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24 August 2008 @ 02:13 pm
Scents From My Childhood  
I can remember the different scents of each home in my extended family. Grandma used Dove dishwashing soap and Dove bar soap. Grandpa used Lava, which was less about scent and more about abrasion. I was endlessly fascinated with the rough bars which got the worst grime off my hands. Dove, on the other hand, melted in your hands with lots of suds and a beautiful scent. Grandma put it on her face when we took a bath together and said that because of the cleansing cream (as advertised) it would make her face softer if she left it on for a bit. Grandma didn’t wear much perfume but I do remember she often used Jergens lotion, which had a scent I also loved. Because my mother sold Avon, every woman in my family had some Avon perfumes and samples. I loved the little samples that came in a little square pack with a pad soaked in the perfume.

 

Mom’s signature Avon scent was Charisma, which I didn’t like at all. Aunt Virginia chose Cotillion and for years each of them was identified with their scent. I felt that I should choose a scent of my own, but I could never decide. I never found just one scent I could be faithful too. I guess I’m just a scent slut. I liked Cotillion but since it was already Aunt Virginia’s scent I couldn’t really use it. No one said so but that’s how it seemed to me. When I became a teen I gravitated to non-Avon scents: Charlie’s, Heaven Sent, Musk, Ambush and others. I used them so copiously that I probably accelerated the process of developing allergies to mainstream perfumes. I can now only use some of the natural scents from health food stores and mainly just use lotions to provide my scent.

 

Mom used Palmolive dishwashing liquid and Safeguard deodorant soap. Later she switched to Caress. Aunt Gin used Joy for dishes and Zest in her shower. These scents still remind me of my family.

 

The smell of cigarettes and pipe tobacco also filled my family homes. Mom smoked Kents, Grandma smoked Raleighs, and Aunt Gin smoked Winstons. Grandma took some heat for smoking unfiltered for years. Grandpa often rolled his own with Zigzag papers and also smoked a pipe. I loved the smell of his pipe tobacco when he opened the bag. It also smelled better when he smoked it. I hated the smell of cigarettes and especially the stale smoke that would linger. I could never breathe in the smoke directly and felt like I spent my whole childhood waving away smoke from in front of my face, desperate for some clear air space. Cars were especially frustrating—other than opening a window there was no where to go and nothing to do to get away. Opening a window was like being in a wind tunnel at the speeds my family drove.

 

At Aunt Dorothy’s house the predominant scent was coffee grounds. They seemed to drink a lot more coffee and it seemed like coffee grounds were often in their stainless steel sink. I don’t remember their dishwashing or household soaps, perhaps because I didn’t spend as much time at my cousins’ home as at my grandma’s or aunt’s.

 

I also came from a family of cooks and bakers. Everyone was making pies, breads, simmering stews or frying chicken. The scents filled their homes. On Thanksgiving and Christmas we gathered at Grandma’s house most years, or Great Grandma’s. Occasionally we had a celebration at Aunt Dorothy’s. I think we gathered there less often because they didn’t have space for guests, really, except for the garage that had been converted to a room. Grandma’s house had three extra bedrooms after they built the addition, two before they added on. Each room had a large bed that could sleep two and they also had a “layaway” bed that sat folded up in the middle and could be wheeled into the living room, plus a small cot. In the winters it was advantageous to be able to spend the night on Christmas Eve, which is when we had our celebration. I learned later this was in accordance with German traditions, and of course Great-grandma married into a German family when she married Lee Elschlager. My family knew how to make big vats of sauerkraut, for example, as a part of the German heritage. At the same time, the Irish side hadn’t been forgotten. Grandma made frequent references to being “Black Irish.” We were a family of tea drinkers and we always added milk, a custom that my mom described as cambric tea. We of course wore green on St. Patrick’s day.

 

Everyone in the family owned dogs, and they contributed their own scent to the mix. Many of the dogs in the family were small dogs: poodles, toy terriers, chihuahua, and terrier-chihuhua mixes. Aunt Gin got the tiny dogs first and tempted Grandma by showing her Cocoa, bringing the tiny brown toy terrier to the hospital where Grandma was recuperating from ear surgery, in her coat pocket. Grandma fell in love and although she hadn’t intended to give Cocoa away, Aunt Gin felt that she had to once Grandma was so obviously attached to the tiny puppy.

 

In the end, Grandma and Grandpa had two toy terriers, Cocoa and Jake, in addition to their outside dogs, Geronimo and Butch. The inside dogs were trained to do “their business” on a paper in between outings in the yard. Naturally there were accidents and I was often dismayed to end up stepping in a fresh puddle of urine or having to step over their small turds. I was squeamish about dealing with these messes and so I never volunteered, though I often did housework at Grandma’s in order to get some pocket change. Usually that meant dusting and getting the rust stains (from the very hard water) off the sink and tub.

 

Aunt Gin had Tiny, Tippy, Tinkerbell, and Tammy. Tiny was the largest of the toy terriers and the mother of the rest, including Grandma and Granpa’s. Tammy was a black chihuahua. Uncle Frank got Tammy when they split up. Tinkerbell was the female counterpart to Jake, black with a brown chest and brown on the muzzle, Tippy was the smallest girl with a white tip on her tail,  and Tiny was white with black spots.

 

Aunt Dorothy had a black poodle named Charlie and Big Grandma had a chihuahua that was larger than our Fifi. I can’t remember her name; I didn’t get to spend much time at Big Grandma’s house. (She was my great-grandma.)

 

We had my chihuahua, Fifi, and two poodles—Misty and Apricot--to start with. We ended up keeping two of Misty’s first litter: Honey and Dawn. Five dogs were a lot to keep up with and when my mom was depressed she was simply unable to. That led to a completely disgusting home when Mom fell into a severe depression and couldn’t keep up with her four poodles—or even take them outside—as well as her male poodle kept in a crate for use as a stud. I’ve forgotten his name because we only had him for part of one year. My mom waited so long to change the newspaper under his crate that there were maggots. The scent was so awful that year that I spent most of it in my room. I remember I had a perfume that was based on the scent of the sea. I used to put some on the light bulb before I turned on the light so the scent would fill my room. The walls of my room were turquoise and I got a light bulb to match, so the effect was really like being in the sea, or at least a swimming pool. All I needed were fish or mermaid figures on the wall.

 

In my own home scent remains an important consideration and throughout the years I’ve used incense, simmered spices on the stove, put oil on light bulbs or lamps, chose my soaps and detergents with care, and otherwise tried to create a home with a pleasant scent. I use Murphy’s soap on my floors, I use lavender lotions and soaps in my bath, as well as Bonny Doon rose geranium soap. For dish soap I sometimes use lavender but for heavy jobs I return to my mom’s favorite green Palmolive liquid.

 

Cooking remains an important source of positive scents in my home and my use of spices in Indian cooking creates its own special scent. I’m sure my children have memories of ghee and spices from their own childhoods. I’ve also done my share of baking and when we were very poor I often baked my own bread. As a vegetarian I make foods from a variety of cuisines and each have their distinctive scent.


Scent dominates our fondest memories. What are some of  yours?

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