chocolate is a verb

colors, flavors, whims and other growing things

Tag Archives: odors


DAK sketchingMy parents’ house was a 1950 Contemporary in which the living room and dining room comprised a single large space defined only by the placement of furniture. My father’s chair was in the far corner, and the sofa, which was my mother’s favored spot, was in the middle of the room, its back turned to the dining table.

Dorothy had an assortment of unpleasant but not life-threatening health concerns and once she had exhausted the doctors, her next stop was always the sofa, where she would retire with a magazine, supine, her head on a pillow, her legs elevated and resting on the sofa back. Finding her there meant one of two things, or occasionally both: do not disturb, or, I need attention because something’s wrong. Sussing out the correct message was sometimes a delicate matter and on many occasions I was sent to my room to contemplate the wrongness of my guess.

I was not yet 15 when my mother started her ten-year slog through menopause (together an unenviable state of affairs for my father). She continued to paint, but spent a lot of her time on the sofa, and that’s where she was when she first complained of the odor. What was that smell? It was acrid, but also slightly sweet, she insisted. There. You smell it? My father and I sniffed around but couldn’t smell anything.

Clothes, bodies, appliances and upholstery were subjected to repeated and aggressive cleaning, to no avail. The odor persisted. It followed her when she got up from the sofa, it overlaid the fragrances of cooking and was waiting for her when she awoke in the morning. The doctors had no wisdom to impart: menopause, they said, meaning that it was in her head.

The odor lasted about a year. But when the doctors continued to find no answer and my father and I had stopped asking if she could still smell it, it seemed to fade.

Yet sometimes, years on, I would find her with an absent-eyed stare, her head canted forward a bit, quiet. Sniff. Sniff.



coffee beansI couldn’t name all the aromas I love — coffee beans, orange peel, orange blossoms, bacon or onions or garlic cooking, gardenias, the list goes on — smells that offer a consistent and generalized pleasure. But there other scents that are inextricably stitched to times and places and people with dazzling precision. My grandmother’s talcum powder. A friend’s shampoo that I tried for years to find or replicate. The combination of wood and oil in my father’s workshop, turpentine and oil paint and paper in my mother’s studio.

I remember the smell of the next door neighbors’ house. It was not a food smell, not easily identifiable, but perhaps the cumulative odor of cooking and cleaning and wet wood and bodies. It was intense, slightly acrid and so distinct that the few times I’ve smelled it since, I’ve been transported immediately back to their kitchen. I wonder if, wherever they are now, their house still smells like that?
coffee beans