By: Marilyn L. Davis
“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. The odors of fruits waft me to my southern home, to my childhood frolics in the peach orchard. Other odors, instantaneous and fleeting, cause my heart to dilate joyously or contract with remembered grief. Even as I think of smells, my nose is full of scents that start to awake sweet memories of summers gone and ripening fields far away.”― Helen Keller
Memoirs narrow the focus of the writer to a segment of their lives. It’s not a summary of a life, but rather like a window that only shows what the writer wants to share. We know there is something beyond the edges of the view, but we’re not privy to that information. It is the same as a still photo; we know there is more action or other people off to the sides of those captured in the picture, but again, the writer is not concerned with nor do they elaborate on unnecessary people, scenes or situations.
Before you decide that memoir is just isolated and random snapshots of the writer’s life, rethink this. Because each life contains so many memories, it’s necessary to find those moments that the writer can describe in rich detail. This is what broadens that narrow focus. One of the ways to enhance isolated memories is to write using the five senses:
When you tap into these senses, you give yourself permission to immerse yourself and the reader in the richness of your isolated time. I know that the smell of yeast brings back memories of my grandmother baking bread. While a common experience for those of us who grew up in the fifties, she made it personal for each grandchild by hiding the flour, sugar, and baking soda; that gave us an opportunity to have fun by finding the ingredients, getting “our” knives, measuring cups and spoons, and honoring her desire to teach something of value to her grandchildren.
If I’m thinking of the times I spent with her as a child, I always remember the smells. My grandmother was like most women growing up and living on a farm in Indiana. She learned to cook before she started school, grew most of her vegetables in a garden, and processed the slaughtered meats. Rarely did she buy anything but the basics like flour, sugar, and coffee at the one store in Mellott, Indiana.
Going to the store was rather like dressing for church. We bathed in a claw-foot tub, and sometimes, she would add, what she called her bubble bath concoction, and like all recipes, she taught her granddaughters how to concoct a bubble bath liquid.
- 1/2 cup of shampoo (she used White Rain, so the bubble bath was white)
- 1/2 cup of liquid soap (she swore by Ivory)
- Two tablespoons of honey
Like everything else, she made taking a bath an exciting experience. These early sensory memories stay with us long after we’ve outgrown the events. I’ve made the homemade bubble bath for my granddaughters and hope the tradition continues on.
Dressing for the Town
After we had bathed, we dressed to “go to town.” For my grandmother, that meant a hat. Here too, she included me in the decision. She set out several and asked which one I thought matched her dress.
But there was one more part of the ritual; she had to apply her perfume. She had several glass bottles of different scents, some with elaborate stoppers, and again, she would consult with me about which scent did I like. I felt so grown up helping her make these decisions. She would always apply some perfume to my wrist and a dab behind my ear.
Usually by this time, my grandfather would be yelling up the stairs asking what was taking so long. My grandmother didn’t drive, so he had to drive her. He fussed that she was only going for sugar and flour, and he didn’t understand the necessity for all the primping. She typically asked him if he wasn’t pleased with the outcomes of her primping and that usually ended the conversation.
We finally descended the stairs, and my grandmother would have me twirl in a circle and ask my grandfather if I didn’t look and smell like a princess.
Before we left, she would open her coin purse and give me a dime, and ask me to make a list of what I wanted from the store. Sitting at the table, I thought about all the types of candy that I could get with my dime. Some types were a penny each and others, you could get two for a penny. I wrote, scratched out one choice and made another.
Although the routine didn’t vary, my grandfather seemed to forget that we would take the whole morning getting ready. He, on the other hand, didn’t change his clothes to go shopping in town. He would still be in his overalls, so he was ready hours before us. By the time the tablet appeared, he knew I’d be writing my list for another twenty minutes and the solitary fussing and mumbling under his breath usually started at this time.
My grandmother would say, “Hugh, you know it’s important to be organized; I’m just helping Marilyn learn that lesson.” I can see her smiling at him, and that smile and her complimenting him typically silenced him. Then she’d asked if he’d read the paper yet, and why didn’t he, so he was current before we got to the store.
There were always several men playing checkers, or talking politics while the women shopped. My grandfather was passionate about politics and thought every man who made it to Washington was crooked. I asked him once how they walked if they were crooked and he smiled and said it was a skill politicians had.
Like most days when he read about Washington, he started mumbling, then I would hear him snap the paper straight, and if it was bad for the farmer, he’d start cussing. My grandmother would admonish him if we heard him, then smile at me and say, “Your grandfather is passionate about politics and he is just voicing that passion.”
I knew better than to cuss, but one time, I got angry and let out a “hells-bells” at the dinner table. Both my grandparents seemed startled, but my grandfather just told me that little ladies didn’t say that, but on this day, I understood why he said what he did. We needed to get going.
Finally, all clean, organized and smelling good, we could depart. The primping took five hours; the ride took five minutes.
While my grandmother put her few items in the basket, I got out my list. Of course, being organized didn’t help when I saw a new variety. There were so many to choose from, and my grandmother was usually finished before I decided. But she never rushed me.
I think those times were special because these two hard-working, loving people made me feel adored and valuable, and I try in my ways, to convey these same feelings to each of my grandchildren. Finding their interests and acting like I know nothing about it so they can enlighten me.
Making rituals and memories with children and grandchildren mean that should they ever write a memoir, you’ll look good. At least that’s my hope as I finish this and get ready to “go to town”.
Unlike my grandmother, though, I’ll wear my jeans, maybe comb my hair, have a longer list and forget the perfume, but remember to pick up those ingredients for the bubble bath concoction and who knows, I might just take one myself tonight, and as I inhale the smells, I’ll remember those times.