by Lisa

I used to have a little house.  It was the second tiniest house in the tiny town where my mother’s family grew up.  The tiniest house was occupied by my grandma’s friend, friend’s husband, and friend’s squirrel monkey.  When my grandma went there to give her friend a perm, the house–immaculate, always–smelled so much better when the perm lotion went into effect.  Monkeys are interesting, but there’s no getting around monkey smell no matter how clean your house is.

Reason One, why I’ll never live with a monkey: not enough Pine-Sol in the world.

My house smelled like all sorts of things, not all of them under our control and not all of them good.  Now, when I smell those less-than-Renuzit scents, I remember in a visceral mute way that sends homesickness to my core.  Everything mixed into an alchemy of something better by all of the cooking happening in the second tiniest of kitchens or (before the air conditioner) whatever was drifting in through the dusty screen door. The fridge stayed fresh as rain and the trash can never went weird, but a very very old house produces certain chemical reactions deep in its basement and walls and habits. In an old house or anywhere, a little something off makes good things smell right and true.

Pure good is for expensive candles that liars burn to make guests think that nothing in their worlds stink.

Baked ham and coal oil lamps were winter, daffodils and wet basement and wet dogs were spring, wild onions and peonies and irises and sweet corn husks and crude-covered coveralls were summer, and apple pie and dust burning off the gas element of the heater were fall.  A few times a month, bleach took over when my grandpa took over the kitchen to make his coffee cups and undershirts white again in the same sink of sudsy water, infuriating my grandma for the intrusion into her kitchen. Before company came, Formula 409 led the charge for a few days, annoying the hell out of my grandpa with a different, wider sort of intrusion. I accepted all intrusions as interesting blips in our regularly scheduled smelliness.

Yesterday, my mother stepped into the camper that is my Christmas gift and remembered her time living in an RV because of the way the new-old camper smells.  The same mustiness that lingered in her rotten ex-husband’s 1973 Travco blared unabated in my 1979 Impala, but my associations with that new-to-me kind of mildew are better than hers.

I smell hope, and potential, and the chance to take a careful crowbar to what needs to go.  She didn’t have that freedom, but she’s given it to me.