The Scent of Life

When I was very young I noticed how particular people had their own sort of smell. Little boys, for instance, seemed to smell of stale cabbage and erasers while my best friend smelled like violets.

My mother’s lipstick had an exotic, sophisticated scent that made me think of movie stars and dinner parties. It was the only makeup my mother wore. My mother had a smell all of her own, not perfume, a sort of Lux soap, clean smell that made me feel safe and loved. I used to wonder how she managed to always smell so good and I would drink it in whenever she hugged me.

My grandfather, her dad, smelled of pickled onions and peppermints and my other grandfather smelled of leather and tobacco. My dad had a tweed wool and shoe polish smell, with a hint of chemicals and Bunsen burners which he worked with.

There are few smells that trigger more memories for me than ‘Lily of the Valley’. They grew in abundance in my grandmother’s garden and I was always allowed to pick them. I would bring in a posie and keep it next to my bed, when I stayed there, their heady scent filling my room. There was Lily of the Valley in the bouquet I carried as a flower girl at my Auntie’s wedding. My sister and I wore matching floral dresses with crunchy taffeta petticoats that made us feel like grown ups. Our aunt gave us both solid silver lockets to wear on the day, I was five and my sister was seven. The bouquets smelled heavenly, carnations that actually had a scent and the lilies of course; we both felt like princesses.

There are strange smells I love, that I hate to admit to, puppy breath for instance. There’s nothing quite like puppy breath; I told you it was strange. It hooks into all the warm memories I have of all the dogs we have had as part of our family over the years. Then there is the whole realm of horse smells. The grassy smell of horse breath as they snuffle my neck and tickle me with their whiskers. The smell of my horse’s mane after rain, I’m always tempted to bury my face in that smell, it touches me at a deep spiritual level.

The smell of my newborn babies, nothing smells like that ever again. Other people’s children don’t even come close, grand babies, on the other hand, come a very close second. I love the smell of the earth after rain and the almost complete lack when it snows; the air is fresh and crisp and everything is buried under its pristine goodness.

It has always fascinated me that a slight whiff of a scent can take me back in time. Events from long ago, appearing as a vivid image, as though it was only yesterday. Like the dank smell some plants have, that bring to mind the many ponds we played near as children, collecting frogspawn in jars. We would take our jars home and watch for the tadpoles to grow, feeding them little bits of lettuce to encourage them to become frogs. They hardly ever did. Some would grow legs and would even start to look very froggy, but they quietly vanished before they were frogs. Did our mother release them to the wild? Did they escape? We never knew, and by then we had lost interest.

Then there are the classic smells of the Australian summer. Sunscreen and Aeroguard, a slight wiff takes me straight to the beach. Its a hot summer day, the sand is melting my feet and I run headlong to splash in the sea.

Last, but not least, I love the smell of bonfires, and the way the smoke would cling to my clothes, reminding me of all those Guy Fawkes’ nights. My dad lighting Catherine Wheels on the fence, almost burning down our world, and loud penny bungers exploding the life out of us. Jumping Jacks snapping all over the ground and rockets in milk bottles zinging and fizzing into the air, only to end up next door. Just the smell of sparklers, cap guns, fireworks and matches, those were sulphurous promises of fun.

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