There was a grove of tall green pines and magnolias that lined the streets of Savannah, the waft inside the sightseeing bus made me experience a form of time travel; the trees smelled like those I inhaled on the way to school that I attended from ages six to nine, and for a moment I was transported to Montebello, California sitting in a yellow school bus riding south on Concourse Avenue and then north onto Maple Street.
The trees brought back a lot of things I’d forgotten, among them the particular kind of musty warmth that radiated in spring in between the canopy of trees when the sun was shining and I was daydreaming. I thought about odors and the deep sensory links with certain smells going down to the core of memory; encountering them again can set off reverberations.
I closed my eyes and like a priestess in a trance images floated before my third eye. The most enduring and evocative smell from those years was the smell of the tempera paint that was used during Art. At Washington Elementary, in the first grade, egg tempera was the first paint I ever used, as an earth-smelling scent it generated a concentrated essence of sulfur. Along with its odor I recall school shoes, wooden desks, polished floors, and institutional gravity. The hallway outside my classroom had a powerful smell— and that smell was even stronger in other parts of the building, especially the auditorium.
During those years I brown-bagged my lunch and given the choice between eating inside or out on the benches, I favored the outdoors. The warm vapors from my tuna-fish, bologna or peanut butter sandwich emitted something that made me convulse coming close to nausea. So in the trash it went!
I survived on an apple and milk. To this day I prefer a hot lunch and dislike mayonnaise and sandwiches. When my mother discovered what I was doing, no doubt instigated by my brother’s tongue, and in part by my ravenous appetite when I got home, a change took place, and I would start buying my lunch instead. Standing in the cafeteria line I could sniff fresh baked bread mixed with various cooking odors and happily ate my hot institutional lunch in its entirety.
In those days, almost everyone’s house smelled like cigarettes, since everyone’s parents smoked. Mine did not but during parties at our house, a cloud like an inversion layer would fill the living room and the next morning when Alfred and I would pour ourselves bowls of cereal and wait for cartoons to come on, there would be overflowing ashtrays everywhere. Once while Alfred and I, in pajamas lurking in the hallway at one of our parents parties looked across our smoked filled living room and watched how adults changed once inebriated. Mixed drinks emanated a unique bitter sort of smell.
My best friend Susie lived down the street on the corner. When we played at her house, either Dollhouses or Candyland, her mother would bake us Snickerdoodles, the rich sugar-cinnamon cookies baking in the oven, smelled like heaven on earth.
When I was a youngster, kids walked, rode their bikes and generally went places on their own. I loved the independence. One favorite place to go was the Garmar, the local movie theater for a Saturday matinee. My brother and I would head out on bikes or on foot for the afternoon. The minute we rammed through the doors of the pastel lobby the scent of fresh popcorn permeated the air. Possessing a sweet tooth, I was so overcome by the buttery, salty scent that I’d forgo milk duds or a fifty-fifty bar in lieu of small popcorn coupled with a soda.
The summers meant a trip to the Plunge, the public pool that offered a great aquatics program and when I was seven my mother enrolled me in swim lessons. On the first day she stayed behind at home instructing my brother to lead me. Inside a locker full of girls I didn’t know, I changed into my swimsuit and remember the gray cement stools we sat on. At the poolside, I stared at expansiveness of the pool and the cinder-block wall in the distance. The morning sky was blue. The boys came out of their locker room and I couldn’t fathom how one teacher, would be able to teach all of us. We stepped into the pool and performed calisthenics as a warm up, when I got out the dominant scent of chlorine lingered in my nostrils. Then it was time to jump, one at a time. Being one of the tallest, I was second. I panicked and called for my brother who was swimming on the other side of the divider, “I’m going straight to the bottom” I yelled out. “No you won’t! You’ll float, I’ll be here to catch you”, he called back. Being eleven months older than I, and not much larger, his scrawny frame did not evoke much confidence. I ran straight to the locker room, gathered my things, jumped on my bike and pedaled as fast as I could. My maternal Grandmother, who was visiting us at the time, took pity on me when she saw me burrow my misery into my pillow. Each time I came up I whiffed the chlorine all over again. My mother was initially angry at my cowardice but after awhile did not force the issue. It was twenty years before I learned how to swim.
A few years ago, around the Holidays I saw a bottle of Old Spice in a drugstore. I’ve always loved drugstores and the things you stumble on; they remind me of the wonderful five-and-ten cent stores of the past. The Ivory container had changed, and the sailboats were gone but it imparted a hum of remembrance of my Father. I opened it and sniffed— it was him all over again; the smell of him driving me to school, of him bending over to pick me up, of kissing me, and of him sitting in the den, in his easy chair hands outstretched as I handed him his after dinner coffee. If one had known that these scents would cease to be used, or exist, and with the accelerating passage of time, one could have stopped to have savored a little more, and contemplate these moments that make up a life. Or maybe such smells never die and conceivably someday, somewhere, they will come back as a passing breeze of childhood.
I think anyone can tell by looking at me that I’m a Tuesday dress, but that’s okay. When I was new I didn’t like being a Tuesday dress so much. It’s not glamorous, like being a Saturday night dress. Sometimes a Saturday night dress would come home (late, they’re always out late) and start whispering and giggling with the other Saturday dresses, and I would wonder how it would be, to go out at night, and to be around so many people, all at once. I used to try to ask them, you know, to tell me what it was like, and what they saw, and what an event, party or restaurant was like, but they would laugh at me, so I gave up. Most think I’m loud; because I’m floral and turquoise, but I’m cotton, and not a big talker, anyway.
Now I feel happy to be a Tuesday dress. We found each other in 2002 and look—I’m still here! She didn’t try to change me and accepts me as I am. Whenever we pack for a summer vacation, I’m always ready to go. She looks at me lovingly like the sea. The Saturday dresses, they don’t last long — especially the night ones. They’re mostly dark and they get so tired out. It’s okay for a Tuesday dress to get a little worn, but not a Saturday dress. One day they just never come back to the closet, and then a little while later there’s a replacement. Easy come, easy go! The Saturday and Sunday dresses, the ones that go out in the mornings; they last a long time because they don’t get worn hard, but they keep to themselves, and don’t chat much. They sit a lot, I think, because of where the creases are when they come back. I don’t like sitting so much; I like to be out and moving about. And of course the suits, they get to go to the city, and have the finest pumps and handbags, but they only get to go out every once in a while, so I wouldn’t want to be a suit, either. I don’t like to be cooped up.
I say I’m a Tuesday dress, but of course I get worn other days, like on a Thursday afternoon. Lucky for me I’ve begun to like Tuesdays. Tuesdays are library book days, and George the butcher days (he always says how pretty we look, and I know he says it to all of us but I do like to think he means me especially). Lots of Tuesdays we go to old Mrs. White’s, and see if she’s doing okay, now that her daughter’s married and moved away. Those Tuesdays we often bake in the morning, so we have something sweet to take to her. “Oh,” we’ll say, “These were left over from the reading group, and I thought you’d like some.” I know it’s a lie but I also know it’s a nice lie. Mrs. White wouldn’t feel right if she knew we baked just for her.
Tuesdays we’re usually in a sparkling mood. Sometimes when we’re out walking our dog, we’ll swing by the former neighbor’s house, see his kids and give them change for candy, and spend a while talking with him. His wife left him last year for another man. We brought him a pie once, about half a year ago, but he cried and couldn’t help it and it was awful. So we didn’t do that again! But we’ll go by and talk to him about the weather and how the kids are doing in school and whether they’ve been going to the new community swimming pool this summer, while the kids talk about what candy they’re going to buy.
Tuesdays our man usually comes home late. I don’t see him very often, because a little before that time we’ll give ourselves a shake and say “Time for a change, girl!” and off I’ll go into the laundry pile, and then a skirt or a pair of white jeans will come out of the closet. If I do see our man it’s good, usually. It means that the whole day has not been out of whack, nothing spilled or soiled, nothing wrong has happened, a good day, and on target.
So I don’t mind being a Tuesday dress. I hope I’ll be a Tuesday dress for a long time to come.