I took the back roads today. It is late October. It’s just me and the old Pathfinder, so there’s plenty of room; hop in and go with me. We’ll talk as we ride along the narrow blacktops of my old stompin’ grounds. Though the intended destination is to visit with my mother’s 95 year young cousin, it’s about to become a virtual tour of memories, and it’s only a 20 minute drive! I should explain that I have found myself to be so olfactory-oriented that even sights from the driver’s seat evoke aroma connected memories. So it works both ways; smells stir memories, and any memory, however evoked, can make me remember the smells associated with it. I am soothed, persuaded, repulsed, inspired by and affected in every other way by my sense of smell. And what better time of year than Fall to excite the senses, so I’ll be driving with the windows slightly open today.
It’s a beautiful day in its own way; overcast, drizzly to light showers, with a slightly cool breeze. But the gloominess has been dispelled by the bright yellow and red lights glowing from the autumn trees, as there has not been enough rain yet to pull off all the leaves. They are shinier due to the wetness of the rain; and the cooler air prevents a mugginess we’d have had a month ago. I deliberately chose the back way in order to see more countryside. Newly sown wheat fields are a tender green, a lovely contrast to the fall colors. My radio is tuned to Murray State University’s classical music station because I enjoy letting my mind run from point to point without being interrupted by words of songs – just the background music, like scores for movies. And today my mind begins to play movies of memories. Yikes, suddenly I am meeting a car, the driver intent upon holding to the center line, and I’m reminded how quickly I can become a memory! And actually, how quickly life does become memories. Even those extended illnesses or dementias endured by many families ultimately end with, “it seems like only yesterday…”; like, when their moms were just standing at the stove, cranking out the aroma of fried chicken, and turning around with that knowing smile; or their dads were coming home from work, perhaps like mine when I was very young and he watched me go through his lunch pail for some little something he would have left there just for me. Enter the smell of wax paper. Likewise, whenever I am in a garage with a particular greasy tool and gasoline engine smell, I am transported back to age six and our first garage, with a dirt floor, and how I loved Daddy’s tools that were on the foundation blocks along the walls of that garage. I dare to say one of life’s most asked questions is “where has the time gone?”
As I’m driving, I see a field of soybeans, this variety being a sort of rusty orange, and I immediately am reminded of a little craft we did when I was a nine or ten-year old Girl Scout. We each took an orange and a box of dried cloves and pushed the cloves into the orange skin. Our troop leaders fashioned some way of hanging them, perhaps with a ribbon, and ta-dah! we each had a sachet; a gift to proudly take home to our mammas. Mine, I believe was hung in a closet at our house. Ahhh, the aroma was divine! The dark brown cloves over the surface of the orange gave the rusty appearance shared by that soybean field. I think I tried that craft again in my adult life, either with my own kids or nieces, and it was a complete flop. There was juice seeping out of the oranges, and I was unable to recall how our fearless leaders got a ribbon attached to it in the first place. But I remember how much I liked the orange clove fragrance! It may just be my new perfect autumn aroma. I’m not ruling out all the wonderful pumpkin spice, and apple flavors of autumn, but I am going to be on the lookout for some orange and clove coffee, candles or potpourri! Funny how the color of that bean field stirred my smell memories.
And speaking of smells, I next meet a pickup pulling a load of dark fired tobacco, cured and ready for stripping. Oh what a jolt of memory that is – and I’d venture to say from the aroma, it was a good crop! Weather like this week with several days of slow rain, made premium days for “taking down” as we dark fired farmers called it, because the tobacco would come in order, meaning we could handle it without breaking it up. It’s been about four years now since my husband stopped growing tobacco, but I remember how every day of our lives from the end of August until Christmas smelled of dark fired tobacco smoke from our barns, as well as the dark tobacco gum and the stain it left on our hands, which we wore until it was stripped and hauled away to be sold. The warehouse by the way, was in my mind, the end of the road for the crop as we neither one used any form of tobacco ever – but that’s a whole different story.
A sudden burst of heavier rain brings my mind back to the road, validating how quickly life changes. As we are entering the community of Lynn Grove where I spent my adolescent and teen years, I am sad to see the dissolving of little communities where one could live, go to school, worship, shop, to to the post office, buy gas and visit friends all in about a half mile radius! Plus, everyone knew everyone, or at least their grandparents, and where each dog belonged. And that’s just what I remember. In my parents’ younger days, there was also a flour mill and an egg packing and shipping business, and two little service stations. One of those, called Jackson Ashland was owned and operated by my daddy. That little building has been gone a long time. Now the old Crawford service station, though still there, is closed and no longer donning the patrons sitting outside on benches; there’s no grocery; the mill and egg house are gone. The school has been replaced by apartments. The post office has been closed several years. Our old home burned and my parents moved out of the neighborhood, and the houses now look very different on ‘our’ road. But all three of the local churches are still there! Kind of ironic, I think, that the churches stood strong; and the Word of God is the one thing we have that we know will never change! A flood of memories proceed as I picture myself driving my first car, a bronze Thunderbird; leaving for my first date with the man I married, in a white ’64 Impala; running (literally) down to the store for a gallon of All Jersey or a loaf of Colonial bread; old Silver, my Palomino saddle horse leaning over the fence of our yard for sugar cubes; the school yard where we cracked ‘hickernuts’ under the tall hickory trees; my third cousin Beverly giving me an Este Lauder infused ride to high school in her old green and white Ford and the seat permanently set so far back that she drove with her toes, leg fully extended! These and so many more!
On down the road, I see the soybean fields that have been harvested, and I recall that this year my daddy said my husband’s just cut bean fields look “like they been hit with sandpaper”, smooth and the color of a newly sanded plank of wood. I find myself back in the bean fields 35 years or so ago with our small Allis-Chalmers combine and a red Ford two-ton grain truck where I tried to keep the truck moved down the field as my husband cut his way across it, hoping for a good yield. It was a race with time, and with a racing heart, that I tried to get the truck to the grain company, unloaded and back to the field before he was ready to unload the combine bin onto the truck again. No one would even consider farming today with one grain truck! Though the soybean dust covered everything and made us itch, I loved the smell of it, and I still do. Since I was 12 and we moved to our second farm after 4 years in town, I was almost hypnotized by the dry rustling sound and that dried grain smell of corn and soybeans ready for harvest. I imagined a closer kinship to the native Americans than I actually had and I tried to invent ways to be out in those fields after the combines moved through. Whether picking up missed ears of corn, biting into the nutty taste of the left behind soybeans, or gathering stripped corn stalks to stack teepee style in the yard – whatever it took to just be there, I was soaking up the warm sun, and breathing in the ripened grain smell.
Arriving at Fannie Sue’s house, I unload the homemade soup I’ve brought for our lunch, and get a hug from the sweetest, toughest lady you could ever imagine! Unfortunately her daughter is unable to join us, but my sister does, and we sit down for a time of food, fun and reflection. Her 95 years has done nothing to her memory! She can recall more names than I even know; tells us the history of many family treasures in their house; knows more about our heritage than I can remember to write down; and yes, she remembers exactly what she was doing yesterday and intends to do tomorrow. This is the first year she did not have a little garden she says, although she did “scratch out with a fork a little spot by the garage and planted a few tomato and pepper plants”. Those were tortured by too much rain, grass, and something that ate the tomato plants off to about 3 inches above the ground. So, she explained, she visited a local fruit and vegetable stand throughout the summer for peaches and tomatoes – what a faithful southern lady! I have the advantage of sitting opposite the bay window with a view of the woods where the old oaks are still holding onto their browns and tans. They secure the north border of her lawn. She too, has held onto life’s happenings and treasures to secure the next generations’ border of heritage that surrounds and helps to form our inner sphere of time.The wind has picked up a bit, and the sun is starting to slip through the remaining clouds. A shower of yellow and orange leaves falls across my field of vision, as the memories of her life drop just as easily on our eager ears. I realize these times will not be here forever; someone will perhaps be visiting me and asking family questions, testing my memory of time and place. I already realize I am not one of these marvelous people with such a recall. I can barely get a story straight twice in a row. So trips like today, when my memory serves to accompany me nicely, are a blessing. And I am sure that from now on the smell of homemade vegetable beef soup will stir my memory of this pleasant day.
On this lovely lady’s dish cabinet sits a beautiful white milk pitcher with pink roses on it. She admits it was an object of desire all of her life, as she had seen it at my Great Aunt Treva’s house. My great-grandmother gave it to her daughter, Aunt Treva, who passed it down to her daughter, at whose estate sale Fannie Sue was able to buy it. On the bottom there is a hand written note that says “Mammy’s pitcher, for Hilda”. I could just see my precious Aunt Treva, the baby sister of my grandma and the one with whom I had enjoyed a close relationship for many years, writing that little note to be sure a family heirloom – a memory – made it into the hands of her daughter. Holding that pitcher now myself, I can nearly smell Aunt Treva’s kitchen, a clean sort of mix of good cooking aromas. I hardly ever ate there, but it smelled good when I visited. Seems I can hear her meek voice, a little edge of hoarseness to it and an alternating high – low pitch and the way she said my name made me like my name. Admittedly, many of the things we ‘hand down’ to our loved ones or seek out from our ancestors have monetary value, but there is a value much greater than that. I think what we love about seeing, holding, and sharing these wonderful pieces of the past, is the memories they evoke. They let us see through others’ eyes bits and pieces of the lives that have lived ahead of us. We learn to appreciate more and more the work they did, the values they held, and the love they passed down through generations.
The Lord has said through David in Psalms 141:2 and again through John in Revelations 5:8, that our prayers are a sweet odour, or incense that rise up, pleasing Him. It is comforting to me that He too, places importance on aroma; and the flavors of the soul that produce a fragrant worship. Why my memory is so dependent on certain fragrances is unknown to me. I am just thankful for the memories, however they are made; those past and those we are making. I pray that I do not lose the ability to remember, and I ask the Lord to bless those who have watched their family members do just that. These memories are connections like roads, from where we’ve been to where we are going. May your journey be full of joy, even in the valleys where you can call upon good memories to brighten your days.