Saturday, June 14, 2008

On smells and memories...

Yesterday for dinner I made hamburgers on the grill, and I boiled some red bliss potatoes and made baked beans. And by made, I mean I opened a can of Bush's baked beans. As I came back into the kitchen from having been outside at the grill, the smell of boiling potatoes and baked beans hit me, and snapped me right back to my grandparents' kitchen. This would be my fathers parents, who have not been alive since the late 80's. My grandfather died in the fall of 1986 and my grandmother in the fall of 1988. So it has been 20 years since I have been in that house.

But that house was the touchstone of my life in so many ways. My family moved roughly every 5 years. The first time was just to move to a larger home now that there were the four of us, mom, dad, myself and the bro. And a dog. The first schnauzer I ever loved, Schnaupps. But I digress. After that move, we moved because of my fathers job. While he was not in the military, the war machine did fund my entire existence. Dad worked for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft as an aerospace engineer, and worked on many defense contracts. We were relocated between Connecticut and Ohio a few times. Then to Florida, which was where my parents were living when dad retired. I do believe my parents are the only people on the planet who LEFT Florida when they retired.

During my life, the house in Minetto NY where my father was raised was the one constant, the one thing that almost never changed. We visited them at least once a year, if not more. It was practically the country compared to how we lived in the burbs. There were 9 or so acres of land, so you could explore and be off by yourself in the peace and quiet. There are sounds that often take me back there, the song of the morning dove for instance, which I would listen to in the mornings as I lay in bed in that house, before the day got really hot and humid. But mostly it is the smells.

The sense of smell apparently is the sense that is most directly connected to the brain and to memory. The brain is a fascinating place, and I love when smells catch me by surprise and take me places I haven't been for a long time. The smell of baked beans and potatoes was so familiar I thought if I closed my eyes and opened them again I would be in that kitchen with the table stuck in the nook and the window over the sink where I could watch the bird feeder while washing dishes.

Another smell that snaps me back to that kitchen is the smell of vitamins. Weird, I know, but my grandfather took what seemed like a dozen pills a day, and this one cupboard in the kitchen smelled of the vitamins. It isn't a great smell, but it is a fond one. The smell of raspberry jam, specifically if it is warm, reminds me of these awesome cookies my grandmother made, which were a sort of popover with jam in the middle. The smell of grass being cut combined with the buzz of an airplane will take me back to that back yard, where I would swing on this old swing made from a slab of wood hung by a very large, very rough piece of rope from a metal support structure my grandfather concocted. It was not a very stable swing, and you could tip off of it forward or backward in a heart beat. It was probably a great abs workout, just trying to swing on it and not fall off.

These grandparents were not the most gregarious, expressive or even talkative people in the world, but they were generous and loving. In keeping with my previous discussion about ducks, my grandfather, who didn't say much to people, had these ducks he would visit down on the river. They probably belonged to someone who lived along the river, but he would go down with a bucket of cracked corn, and whistle for them. As soon as he whistled, you would hear "plop slash" and two white ducks would eventually find him and get their treat. It is one of the last memories I have of him before he got very sick and ended up in the hospital before he died. He also had a way with fish. He raised angel fish, and they would come to the top of the tank, and lay down in his hand which he would cup just below the surface of the water, so he could feed them. Dogs from around the neighborhood would appear at the back door of the house after dinner to get the bones from the evening meal. He was the guy who went to the butcher shop every day to get the meat for dinner. Those dogs ate really well. And he had a series of black cats that skulked around the house and basement, all named Skinny Guts from what I remember. They were not friendly to us, but they LOVED Roswell.

Oh yes, Roswell and Ella, those were my grandparents. I briefly entertained naming Cooper Roswell, but then thought I could also just tattoo "kick me" on his forehead.

I wonder what smells and memories will make their connections in Coopers' memories. I hope over his lifetime he finds some that are as fond as the ones I have of that house in Minetto.

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