Smoke signals

On a run outside yesterday, the thick, overwhelming smell of smoke tickled the fibers inside my nose and filled my lungs. I’m not sure of its source–it could’ve been someone was cooking, or perhaps smoking a cigarette on break. But immediately, hundreds of images and related aromas filled my mind. Smoke has different scents, naturally, depending on how it’s being emitted or created. And for each of those little differences, there is an association of a memory in my head.

  • Papa’s cigars that he used to chew on for the flavor, to place him back in a time when people thought tobacco could only kill you if you caught fire trying to light a cigarette (which would be really stupid of you). I remember once I saw him standing outside in the front yard of the house I grew up in, cigar in his mouth, gray cap on his head to shield the sun. I was in fourth grade, and we had just learned about the dangers of smoking.
    “Papa,” I said, “you shouldn’t do that. It’s bad for you.” My voice shook, because I loved my Papa, but he was big and tough as nails.
    He half-turned to me. “Bah,” he scoffed with a wave of his hand. “I don’t smoke it anyhow. I chew the thing. See?”
    It wasn’t lit. I nodded shyly. He was more careful after that, though–whether about using cigars or just using them in front of me, I don’t know. And as he got older, he could be seen with a cigar less and less. Three years ago he died of lung cancer–but ultimately of the dementia that didn’t allow for him to tell us that he could barely breathe before it was too late. Cigars still make me think of him.
  • Bonfires, the scent of pine and wood and leaves burning. They had a few in college behind the Meadows dorms (both official and unofficial), each one with a different significance. The first occurred when freshman year was just starting out. I remember trying to find my way through the hazy, red- and yellow- and orange-tinted first-years, clinging to any cluster of them that would have me in their conversations about nothing–what conversation when you’re first meeting someone is ever about anything, really? I was just there for the s’mores (and by that, I mean the Hershey bars).
    Then there were a few hosted by the a cappella groups on campus. By that point in my college career there were enough cliques and drama among the people I knew to last a lifetime. In the dark people stayed and chatted or ran off because some boy or girl wasn’t speaking to them from across the bonfire. I watched the fire and listened to my friends in the all-female group sing “Santa Catalina.”
    Two weeks ago we had a bonfire at my good friend’s graduation party. The scent filled my lungs and I closed my eyes and spent most of the time chatting absently with Fitz, who I probably won’t see for a long while. There were other people inside, one in particular I wished to spend time with, but I felt irrevocably separated from her for a number of reasons and therefore felt my place was outside, watching my own skin flicker red-orange-yellow in and out. The fire relaxed me. I felt okay sitting there, and though I hadn’t felt really okay in some time, this was close enough.
  • Dad cooking on the grille back when the four of us lived together and my parents selflessly kept up the illusion that they were in a happy marriage. Dad didn’t cook much but when he did, it was on the grill in summer. We had burgers and hot dogs and sometimes chicken. I remember flip-flopping out of the pool with my sister in tow, ravenous from a day of swimming. Sometimes we’d eat in our towels at the dinner table. Mom made pasta salad. Things were a lot easier then, but I guess adulthood means looking back and realizing things won’t ever be that way anymore.
  • Family Christmases with fires burning in (often artificial) chimneys. Laughter. The contrast of a warm, smokey inside to a whistling, billowing, snowy outside–the kind of weather Santa travels best in according to my imagination.

I took a class this past semester called “Smells & Bells” in which we studied the five senses and their relationship to each other. What’s so important about the five senses is that they link us not only to our surroundings, but to each other. The scent of Daisy perfume might remind you of the way someone specific walks you by; the sensation of wool fabric under your fingertips might make you think of your aunt’s knitting. It’s all relative, and most importantly, it’s all very, very human.

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