In the springtime in Virginia, the scent of azaleas and camellias wafted through the window screens of my childhood home. On Friday afternoons when I returned from school, I could smell brisket and simmering potatoes from outside the front door. Summer smelled like rectangular, brown bars of Octagon Soap that my mom scrubbed on everything from stained laundry to my brother and sisters’ bug bites.
Scientists have taught us that our memories glue themselves to our powerful sense of smell.
Although I was rushing to finish my grocery shopping this past week, when I turned down the laundry detergent aisle, I took a few moments to peruse the abundant display of air fresheners. Especially since we adopted a dog last year, I have been thinking more about the scents that dwell in our home. Our unventilated, windowless downstairs bathroom in particular would be a logical place to seek shelter from a tornado, so it tends to be a vortex that traps basic human odors.
After an unsuccessful attempt at neutralizing the room’s odors with bleach, I tried a floral approach. Shakespeare had it right, though, when he mentioned in iambic pentameter that festering lilies smell far worse than weeds. Lavender, roses, and jasmine could not grow in the bathroom without any natural light, and their impostor scents had no business there either.
Next, I tried to bring the warmth and pleasing scents of the kitchen into the basement, but learned that chemically induced vanilla cookie aroma does not mesh with the scents that already dwelt down there. A friend suggested opening jars of peanut butter to mask any unpleasant smells, but I feared sending my children’s allergic friends into anaphylactic shock.
For a while, I was drawn to air fresheners with the word, “water” in their name. Water is clean and fresh, so how could a room not smell that way if it were bathed in all sorts of mermaid approved scents. That was a bit of a fail, too. Shouldn’t cool water smell like nature and clean rocks and waterfalls? The air should shimmer with tiny rainbows from the water vapor and glistening sun. Alas, no waterfalls or singing sea creatures accompanied the spraying of all of the poetically named watery potions.
So why was I so obsessed with the stupid bathroom?
Well, I’ve thinking about the scents and memories that my children will remember when they grow up. One of my sons is a strict vegetarian, so he may not recall with great fondness the scent of chicken soup cooking on the stove. The magnolia bush that stands guard on the southern side of the house strives to find sunshine in the shade of a neighbor’s towering pine. This spring, that underperforming, but stubborn plant managed to produce one lone white blossom peering out of the dark green leaves. So I doubt that my children could even identify the fragrance of a magnolia, much less close their eyes one day in the future and reminisce about their floral-scented childhoods.
My attempt to make that stubborn room smell better has become laden with greater purpose. I don’t want my children to think about the smell of wet dog and humid bathroom as the signature scents of their childhoods. And so, back to the grocery store aisle I go, teeming with bottles and sprays and plug-ins, and incrementally vanishing mounds of clay-like scents, I spotted one remaining bottle of a detergent scented spray. All alone on the shelf, this bottle called out to me to bring it home and give it a try. I know that my house should smell like nature, freshly baked bread, or air filtered by tall, noble trees.
Today, it smells just a bit like a neatly folded, clean load of laundry. It is the smell of my older son’s favorite, soft Mets sweatshirt and my daughter’s long-sleeved baby blue shirt with the hood and the anchor design on the front emblazoned with date of 1815, whose mysterious meaning we’ve never decoded. It is the smell of my youngest child’s heart guard, which he wears to every little league baseball game even if he’s not pitching.
We’ll see how well this new air freshener can tackle the lingering traces of human presence. As it tries to mask and erase the scents of my kids, their friends, and everyone who utilizes this necessary room, it nonetheless manages to fill my mind with memories.
A large part of my job description these days involves ensuring that my children have clean clothes to wear. I spend hours each week flipping socks right side out, sorting fabrics and colors, hanging up clothes that will shrink to a doll’s size if they find their way into the dryer, folding sheets and towels, and returning the clothes to the closets and drawers of the correct owners. The scent of clean laundry is a marker of this phase of motherhood for me. More than any fancy perfume I might spray on my wrists each morning, the smell of freshly laundered clothes is a scent I hope my children will remember with fondness. Yes, it’s the smell of the spray in my bathroom. But it’s also the scent of being a mom.