Smells like summer camp
They say that smell is the strongest of the senses that can carry you back in time. Whether it’s the slightest scent of your mother’s perfume, a whiff of your dad’s old cigars, a hint of salty air on the road leading to your favorite beach or a trace of the honeysuckle that you inhaled deeply when you were 9 years old, the power of smell can take you places instantly.
One of my favorites is the odor of new puppies. The smell brings me back to the afternoon my parents surprised me with my first dog. I got off the school bus and came into my unlit, raincloud-darkened house. I didn’t see or hear anyone, which was unusual. I spotted a light on in the downstairs den. I walked down the stairs but the room seemed empty. I was about to head back up when I noticed a strangely sweet odor. I scanned the floor and spotted an unfamiliar-looking container in the corner which upon inspection contained a tiny, sleeping 8 week old beagle. That initial sight and that smell are forever wired together in my memory.
Of course, there’s another dog smell which is equally well-wired – dog poop. There’s nothing like walking down the stairs in the morning and before you get halfway to the kitchen, the odor hits you. Oh crap, you realize. I have to clean that up before breakfast.
But thankfully, most of my scent memories are positive ones.
My grandfather owned a millinery wholesale store back in the 1950s and ‘60s. I used to go down there with my mom to pick out handbags, wallets, scarves and novelty items (remember bleeding madras?). The big iron door would open into the retail showroom and I would be hit with the overpowering fragrance of leather. Brand-new, rich-smelling leather that I loved to just run my hands over and sniff.
The warehouse is long gone but I once had a psychic tell me something interesting related to it. She was talking about my grandfather, who passed some 50 years ago, and said that he is one of my spirit guides. She said that I’d know he was around whenever I caught a whiff of leather, out of the blue (i.e., not in a leather shop). And every now and then I do, and I make sure to say hi.
Food smell associations… The spicy Old Bay aroma of steamed Maryland crabs, sun-brewed iced tea, peach crisp baking in the oven, even meatloaf and fried chicken TV dinners. They all have their moments in time.
And of course flowers — roses and lilacs in particular, like the ones my grandma had next to her screened-in porch. I recall being maybe four years old and lying upstairs in bed for a nap at her house. The window was open with its white cotton curtains fluttering. The roses and lilacs would waft in on the warm breeze and it all felt so good.
Colognes are huge retainers of scent-associations. I still keep a small collection of bottles, containing mostly fumes now, that remind me of teenage crushes; popular colognes like Ambush, English Leather, Jade East, Hai Karate. I wish that they had made a spray scent from the essence of burning leaves in the fall, and one that mimicked the fragrance of my plastic Tiny Tears doll and my pencil case on the first day of school.
My largest reservoir of memories associated with scent comes from the years I spent at my summer camp in Connecticut… the smell of the arts and crafts barn where we created enamel pins, vinyl lanyards and woven pot holders. There were the odors of baking ceramic ashtrays, pine bird feeders; paint and glue, clay and freshly-cut wood. There was the strong, rusty odor of the mineral-laden water; the smell of wet rubber bathing caps and damp towels; the wooly heat from an army blanket on a bunk bed on a sweltering summer afternoon. Anyone remember the smell and feel of grape Fizzies bubbling up your nose? Campfires? Earthworms and freshly-caught fish?
By far, the most enduring of these memories for me is the one I encountered daily on the dirt path that led to the bunk houses. It was a rich, green smell that must’ve come from a certain tree or bush, but I never knew which one. It just “smelled like camp” to me. To this day, I’ll be wandering around with friends in the woods somewhere, and I’ll suddenly make everyone stop and sniff. Do you smell it, I ask? That’s it! That’s the smell of camp!
Instantaneous travel back to the best times of my life.