“The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.”–Thalassa Cruso
The tall 8th grader nodded his head slightly as he handed me a basket.
“This is from my mom,” he added and ambled away on legs leaner and longer than I am tall.
Filled with several items of self-care, I slowly admired each item in the basket. Noticing a tiny tin of Nivea hand cream, I twisted off its lid. Since my hands were dry from sanitizing students’ tables, I dipped a finger into the rich, velvety cream and gently massaged it into the skin of my hands and fingers. Working the cream into my hands, I proceeded across the room and thanked the student for his–and his mom’s–thoughtful gift. Then, beginning class in my usual manner, I promptly began moving about the room as I coaxed the 8th grade students into a didactic conversation, and suddenly noticed a familiar aroma . . . Mamaw?
“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”— Vladimir Nabokov
Mamaw, whose actual name was Maxi Musick, was my paternal grandmother. Standing 4’10” at her tallest, she became a widow not too much longer after I was born during the mid-1960s. She lived in the same small craftsman style home in which she raised my dad and his younger brother for most of their lives. (They moved into the home when my dad was around nine years old.)
Mamaw’s home was of great fascination to me, and it possessed a certain scent. This unique aroma seemed to mostly emanate from the bathroom and seep into the rest of the house as the one and only bathroom was situated right next to what she called the TV room. In particular, this same fragrance seemed to emanate from Mamaw’s skin. In fact, I considered this Mamaw’s signature scent.
Where was this scent coming from? Surely, it wasn’t coming from one of the students? No, that was an absurd thought. I’m tired and simply imagining Mammaw’s fragrance.
Making my way around the room, discussing the topic of the day with the students, the lingering odor of Mamaw remained with me no matter in which part of the room I stood. Gesticulating in order to make a particular emphasis, a strong wave of fragrance wafted through the air. A student began to talk, and I brought my palms towards my face. Then rubbing my palms together and quickly inhaling, the warm scent filled my nostrils. There she was again. Mamaw.
Trying to force my mind back towards the speaking student, memories of Mamaw crashed to the surface of my consciousness, as if suddenly, hundreds of sticky note memories began covering my brain. Oh, I didn’t want to lose those remembrances, but I needed professional concentration. Nonetheless, winds of recollection continued to dance, lift, and float just below the surface of my focus like watching autumn leaves drifting to earth outside my classroom window. Oh, but could I catch each one if only I weren’t inside the confines of the setting, focusing on the job at hand.
My mind drifted to summer nights spent at Mamaw’s house . . .
Mamaw, with her thinning salt and pepper hair, topped with a wiglet, quietly swaying in rhythm, with me beside her, as we sat on a glider that gently twanged and screeched. Not many words were spoken. The sensory thrill of summer was enough.
Heading into the TV room once night was fully settled. We would take turns bathing. Mamw would emerge freshly cleaned, pink nightgown and robe swathing her tiny body; wiglet wrapped in tissue paper so that it wouldn’t be mussed during the night, and that warm fragrance, like misty fog surrounding her being, emanating out each pore of her body.
Together we watched The Rockford Files (or other such popular shows). Before the episode began, Mamaw briskly entered her darkened kitchen, and using only the small light above her sink, she would prepare for us a snack. Using her cheese slicer, she deftly carved perfect slices of cheese, added a few Ritz crackers, poured a glass of water for herself, and fixed a cup of Tang for me–the drink of astronauts!
We were now ready to help Jim Rockford solve his current mystery. If Jim said or did something funny, Mamaw laughed with her whole body, her soft belly jiggling with delight. When he’d act romantically with his sometimes girlfriend, Mamaw would joke that she wished James Garner would date her. Throughout the show, she and I would debate the merits of the case in our attempt to solve the crime.
By 11:00 pm, I would snuggle down in a twin bed that once belonged to my dad as Mamaw, a heavy-footed, purposeful walker for such a small person, would walk through “boys’ bedroom” to enter her own bedroom. I would fall asleep to the sounds of the C & O train cars moving around in the nearby rail yard. Safe and snuggled in the blankets, if I listened closely, I could also hear the soft tick, tick, tick of the second hand of the square electric clock in her bedroom clicking off the passing seconds.
Rising early in the morning, Mamaw would make oatmeal for us with extra sugar for me, Sweet’N Low for her. She boiled water to make herself a cup of instant coffee, and she poured me a cup of orange juice, or if I was really fortunate, grape juice. Then, we might go to the local high school track for a walk, work around the house, work around the yard tending to her flowers or hanging laundry to dry on the line, or she might quilt, asking me to hand her pieces of material, thread, or find her thimble.
If I remember correctly, Mamaw drove a Toyota Corona for most, if not all, of my childhood. It did not have air conditioning, and so we traveled with the windows down in the summer. She required pillows on her seat to assist her reaching the pedals and seeing out of the window. Both hands were on the steering wheel–10 and 2 o’clock. Those hands never strayed from their designated positions, and her eyes were locked straight ahead. Therefore, she let me adjust the dial on the AM radio to WGNT, rather than WTCR, the home of the country music she preferred.
Mamaw was tight with her budget. She adhered to a schedule and routine with breakfast by 7:00 am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5:00 pm. Her house was simple, but always neat and tidy. While she belonged to a Regular Baptist church that rotated services from one rural location to another, she talked about it only if asked, and I never heard her criticize other denominations and beliefs.
Meanwhile, back in my classroom, I felt the sticky notes of memories loosening as I required more and more focus to keep my part of the student conversation going.
“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”–Cesare Pavese
Mamaw, I hope you knew, and somehow still know, how special you were/are to me. You taught me to keep my head held high and to walk purposefully with firm steps grounded in simple truths. You further taught me to live simply and not wastefully; laugh abundantly and with your whole body; don’t proselytize your faith, but instead, live by example; eat your oatmeal and take walks; plant flowers; go to bed at a regular time, and get up early; be kind and loving; and, always remember that James Garner was one of the greats.
I’ve decided to keep that tin of cream in my desk drawer at school in order to remind me to live by Mamaw’s simple truths as I work and teach the next generation of kids.
Hmm . . . I wonder if I could find a way to work The Rockford Files into my curriculum?