I have been inside schools my entire life. First as a student and then for the past two decades as a teacher. That is a lot of hallways, classrooms, and offices. And smells. Oh, the smells. Wet shoes, basketballs, the glue we are no longer allowed to use due to “health concerns”, paint, and crayons.
Any time I smell that sweet tang of a fresh box of crayons I flashback to my elementary school. Not my high school or the first school I taught in. Always and forever that smell reminds me of a very specific time and place. I went there for eight years, but the memory is always of grade three and me wearing a green t-shirt. An oddly specific yet at the same time unimportant memory.
Memories are funny that way.
Just like an 80s sitcom that decided to phone it in and do a flashback episode, I can be instantly transported to the past by just a smell. Maybe it’s my superpower, who’s to say? I have yet to unleash its full potential, that’s for sure, and it is definitely competing with my other power of disposing of secret snack wrappers. But it is real and I feel like it is getting stronger with time, much like the cracking sound my knees make BUT WE AREN’T TALKING ABOUT THAT TODAY.
Every spring when the peonies and lilacs come out I find myself riding my old blue ten-speed bike with a bouquet of freshly-cut flowers for my teacher. They are wrapped in a wet paper towel and I clutch them tightly with one hand while navigating the short ride to school with my other. I can still see them atop Miss Zondervan’s desk in a green vase.
Walking into a home that has coffee brewing is a direct pipeline to my Aunt Steffie’s kitchen on a Sunday morning. Our families alternated homes for post-church “coffee” (it’s a Dutch thing) and one whiff of that sweet elixir being made and I can see the machine in the corner of her kitchen while she places sweets on a plate as if I am standing there today.
Winter brings early evenings, Christmas lights, and cozy fires. I might be in the van or taking a walk when the distinct scent of crackling fire from a nearby home is in the air, and bam! I am in our maroon Oldsmobile 88 on a winter night heading to my Uncle Jake’s house for a Christmas party. The kids all hung out in his basement with the massive console TV and ate chips in freedom from the adults laughing it up in the living room. Those were the nights that if you stayed out of sight long enough your parents forgot you were there and you could stay up extra late with the big kids.
Did you ever have a pair of mittens that fit great when you first got them, but soon the thumb hole on one didn’t line up and you were forced to wear them with your one thumb cramping from being held at a weird angle? That’s not just me, be honest. If I smell a wet wool mitten, I can feel my left thumb tingle with the memory of a pair of mauve mitts from 1980-something. Stacey in my class had the same pair and we often mixed them up when they were drying on the heather in the hallway. But we could always figure out which pair was mine because FAULTY THUMB HOLE.
I could write a whole series of posts on memories conjured up by simple smells:
Jiffy Pop = Mrs. St. Pierre’s house on a Friday night.
Black licorice = the jellybeans my grandpa kept in his shirt pocket.
A freshly-lit candle = my childhood kitchen.
Newly-applied nail polish – getting my nails painted gold by my big sister.
Freshly-scooped pumpkin guts = roasting seeds in kindergarten with Mrs. Laurence.
Just-opened bag of chips = playing games with my cousins at Auntie Ina’s house.
Tim Hortons chocolate dip doughnut = getting ready for a family road trip by picking up a party pack.
These memories seem to all be chunked into my early years. I’m not sure about its significance or if there is any rhyme or reason. But it happens more and more and I’m not complaining.
These are simple memories, not the trips we took or the long-coveted gifts I received. They are every day events. The common factor is that they are all connected to family and friends. Sharing those day-to-day moments with people who mattered are what I keep conjuring.
Sometimes I worry that time is going by too quickly and we haven’t done enough or been enough for our kids. But we eat dinner together, play card games (even though they cheat at Old Maid), brew tea and pop popcorn. Maybe we’re depositing into their olfactory memories and one day the smell of freshly-baked brownies will cause them to pause and call their mom. Or text. I’ll take it.