Scent and Scent's Ability - Short Story
Every spring since I can remember, my mother has shown off her green thumb by transforming the front yard into a colorful oasis. When the newly-planted flowers opened in full bloom, she would excitedly urge each passerby to smell them. Each time I would lean over a flower to enjoy the aroma, I remember wondering--just for a flickering moment- -why she thought smelling the flowers was supposed to be so intriguing. As I sniffed for the pleasant smell that she assured me was hiding within the flower, I was never engulfed in any obvious cloud of scent. I remember peering directly into brightly colored petals that reminded me of my mother and so diligently trying to find the pleasant smell that eventually I convinced myself I could smell it. I wanted so badly to share my mother’s excitement, so I always told her that I enjoyed the smell. The strange mixture of confusion and uneasiness that I felt when my head was buried in silky flower petals had a way of lingering even when the flowers were no longer in bloom and snow fell on our East Tennessee farm.
I have always been convinced that my mother was somehow part bloodhound, as she is always seemingly able to identify the source of any scent floating within what seems like a 50-mile radius of her nose. Many times, when my family of four was packed into our gold Subaru Forester for a road trip, I was awakened from a nap in my booster seat by a shrill, “Sheeew!”
“Do you all smell that skunk?” my mother would ask as her face contorted into a grimace.
It was not unusual for the rest of us to turn and look at each other in confusion as we sniffed for the elusive stench. Within the next few moments, though, my father and sister would grimace in agreement as their noses detected the skunk. Almost as if in a moment of déjà vu, my nose never burned with a force that produced a grimace, and no car- toonish light bulb appeared above my head. Instead, my eyes closed, and I willed my nose to become a radar, sending out radio waves sure to detect any smell within its path. After see- ing the rest of my family experience such outward reactions to the skunk’s odor, my subconscious mind began to play tricks on me.
“I think I feel something,” I thought to myself. “That faint itching sensation in your nose is probably the skunk’s smell.”
Though the anal glands of a rabbit-sized creature were able to somehow evoke my hidden memories of flower sniffing, it had not occurred to me at the time that I might not be experiencing smell the same way that the rest of my family did. Looking back, it seems strange that I did not pick up on my differences earlier. Little did I know, my mother had begun to catch on to my dilemma before I was even aware that I had a dilemma.
Every day on the ride home from elementary school, I sat in the back of the trusty gold Subaru and gave my mother an exhaustive account of the day’s happenings as Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” played in the background.
“What did you do at school today?” my mother asked each day with the same tone of genuine interest in her voice. Her nurturing spirit fostered this kind of relationship from the time that I was old enough to communicate. As the car wove through the historic district of Rogersville towards home, she looked at me in the rearview mirror with eyes that seemed to beckon me to say more. The perils of gym class, the square- shaped pizza served in the cafeteria, and my spelling words for the day—my mother heard it all. She always made sure to ask questions, and she somehow remembered the stories from day to day.
I now know that she had begun to notice a pattern when her bionic nose went on high alert and she repeated her coin phrase, “Do you smell that?” Though I usually claimed to smell the scent when asked, she noticed from my facial expressions that I did not seem to be experiencing the same thing that she was. She also realized that I never claimed to notice the presence of a scent unless someone else mentioned it. My mother, the picture of a Southern lady, has always been a woman of great tactfulness. As was the case with any topic, she chose her words carefully when inquiring about my sense of smell. She disguised her motive carefully, in much the same way as a pet owner administers a pill to a skeptical animal. The occasional quizzing was wrapped in a piece of Kraft cheese like a heartworm pill. Instead of pressing the issue further, my mother simply began to do some research.
My maternal grandmother, though, wanted answers. “Wait! See if you can tell what I’m cooking!” she blurted as I stepped through her front door. Though she was visibly excited, her tone carried a hint of inquisition. The half-smile on her face made me feel like she expected me to guess incorrectly. My sister and I camped out at her house every Wednesday and Thursday after school while our parents worked. Thus, mid-week had become synonymous with fresh, country-style cooking and funny stories. My grandmother had worked as a nurse since the 1960s and wasted no time in declaring to anyone she met that she had “seen it all.” By adult- hood, most Southern women seem to develop a small screen between the brain and the mouth that ensures no improper speech comes from a Southern lady. My grandmother, howev- er, had skipped that stage of development.
“Can you tell?” she prodded with the same half smile on her face. “See if you can smell what’s cooking.”
“Umm...” I started as I sniffed the air for a clue. “I... Um...I don’t know.”
“You can’t smell that turkey?” she asked as she cocked her head in confusion. “I can smell it all the way in the bed- room!”
Just as the how-to manual for Southern mothers and daughters seems to dictate, my mother and grandmother were often chatting and conspiring. Though my grandmother lived in the subdivision that joined my family’s farm, the two kept the local cell phone towers busy, transmitting multiple calls a day. My grandmother knew the most intimate details of my life practically before I did. Thus, in the following weeks, my grandmother repeated the same dialogue before I had even closed the front door or taken off my backpack.
“See if you can tell what I’m cooking,” she asked, watching me intently.
Again, I inhaled deeply and desperately searched for some sensation in my nostrils. I finally gave up.
“I really... don’t know,” I answered. She seemed to be connecting the dots in her head. Though I was not yet aware, she and my mother had already been plotting ways to find out whether or not I could smell.
“I don’t think you can smell,” my grandmother then said as simply and matter-of-factly as if she had just said, “I don’t think these potatoes have enough salt.” Though my moth- er had encouraged her to wait for the right time to mention the topic to me, she hadn’t heeded the advice.
I look back and think this moment should have felt more significant at the time—it should have felt like it was a turning point in my life. Instead, I didn’t fully believe my grandmother, nor did I immediately accept that a part of me might somehow be faulty.
“Really?” I asked her. I listened as she explained her reasoning. My grandmother explained that she and my mother had asked my pediatrician about the possibility that I was truly without a sense of smell. They had mentioned nothing about this secret conversation to me because they “didn’t want to scare me.”
“Your mama didn’t want me to tell you,” my grandmother revealed with a half whisper as if she were telling me some juicy gossip. “It’s nothing to worry about, though. She said that something in your brain probably just didn’t develop when you were a baby.” The pediatri- cian’s blasé reaction had appeased my family. Ironically, this interaction would nearly halt their inquiry for years to come.
“She said it’s actually not uncommon,” my grandmother continued as if this were supposed to be a consolation. Keeping in usual character, my grandmother dropped a bomb on my shoulders and then seamlessly moved on to a new topic. The train of conversation kept moving down the tracks, but I had fallen out of the train car onto a rocky embankment.
I felt my cheeks flush with embarrassment and frustration. “I can smell,” I thought to myself. I sat for the rest of the evening in a bubble of introspection. I couldn’t let anyone at school find out about this.
I continued for the rest of the school year to deny any possibility that something could be wrong with my sense of smell—the one sense that everyone was supposed to have.
...... “They’ve been like that since I was born,” ex- plained my sixth-grade friend, Anna as she looked down at her feet one day in class. I had always wondered why her middle two toes were connected to one another, but I had never had the audacity to ask. Lucky for me, a classmate had done the dirty work.
“Yeah, my toes look like that because they’re webbed.”
I was shocked by Anna’s lack of embarrassment! Not only did she wear sandals that proudly displayed her webbed toes, but she also had shamelessly acknowledged that she was not a perfect being—a concept previously unbe- knownst to middle school man.
“Whoa! Cool,” said our classmate with a nod. The gears began turning within my sixth-grade mind. Anna had openly discussed her unusual trait and was met with positive feedback!
“I...actually...uh...can’t smell,” I muttered half-heart- edly after much pondering.
“Cool!” said Anna and the pre-pubescent voices of my male classmates standing near.
This was music to my ears. As years passed, I became comfortable admitting that I did, in fact, lack a sense of smell. Though some of the reac- tions I have received through the years were less than comical at the time, I began to discover the plethora of humor that flowed forth as listening ears reacted to my admission.
“No. That’s just not possible,” stated Amber’s mother confidently. Her hands were placed on her hips, and she ap- peared to be testifying in court rather than discussing whether or not I could smell the food that she had prepared.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” her face seemed to be saying. “As you can see from the evidence I have present- ed to you tonight, the defendant is, in fact, able to smell!”
I stood in Amber’s living room, staring up into the critical eyes of her mother. I had just explained to her that I could differentiate between different tastes, yet could not iden- tify specific smells.
“No. If you can taste, then you can smell,” Amber’s mother had said. “You see, they go hand in hand. That’s how it works.”
I suddenly felt like a foreign object in that room, though I had visited Amber’s house many times before. Her mother peered down at me as if I were a disoriented traveler to whom she had just given brilliant direction.
“Well...I...Uh...I actually,” I stammered. I could feel my face turning red with embarrassment as I racked my brain for a response. At thirteen years old, correcting an adult—es- pecially one who was already intimidating by nature—was a daunting task.
“Yeah, that makes sense,” I eventually responded as I escaped the situation to resume playing board games in Am- ber’s room. Naturally, this woman I had met a handful of times knew more about the functions of my body that I ever could.
As I entered high school and became interested in wearing perfumes, I enlisted the help of my family members in choosing a scent that they felt would complement my style and personality. I stood in the kitchen and listened to by mother and sister describe each perfume as “sweet” or “like flowers.” I noticed that my father, though he too was listening, had not yet attempted to describe the perfumes that were now beading on the countertops from being sprayed into the air so many times. A carpenter by trade, my father viewed the entire world as one complex math equation. For him, all of life’s questions could be answered with a formula. As I looked at him, I could almost see the protractors at work within his brain.
“A strawberry,” he finally said, still deep in thought. “This perfume smells like a strawberry candy tastes.”
I nodded, as the concept began to make sense in my brain.
“Most things smell just like they taste.”
...... Through the years, I have also found that smell is not the only sense that is heavily connected to memory. As I was growing up, my mother always told us stories about the smell of her own grandmother’s basement.
“Any time I smell that familiar musty scent, it re- minds me of being a little girl playing in my grandmother’s basement,” she always told my sister and me.
It was not until I was a hungry high school student rummaging through the refrigerator one day that I truly understood the feeling she described through that story. From the refrigerator door, I took a jar of pickle slices that were different from the Vlasic brand “Sweet Baby Midgets” my mother usually bought. This particular jar had no label and had obviously been homemade. When I began to chew on one of the pickle slices, an odd feeling came over me, but, at first, I was not quite able to put my finger on it.
“Have you bought these pickles before,” I asked my mother in a state of confusion. She studied the ceiling as she tried to recall.
“Oh, those are ‘Bread and Butter’ pickles,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve bought those in a long time.” She hesitated a moment, seemingly continuing to think. “Your grandmother used to make them all the time, though.”
When she mentioned this, my brain connected the dots. Eating one of those pickle slices had transported me back to my grandmother’s old house in Dandridge, Tennessee and back to my five-year-old self. I didn’t recall a specific instance in which I had eaten these pickles, but the taste brought back the warm feeling of standing inside the Dandridge house in springtime, the sight of wood paneling all along the walls, and the intrigue of exploring the home where my mother had grown up.
Though no other foods have ever evoked this depth of emotion, music is often able to do so. Aside from “Classical Child” cassette tapes and the sing- alongs found in episodes of “Barney & Friends,” much of my introduction to music came from my parents. Neither of them seemed to be ready to say goodbye to their own respective childhoods, and this was reflected in the music that wafted from through the house in which I grew up. Even during our family road trips made in the trusty, gold Subaru Forester, we kept a shoebox filled with CD’s from artists such as Elton John, Little River Band, Lobo and Bread in the floorboard.
One of my parent’s friends had burned a ‘70s mixtape for them that included songs such as “Afternoon Delight” by Starland Vocal Band, “You Are the Woman” by Firefall, and “Desparado” by the Eagles. This particular CD was played on repeat so many times that I had the entire lineup memorized. While most ’90s children played music from The Backstreet Boys on repeat, I, like my parents, was stuck in the ‘70s.
On the night of my very first sleepover, my friends and I had agreed to each bring our favorite CD to play before bed. I received many confused glances from fellow fourth-graders as I carried a ’70s mixtape from that very shoe- box into the sleepover. That night, instead of playing “You Are the Woman” by Firefall for the umpteenth time, I reluctantly listened as Gwen Stefani re-taught us how to spell the word bananas. My love for ‘classic music’ has followed me into adulthood, but any of the songs found on that mixtape instantly transport me back into the cramped backseat of the trusty Forester.
...... Ironically, I have now come to love the very aspect of myself that, for so long, was the subject of my embarrassment. Though I have yet to receive a formal diagnosis or undergo any invasive testing, the ever-credible Wikipedia has assured me that my condition affects around two percent of North Americans. I enjoy the imaginative challenge that is presented as I try to understand something’s scent by a blend of textures and tastes with which I am familiar. In my experience, seeing the roses planted in my mother’s flower beds, leaning my face towards the silky petals, and peering at the tiny details has proven to be better than smelling them.