The gift of smell and memories of Chicago

There are good smells and bad smells. Scents to covet. Scents we wish we could forget.

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“I remember plucking and then inhaling flowers in my grandmother’s backyard,” writes John Fountain. “Leaning in to ingest the aroma from a spray of red roses.”

Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images

The gift of smell. It has bequeathed to me the sweet scent of lilac and an eternal collection of assorted aromas that I have ingested since I was a child.

Brewed coffee has always tickled my nostrils, made me feel warm inside. And were I ever to lose my eyesight, I imagine that so long as I am able to inhale the bold rich savor of hot java rising in the morning like a golden sun, I will envision the color coffee bean brown, salivate with anticipation.

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But blockage of my nasal passages from a recent flu have left me of late without the ability to smell, and also has convinced me that this is the sacred — and most overlooked — of human senses. For through my nostrils, I can see, hear, taste, touch, remember…

As a boy, I remember plucking and then inhaling flowers in my grandmother’s backyard. Leaning in to ingest the aroma from a spray of red roses on a thorny emerald bush.

Scents… The fragrance of a summer rain falling hard upon hot city concrete. A brick mason many years later assured me, however, that it wasn’t rain that I actually smelled but the mix of rain and sidewalk, rising like steam in a shower. Whatever it was, it soothed me. Still does.

There are good smells and bad smells. Scents to covet. Scents we wish we could forget:

The scent of life in a hospital nursery as a father beholds his newborn child for the first time. The scent of death inside a mortuary as a son makes final preparations for a parent as the time has come to say goodbye.

The scents of life are inescapable, unavoidable. Unapologetic. Often intrusive. Lasting.

The pungent char of a neighbor’s house engulfed in flames in the middle of the night. The fragrances of Christmas pine. Of good wine.

Of rich curry seasoning. Of collard greens steaming and sweet cornbread baking. Of the Riverview amusement park, Wrigley Field, and April 1968, on Chicago’s West Side, after Dr. King’s assassination.

The pages of my consciousness bear the registry of life’s past aromas: The stink of the hogs pen down in Isola, Mississippi, as Jimmie-T and me hauled to the trough — as prepubescent boys one summer — buckets of sweet and sour-smelling slop speckled with watermelon rinds.

Past scents… Like my sisters’ obnoxious fingernail polish. The Winston cigarettes my mother always smoked and that threatened to choke me to death.

Like the burning rubber from brothers, peeling down the block in their rides to show off, their tires staining the streets. Gymnasium locker rooms that reeked of smelly feet.

The smell of the city. The pungent odor of filled-to-the-brim, week-old garbage cans and the rotting flesh of a dead rat in the alley.

The smell of muggy summers, suffocating and intoxicatingly hot like cinnamon toothpicks. The trail of Estee Lauder wafting through our apartment, as Mama got ready to go out on a date. The aroma of pineapple upside down cake.

The delicious scent of banana pudding. Of vanilla and apple and burning oak wood. The oily smell of my choo-choo train that smoked as it rounded the track. The scent of my first dog “Lady” and the delectable waft of a box of Cracker Jack.

I admit that I have not always valued the gift of smell. Indeed I confess to never having really found much reason to dwell upon it. Except like most things we take for granted, you sometimes only miss it when it is gone.

It is a small lesson from the season. One I embrace, even as I await the return of smell.


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