The Scents of a Homecoming

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The Scents of a Homecoming

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My maternal grandfather passed away late last year amidst a relatively heavy pandemic lockdown, and our family has since tried to fill in for him in caretaking for my grandmother. If he could have asked something of us, I know it would have only been to look after her. He was that kind of man. He didn’t need for anything for time with his family and friends, and his utmost concern was her welfare, even when she angered him.

Recurring and cyclic apprehension and uncertainty over transmission rates, long-term vaccine efficacy and inoculated antibody generation have forestalled several attempted return trips to my hometown. Data-driven doubts have eroded my wife’s confidence that our collective vaccinations will protect her aging parents from life-altering illness and death have prevented her from traveling with me, even though she wont readily admit that outside our home. In addition to everything else the pandemic has altered or taken from us, it’s also complicated my family’s efforts to care for each other.

My grandmother turned 86 recently, and her birthday was also their anniversary. They would have been married 63 years this month, and we wanted to make sure the day didn’t pass like any other lonely Tuesday since his death. My cousins and I put together a birthday dinner at the best restaurant in town, and I traveled back to New Mexico for a week to visit and help where I could. The trip turned out to inspire a self-reflection on the power of scent in my life, emotions, and memory.
I drove straight to my grandmother’s home on Blodgett Street. I pushed the front door open, and an unpleasant stink hit my nostrils.

Throughout my life, that home had particular smells that transitioned over time. Everyone in my family but the children smoked cigarettes while I was growing up, and it wasn’t unusual for a blue-gray haze to hang in my grandparents’ home during family holidays. It wasn’t uncommon for their 1000 sq. ft. home to sleep ten or fifteen people when we had something to celebrate or grieve. Ashtrays often overflowed if late night poker games grew too intense to step away from the dining table. I recall one Thanksgiving from my early childhood in which heavy cigarette smoke obscured my view of the backdoor while I stood near the front door.

Even through those early years, I associated their home with the smell of sweets. Baked goods, chocolate cakes, snickerdoodles, and sugar cereals, although I’m now surprised any of us could smell anything. I never ate Fruity Pebbles anywhere but their house. Word reached my family in the mid 80s that hotboxing the house was bad for everyone’s health, and they began smoking outside. Grandad hated that; he’s the one who paid off the mortgage, so he oughta be able to smoke wherever he damned well pleased. Still, he took it outside for the grandkids.
Since they stopped smoking in the house, and especially since they quit smoking fifteen years ago, I associated their home with a particular and pleasant fragrance. I never placed it, and I’ve never smelled it anywhere else. It wasn’t solely the scented wax my grandmother leaves on warming plates for too long, which are almost always homey food scents, like apple pie. The scent of their home welcomed me back to a place I am unconditionally loved, missed, and wanted. My jokes always hit, my cooking never failed, and everyone was always glad to see me. They were also glad to take my lunch money at the poker table, which I imagine might have contributed to my perpetual welcome.

As of this trip, that unique aroma is gone, replaced by a light odor of stale animal waste. My grandmother took in a low functioning chihuahua about three years ago, and the dog is slowly and thoroughly ruining all the flooring surfaces in her home. It won’t housebreak, and it’s incapable of turning right. Seriously. The dog might be a reincarnated Nascar driver. It only turns left. When it’s excited, anxious, fearful, doesn’t matter. The only emotional arrow in its quiver is a left turn, and the only dichotomy is the circumference. The dog can run around the whole room or spin in place, but only and always left.

Lefty shit on one of my most important and reassuring emotional stimulants.
I also stayed with my parents, who live across town, and we share a love of food, especially comfort food best consumed with big spoons or served in casserole dishes. Because we’re New Mexicans, that means a heavy dose of Hatch green chili goes in everything produced in our kitchens. Throughout the week, my folks made all the staples for fall: red beef enchiladas, fire roasted salsa, smoked burgers, and green chili chicken stew.

While I associated backed goods and sweets with my grandparents’ home, I’ve always associated the aroma of meals with my parents, and especially the foods that take a day or two to get just right in a crock or stockpot. Bubbling green chili anything reminds me of the best parts of my childhood, and I have no unfond memories or emotions associated with it. I never caught a beating over the dinner table, never fought over a kettle of green chili. Comfort foods have historically made all the hurt and misery of the outside world go away. That’s their magic, isn’t it? No matter what the day and the world brought to your doorstep, the right foods and aromas improved everything they touched.
As such, the consistent and predictable wonderfulness of my parents’ home helped buttress my emotions and the loss of the Blodgett Street Scent. The disappearance of that emotional, olfactory experience altered my perception of the trip. I regarded its replacement as a bellwether of things to come, a foreshadowing of my grandmother’s seemingly imminent decline into managed in-home care. My concerns over what the light stink meant conspired with her increased hearing loss, the occasional repeated story, and the often-repeated questions to erode my confidence in her long-term stability.

Although she’s now 86, she remains independent and self-sufficient. There’s nothing she can’t accomplish on her own with enough time and naps between exertion. I think I’ve taken that for granted, though, and I should begin managing my expectations. Thanks to a left-leaning chihuahua, I have to confront my grandmother’s increasing fragility and forthcoming dependence. I regret having never attempted to define its source ingredients, although I doubt I could recreate it at any other time or place.

In the meantime, I need to get her out of the house long enough to have the flooring scrubbed and sanitized. If you’re in the market for a left-loving fecal factory, please inquire within.

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This item was submitted on October 15, 2021 by James Rayroux using the form “Share Your Story” on the site “A Journal of the Plague Year”:

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