Herewith three vignettes about memories evoked by a smell.
I am in 10th grade in high school. This school is new to me, having recently been in a school system in another country. I have never been in an American high school before.
As best I can, I settle into the routine. First, the relatively long bus ride. Just enough time to check out a couple of guys who get on the bus after me. They're cute.
Then school. We all hurry inside. And make our way to lockers, then homerooms. Soon the school bell sounds and we dutifully rise and "pledge allegiance to the flag." This is new to me, but I get the hang of it. And now classes begin. I have the usual round of classes--English, history (Pennsylvania history, I think), math (I get a pass on algebra having taken that in my prior school--not that it did any good--so business math for me), phys ed, and Latin. Of course, Latin. I don't remember much from that year but I remember Latin--oh, I suppose a bit of the language seeped through to me (I know many of the Latin words that helped shape the English language). But I do remember how to wolf whistle. Yup--learned that in Latin.
The one break during the day is lunch. And with it, foods that, though not unfamiliar, were not the common fare I had eaten in boarding school. You could tell by the smell what was for lunch that day. Barbecue sandwiches, pork and sauerkraut, hot dogs. I don't recall all, but even now--the smell of barbecue or sauerkraut transports me back to 10th grade.
As I enter the large room, I can immediately smell the touch of mold, mingled with lingering bath soap, laundry soap, perfume. And occasionally a whiff of food--probably from a covered dish supper. There is also the smell of books, and well-worn wood. The whole room is over-heated but that gives it a welcoming feel--like being enfolded in the arms of a grandparent who loves you and hugs you tight.
The room is dimly lit, and very quiet. There is a light buzz of voices, but mostly whispering. As I sit down, I look around. There are some of my uncles and aunts, and my cousins. Probably my Pappap as well. Grandma must have been there, but I don't remember that.
I am in the small church where my mother grew up. And now today, when I enter a small country church, all those smells hit me, and I am once again in that church from my childhood.
Late at night the plane landed. I had flown from the U.S. to London, then had a long lay-over at Heathrow (I over-estimated how much time I would need to connect planes). Since the plane departed a bit later than scheduled, I missed the opportunity to see the sun set over the Sahara.
With the usual delay in deplaning, my anticipation builds. I am going to see my daughter who is in a four month internship working on an art project. The coolness of the airplane begins to dissipate. And as the cabin door opens, it becomes clear that the weather is not the same as Pennsylvania in November (from where I had departed), nor London. In fact, it is down-right steamy.
As I step off the plane, and down the ladder (no connecting tunnels at this airport), I am immediately hit with a wave of intense humidity. And that smell.
I breathe deeply--wood fire smoke mingled with sweat of humanity. I take another deep breath--hold it, and then say (in my mind at least) -- AFRICA. After a more than 40 year absence, I am back.