Sniffing out the Past

I started this post 2.16.12. I decided to finish it today. The fact that it was in mid-February tells you what a beautiful winter we’ve had …. construction the whole way through …

I’ve always heard that smell is one of the quickest ways back to old memories.  The olfactory nerve and sense of smell are located in the most primal part of our brains, and as such, are linked to some of our ancient understanding of things. Broadly, it means somewhere in our minds, we are able to ascertain that rotting meat means certain illness or death and that the people we love are good. More recently, it means that things we imprinted in our memories and made part of our essence in childhood can come rushing back to us in an instant with a whiff of a certain odor or the hint of a particular scent.

And so it has been for me. There is a certain note of kitchen smells that I cannot describe that always puts me *right* back into my grandfather’s nursing home. Not one he was IN, but one he owned. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly why we would visit him at the nursing home. We visited plenty over at his house, which was right down the street.  And when we would go and visit him there, we would pass through the kitchen on the way to the general sitting room down the hall of rooms where we ended up at his office.   I remember the nursing home smelled strange and frightened me. My dad would talk to some of the people and want me to talk to them, too.

This insistence that I interact with them confused me some — they weren’t MY grandma or grandpa. Why did I have to be super friendly with them? They were super old. They made me nervous. I knew they just wanted us to be friendly, but I just couldn’t get over my fear. There were so many old people there, and they seemed so sad and lonely and I couldn’t imagine who would leave their mom or dad or grandma or grandpa in one of these places … but I believed they were being well-taken care of, because my grandpa owned/ran it. And my future AP English teacher’s wife was the head nurse there. So, I don’t think those people were treated poorly at all, but still. It’s a nursing home. It can’t be a thrilling existence. And I think my young-old soul felt the sadness and probably the nearness to death that hung around the place. I just knew it made me nervous to go there.

Today, I walked past a building that was undergoing some work and was struck with the smell of construction.  Lumber, to be precise. At least that’s what I nailed it down to as I walked away. I was immediately connected to my father in some unknowable way, but I knew it instantly said “Dad.” I asked myself why that was. It’s not like I was around my dad as he created vast works of wood or that he was some well-known house builder. He is known to me as a heavy equipment operator and I don’t think of him as a carpenter, per se.  But I went back in my mind and I guess my sister and I (she was there, right?) must have tagged along on enough Saturday missions to various merchants of millwork and manufacturing — Menards and Farm and Fleet and independent lumber stores — to make the smell of lumber a relative constant in my childhood memories.

It’s not to say my dad *didn’t* do his share of building, though. He built the deck that goes around most of my parents’ house and endeavored to raise the house from its foundation to put a basement underneath. A garage was built and my parents took out a loan to remodel the inside of the house, as well. So, I guess I’m well acquainted with the smell of cut wood and the projects of a blue-collar man and his friends.

I try so hard not to mourn my father while he’s alive. It’s a phenomenon that I’d like to explore more in therapy, whenever I get the chance. But I have a sneaking suspicion that these are the things that will pull my heart with leaden strings the first time I smell them after he’s gone. The smallest things that will be so hard to explain to anyone, and so I’ll swallow them and just add them to the list of things that have become my father.

It’s stupid to be sad about something that hasn’t happened. I know that. It’s weird to be nostalgic about a smell like that. Lumber. I guess it just means things are being built. Men and women (I’d like to hope) are creating things and working hard. There’s hope in that. It’s spring or summer and things are turning around, being made or becoming new. I just want to know that things are good. I just want to be a part of that in some way, even if it’s as a tagalong to the lumber store in my mind.

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3 thoughts on “Sniffing out the Past

  1. OK First about leaving a person in “there”. Have you ever seen a person in late stage Alzheimer’s? They can be extremely violent and use strength they didn’t have when healthy. Constant incontinence and bowel movements. Sorry to be graphic, but that’s the way it is. I do have first hand knowledge of this and know people who tried to care for the person at home only to have that person erupt into violent rages and be a danger to her smaller children. Is that a good way to remember mom? Especially if she brings harm to the household? Did you see the Verne Gagne tidbit? He was in a home a bell went off and he went into a violent rage picked a person up and killed them as he slammed them to the ground. He thought it was Bob Luce wrestling time. The victims family did not sue Verne or the nursing home calling Verne as much as a victim as their pop with Alzheimer’s. In some ways they were probably relived dear old pop finally was at peace. It is a very difficult decision, but one that needs to be made in many circumstances.

  2. i’ve been in one of these modes lately myself — just picking fights with everything. but i love how you just pick things to be mad at sometimes. the point was, i was a *little girl* who was scared and didn’t understand it. i didn’t understand growing old. i didn’t understand nursing homes. i didn’t understand any of it. i just knew it freaked me the fuck out. : )

  3. Oops. OK, I just reread it. It was your thinking at the time as a child not now, sorry.

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