Sunday, August 2, 2009

Olfactory Memory

There are three particular smells that take me back to that week every summer we'd visit my grandparents' farm in Scottville: dill, wheat toast, and pancakes.
In some ways, my grandparents were typical of their generation. They lived simply, off the land, preserving food from their garden to use throughout the year, welcoming their grandchildren with love and hugs, but not coddling us, and sending us off for hours at a time to roam the fields, play in the barn, investigate the empty chicken coop and other outbuildings.
Grandpa was a quiet man, stoic and silent as most good Germans are, but I remember sitting on one of those rickety stools at the kitchen counter as he drew sizzling animal shapes for us with pancake batter. Mickey Mouse, a snake, a turtle, maybe a dog. Whatever we wanted, he would create for us.
Aside from that once-weekly pancake breakfast, Grandma was the chief cook. She ran her kitchen efficiently, ordering her daughters and daughters-in-law around with the practiced ease she must have gained as mother of eight children. Not only did she cook and bake and preserve the bounty of her farm, she also made us personalized peanut butter-chocolate eggs each Easter, decorated with our names in pink or green lettering. There was always homemade granola on top of the fridge and an intricate web of bottles, tubes, and pipes in the corner where her wine fermented.
But although they were typical old Germans in their efficiency, economy, and stoicism (and love of card-playing and wine or beer), my grandparents were far from ordinary. They were travelers and artists, and grandma was an exercise enthusiast (she walked or cross-country skied at least 3 miles every day) and hoarder of slightly questionable wisdom. When grandma died in 1987, she left behind a score of paintings of things she had seen with her eyes and her heart. I have two of her paintings in my home, framed by grandpa. She also left a notebook of her thoughts and ideas about nature, medicine, and her own peculiar brand of common sense. My aunt shared some of the pages with me a few years ago, and I realized that my good Catholic grandma had probably absorbed a good deal of the counter-culture of the 1970s.

(That's three-year-old me, curious about what Grandpa is doing to Grandma's back)

But those smells--dill, wheat toast, pancakes--those smells take me back there, to those summer days at the farm.
And now, I continue the ritual of making pancakes on Sundays after church. And as I watch my daughter learning to make them herself, shaping the batter into a snake, a fish, another snake for her young brother, I see a glimpse of my grandparents in my children, and the smells rise in me and pour out in a sigh.
I hope that this sigh travels straight up, laden with the scent of hot pancakes.


Ilona said...

Love IT! I'd forgotten about those peanut butter eggs!

Tammy said...

That's so wierd that you post a memory of grandma & grandpa house and the smells that take you back there. When I walked in to mom & dad's yesterday that's exactly what happened to me. I was immediately reminded of grandma & grandpa's house. I didn't say anything but then Ilona brought up your blog at dinner and we all had a chance to travel down memory lane. Mom thinks it might be the earthy smell of fresh picked veggies. Maybe the dill too. It was nice to remember grandma & grandpa for a while. Were the peanut butter eggs the ones she used to keep hidden in tins around the basement stair well?

Kir said...

I'm glad my memories sparked yours, Tam. I don't remember the basement very well. I thought it was scary, and I tried not to go down there...