, that I was a lucky, lucky child.