Warm bath water hid my wrinkled fingers and toes beneath the foam. Bubbles from excess Vel, Mom’s preferred bar soap, frosted my skin and the sides of the tub. Taking a deep breath, I happily sniffed the wonderful, clean scent. From the kitchen I could hear the radio playing a soothing song called ‘Twilight Time.’ Mom called out, “Kathy, you’ve been in the bathtub long enough. It’s time for you to get out.”
I was seven years old. Mom had a hard time getting me to take a bath. But once I was in the tub, she had a hard time getting me out. I had been in the bathtub for a very long time. So long, that one of my sisters came into the bathroom to wash her face. Peering around the corner from my bath, I watched her pat her face dry, open a cobalt blue jar of Noxzema and apply the cream to her face. The cream had a strong, exotic scent which I loved, too.
A slight breeze fluttered the bathroom curtains as I stepped out of the tub. The spring evening air felt soft as velvet wherever it touched my drying skin. As I slipped on a clean nightgown, I examined my wrinkled finger patterns. I felt happy, clean and perfect.
When I walked into the kitchen, Mom picked up shears and a basket. Two of my sisters followed her out the back door. I tagged along asking questions. Mom was picking flowers for my sisters to use at church for a May crowning service.
I stood close to the flowerbed. Some of the plants were taller than me. The smell of the earth, cut stems, and each flower’s perfume mingled with the lingering scent of the bath soap. Through the open kitchen window, I could hear a cheerful, fast-paced song on the radio. My big brother had told me the name of the song was, “The Poor People of Paris.” I wondered why such a beautiful song would be about poor people.
Most of us have many small, seemingly-insignificant memories. They are strong and can be vividly recalled in their entirety with just one whiff of a pungent face cream, or a snatch of an old, nearly forgotten tune. They whisk me from now to then in an instant. I call them transporter memories.
One of my sisters recently commented on a memory she has of standing next to Mom’s flowerbed where hundreds of phlox were blooming on a warm day. She remembers with sharp detail how beautiful the scent was and how peaceful the steady droning of the bees sounded as they gathered nectar. It was such a small memory, but for her it evoked a strong, lifelong impression.
Children often have a highly developed sense of smell. When neighbors and friends came to visit, I identified each guest by the way their coats smelled, piled on Mom and Dad’s bed. One person burned wood, others smelled of gas stoves, certain wash detergents, tobacco or hair products. Since growing up, I’m not as conscious of scents.
Sounds also affected perception of life as a child. The sounds that stick with me from childhood are ones adults don’t hear or count as important. Things like the creak of a stair board, wind blowing, distant voices from another room and popular radio songs from the past frame many of my memories.
Listening to the Kingston Trio sing, “Hang down your head Tom Dooley” takes me back to sitting in Mom’s kitchen, feeling the warm sun through the window and watching her make schtaritz.
Warm summer evening breezes, the smell of strawberries and the sound of robins scolding recalls my five-year-old self watching Mom find bird-pecked berries in the strawberry patch. She looked up at me to complain, “Listen to those robins, Kathy, they’re laughing at us!”
These memories keep me grounded. Life isn’t always warm, comfortable, happy or nice-smelling. For those times I hold these sweet moments in reserve.