The ten best smells (our lists may differ).
July 14, 2011 § 20 Comments
I began making the list and the first thing that came to mind didn’t smell all that good—but it was a thread that, when pulled, was attached to one of my most thrilling preteen memories.
Men’s cologne: I remember dancing wrap-around in the school gym breathing in the too-much smell of cologne on a boy’s neck. That blatant and unsubtle scent is still, all these years later, the smell of, ohmygosh, I’m twelve years old and I’m hugging a boy!
Christmas Trees: Christmas Eve was always my favorite holiday. That was the day when the feeling of Christmas would wash over me—or not. I could not force it, I could only wait and hope to surrender to it. The tree did not go up in our house until Christmas Eve—weeks after many of the trees at friends’ houses Although our house had smelled of holiday baking for weeks, when the tree was brought in and put in its stand, the limbs relaxing in the heat of the house, I would sit close hoping the scent would tip me right into the arms of Christmas. (You will notice that arms, and arm-related activities figure large in several of these entries. Sorry.)
Tomato leaves: Neck sweaty, I pick tomatoes in a broad-brimmed straw hat. My bare arms brush the leaves, releasing an acrid, pungent smell I’ve known all my life. The tang of tomato leaves in the sun is the smell of my grandfather’s garden, my dad’s garden, my garden. (Again with the arms!)
Mustiness: One of my favorites.Wooden boats smell musty. So do books. A book on a shelf is a gathering of characters—and the author—huddled together, collectively waiting. What do they do in there, play cards? Take naps? A book long-closed opens with the smell of a shuttered cabin at the beginning of vacation season.
The top of a baby’s head: Hold a baby in your arms and take a whiff. This may be the very best smell of all. It is sweet like talcum powder, new. Combined with the warmth of a pink scalp through fine hair the smell can’t be beat; it is the human equivalent of “that new-car smell.” (Arms???)
The smell of rain before the first drop falls: This is the smell of anticipation, of something building. I used an impending rain in a novel about a couple who will ultimately fall in love, although in the moment below that outcome is many pages away. Morgan(a commercial fisherman from the Keys) has just picked up Ann (a librarian from New Jersey) at the Miami airport:
Late afternoon simmers outside the glass doors. Palm trees in planters stand motionless. It is almost as breathless as the dog days of summer up home Ann thinks.
“Be some rain after a while,” says Morgan, squinting at the sky.
“Yes. I can feel it.” And smell it. A pelting shower, it will start suddenly. The stillness will make it come.
A handful of dirt: The French have a word for the soil in which wine grapes are grown, and which gives each wine its individual flavor; the terroire. The word encompasses more than the dirt. It includes the geography, geology and climate that affect what will grow in that handful of dirt. My terroire is sandy, and less musky than the soil my father gardened in New Jersey, but both produce a fine tomato.
Bus exhaust: My husband, who is proofreading this post, points out that bus exhaust is toxic and, according to him doesn’t smell good at all, but for me it is the heady smell of trips to New York City with my Uncle Giul, my brother and sister—bus exhaust and the smell of pretzels.
A penny: Picked up from the hot tar of a parking lot a penny smells like luck. Hold it a minute and the scent of copper on your palm lasts until you wash your hands, which I can do right after dropping the penny in the jar we keep on the shelf above the kitchen sink. We call the fund “Pennies for Paris.” If we live to be a thousand we will never be able to afford to pay for that grand trip with other people’s lost pennies, but sometimes an idea all by itself, is enough. So Ray and I go to Paris, one found penny at a time.
Fresh–mowed lawn: The smell of a suburban Saturday morning.
Home: My first best friend’s house smelled like stale cigarettes. Everyone smoked. I loved that smell. It was the smell of where Linda lived. My house? A little musty because the windows are always open and the damp comes in, and you will almost always smell something cooking. Every house has a distinctive smell. Whether your house smells of air freshener or dog or pizza I bet you would recognize that smell with your eyes closed. Smells good, right? Definitely top ten.