Certain smells remind me of certain people. And now, if I know you personally, you’re probably wondering what kind of scent conjures up my mental image of you. The next time we meet for lunch, you’ll show up drenched in cologne and chewing on Altoids. But rest assured, most people I know don't stink, or they cover up it up well.
Throughout my childhood and beyond, Dad wore green Skin Bracer aftershave, often saying, "It's cheaper than soap." He faithfully carried a bottle on the front seat of his car, and was the Best-Smelling Dad in Texas. My hippie brother, Doc, used Brut as his groovy scent; I could smell when he had a date. And Mom’s signature fragrance was White Shoulders, although she wore it sparingly, and only in her younger years.
As for me, I've run the gamut. From Love’s Baby Soft, to Charlie (now you have that catchy commercial jingle in your head), to anything by Estee Lauder, to Mackie. But my most memorable aromatic delicacy was a bottle of cologne I bought from Loretta Swit, aka Margaret Houlihan on MASH. When I learned she’d be at the Houston Gem and Jewelry show one year, I asked my stepdaughter, Zelda, if she'd like to go. Zelda loved her birthstone, pearl, and I wanted to buy her a strand or two. She also loved MASH, but I didn't tell her "Hot Lips" would be there selling her own line of products.
On our drive to the show, I said, "I have a surprise for you. Do you want a surprise or do you want me to tell you?" I was hoping she’d say to tell her; it’s excruciating trying to keep my own secrets.
"I don't know. Is it something I'm going to like?"
No, I always take my kids to things they’ll hate, I thought; my Default Response Mechanism is permanently set on “Sarcasm.”
"Yes, very much," I answered.
"Okay, surprise me," she said.
I thought we’d never get there. I practically skipped my way to the entrance of the exhibit hall. When we walked in, immediately I saw Ms. Swit’s booth to our right.
“Let’s go this way first,” I said, leading the way. In 10 seconds, we were face-to-face with the celebrity.
“Hi. How are you?” I asked Loretta. It was like talking to a long-time friend.
“I’m fine. How are you doing today?”
“We’re great. This is Zelda,” I said, introducing them, “she’s a big fan.”
“Hey,” Zelda responded.
“Oh, thank you. What can I help you with today?” Loretta asked.
Zelda was silent, but I replied, “I’m interested in your cologne. I have a hot date with my husband tonight.”
“Oh, well then, here you go.” She smiled as she generously sprayed me down with a tester bottle of Ushabti.
After we talked for a few minutes, she gave me her email, in case I needed anything or wanted to learn about more products. As I paid for my cologne, I told Loretta, “My dad died recently, and I’ve wanted to buy something special for myself, in his memory. This cologne is it; it’s perfect.”
She was as lovely as I’d thought she’d be. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to buy her a cup of coffee, talk for a couple of hours, and have her over for dinner. But, regretfully, I didn’t ask; I try my best to never make a creepy first impression.
As we walked away, Zelda held her autographed picture. Once out of Loretta’s earshot, she stopped, turned to me, and said, “Oh my gosh! I finally meet a famous person, and all I could say was ‘Hey.’ Like an idiot. You should have told me.”
“You told me you wanted a surprise,” I replied.
“I know, but I didn’t know it was that kind of surprise.”
Sometimes, motherhood is a no-win situation. But I treasure the memory, as well as my bottle of Ushabti, which I’ll keep forever.
Non-bottled scents also leave me nostalgic. I can still smell the popcorn that wafted down the aisles in the Sears store near my childhood home. Sometimes, I would visit my friend Lylas, who worked the popcorn/candy counter. I envied her job. When I worked at the same store years later, I worked in the lingerie department. Lingerie, regardless of whether I’m selling it or wearing it, is horribly boring. You may, dear reader, consider it exciting, especially in risqué red or brazen black. But anything that involves elastic, binds, or has scratchy lace is not my friend. I would’ve much rather sold bon bons.
My food-scent memories are unending. Peanuts roasting in an oven take me back to visits with my paternal grandfather; the first time I had them was at his house. Marshmallows over an open fire, with a light brown crunchy crust on the outside, takes me back to s’mores on campouts or in our current backyard. Room temperature pumpkin pie, which Mom and I ate one sliver at a time because we said it had less calories that way, brings back thoughts of Thanksgivings gone by.
Of course, some food smells grace my Top 10 Most Horrible Smells of All Time. Such as the smoke that filled our kitchen when my grandmother burned a pot of black-eyed peas. They looked okay on the surface, but one bite left an aftertaste that lasted a week. Or the fried eggs I burned two weeks ago, when I expected them to flip themselves while I cleaned up the back of the house. Cleaning, which I loathe, should never be rewarded with scorched breakfast.
But beauty is in the nose of the sniffer. Years ago, I traveled to Illinois with my friend Birdie, back to her home town. As we drove through the countryside, getting closer to her parents’ house, the smell of a thousand unflushed toilets hit our nostrils. She got excited; I was repulsed. As far as the nose could smell was the pungent stink of cow manure.
“Ah, it smells like home,” she said, with a dreamy look on her face.
“Ew. Where do you live? You really were raised in a barn, huh?”
On our trip back to Houston, as we drove through the city, the familiar scent of refineries enveloped us.
“Ugh,” Birdie complained, “we’re back.”
“Ahhh, home sweet home,” I replied, taking deep breaths of contentment.
You can take the girl out of the country, or the city, but, you know.
There aren’t many smells I absolutely can’t tolerate. But there’s one that sometimes demands I hold my breath. You know it. If you’ve been around babies any amount of time, you know I’m talking about the Mother Lode of odors, or rather, the Baby Lode.
When my son, Cowboy, was an infant, Flash was helpful in changing diapers. He’s always been a hands-on, literally, daddy. But when the special delivery packages from our little darling were multicolored, which brought with them multifaceted aromas, it was a quite different story.
“Uck, uh, blag,” could be heard throughout the house, as Flash struggled to not vomit all over our baby.
“Are you okay?” I asked, as I quickly walked to Cowboy’s room to see what was going on. “What’s wrong?”
“Om mu garsh,” a muffled reply came. “I canph do uh.”
There stood my Superman, bent over Cowboy, with Cowboy’s dirty diaper half open. Flash’s t-shirt was pulled up over his mouth and nose, his eyes were tearing up, and his eyes pleaded for help.
“What?” I asked the Drama King.
“Oh my gosh,” he repeated, clearly. “I can’t do it.”
“This is your third child. What do you mean you can’t do it?” I asked. But inside my head, I resembled Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. You’re not a rookie, soldier, I berated, silently. This is hand-to-butt combat, and there’s no foxhole to climb into.
“I know,” he answered, “but it always makes me gag.”
Indeed. For years, if doody called, I was the one who answered. Whether it was from illness, or if a simple stool test needed to be performed to check gastrointestinal function, I handled things, albeit with gloves on. Thank the good Lord that Cowboy has handled his bodily functions for the last 16 years or so, and more gracefully than his father. It was never pleasant. But, then again, it wasn’t cow patties. There’s always something smellier; it’s all about perspective.
Recently, Flash and I went to a baby shower for our niece Jasmine. One of the shower games consisted of passing around “soiled” diapers. Guests had to figure out what substance was on each diaper - the first one was a Hershey’s chocolate bar, the next was Mr. Goodbar, etc. In order to determine what was on each diaper, guests needed to smell, and possibly taste, the “poop.” At first, Flash had the same reaction to fake poop as to the real thing; horror crossed his face, and I waited for the gagging to start. Instead, he stepped up and took a big whiff of each poopy diaper, to assist me and our friend Cindy Lou, as the three of us earned the victory. But he cringed every time someone took a bite of poop.
In the years prior to Cowboy, when Flash’s older kids had various illnesses, Flash gagged his way through fatherhood. Investigating any case from the Excrement Files left him retching. Even someone else’s retching left him retching. Regardless of which end was affected, it was a physical endurance test for Flash – would he toss his cookies or remain intact? Would he add to the problem that only I could clean up? The odiferous culprit in butt maladies was matched by the auditory nature of vomiting. To this day, Flash can’t stand to hear anyone vomit – he runs out of the room with the speed of a weak-stomached cheetah, with his paw over his mouth. I am forced to wonder, what does he do when he is the guilty party? You can’t very well flee the scene of the crime while the crime is still in progress. Ugh. Now I’m picturing that. I do know that Flash takes whatever means necessary to never, under any circumstances, throw up; he’s the poster child for emetophobia. It’s especially bad if what comes spewing forth from the mouth is also smelly.
In public school, in the late 60s through the 70s, there was one smell that was unlike any other. Far worse than rampant flatulence fogging up the halls after pinto beans were served at lunch. Worse than the guy next to you in class, who forgot to brush his teeth. Or the girl blocking you in basketball during gym class, who just hit puberty early and forgot to put on her deodorant.
It was the smell of the stuff the school janitors sprinkled on a puddle of vomit in the classroom, or the bathroom, or, worst of all, the cafeteria. I have no idea what it was, but it looked like sawdust. And the odor of that super-absorbent sawdust combined with vomit was straight from the pit of hell. Why, in the name of all that is disgusting, did the manufacturer put an odor in that sawdust? Was the smell of someone else’s semi-digested food not enough for children everywhere to endure? Did we need more trauma than staring at the puddle and praying we weren’t next, as we had to smell it for an eternity before the janitor came back to wipe it up? The smell would penetrate every fiber of our beings, while we were required to sit there and take it, not hearing a word the teacher was saying. All I could think about was getting away from The Blob.
I can still picture it. And now, I can smell it. Uck, ug, blag. Uh oh. I’ve got to go now, dear reader.