Despised Scent

Have you ever tried to describe a smell? Either a favorite one or one you detest? It’s hard. How do you describe a scent without mentioning the scent itself. That’s what you’d have to do to describe it to someone unfamiliar with it.

Because it’s such a hard thing to write about, writing instructors often require their students to do just that. Our Wednesday writing workshop leader has done it a couple of times. Most recently, I observed that the majority of us chose to write about a distasteful smell rather than one a favorite one, I guess because the power of a detestable smell evokes more powerful thoughts.

It’s what prompted me to write about a loathed aroma. At first, I tried to write about something sweet and beloved, but as I attempted to think of descriptors, I came up blank. Calling up bad smells, however, was visceral. I chose to write about—you guessed it—skunks.

* * * * *

I rather like the musky evidence of skunk—from a distance. It leaves a hint of citrusy lemon aroma in the air. A little fresher skunk scent is more that of burnt coffee—the same smell that makes me wrinkle my nose when I get to close to a coffee shop in the late afternoon. Even that doesn’t bother me too much.

But fresh skunk spray up close and personal—say on my deck—is another matter. My eyes are attacked by a burning sensation that makes them water uncontrollably. My nostrils close up from the stench. I can neither see nor breathe. I choke.

It is the smell of diesel fuel, cigarette smoke, burning meat, and cat urine all rolled into one, as if all those smells are simultaneously stuffed up my nose and down my throat.

Bottle it and that scent would make as powerful and effective a weapon of war as it is a protection from skunk dangers in the wild.

 

One Life

What if someone were to curate a museum exhibit of your life? What objects would you want included? What would they say about who you are and what matters to you? How would the accompanying plaque interpret the exhibit?

Here are some vignettes I picture as part of my “One Life” exhibit:

A seed picture, a macramé wall hanging, and a handwoven basket depicting a childhood of craft-learning at my grandmother’s feet which morphed into my would-be-hippie-street-fair-vendor period and morphed again into a more nuanced appreciation of handiwork and an unending need to work with my hands;

A shelf filled with books by the likes of Annie Dillard, Mark Twain, Mary Oliver, Robert Fulghum and more, some of which prompted me to read more while others influenced who I became and still others led me to become a writer myself;

A table holding a pencil, eraser, and notebook symbolizing my love of writing, an urge  that visited me randomly and infrequently until recently, when it became a near obsession;

A collection of LPs and CDs: classical—Mozart, Chopin, Mussorgsky, Beethoven (there was a time when I fantasized about becoming a concert pianist. That time was sandwiched between my Debbie Reynolds period and delusions of being a race car driver); folk—philosophical storysingers the likes of the Kingston Trio, Christine Lavin, John McCutcheon, and Carrie Newcomer who prick our consciences and prod us to action with thought-provoking messages, sometimes with some quirky humor thrown in; the Gaelic melodies of Enya and kin which, through their sheer ethereal beauty, transport my mind to the shores of my heritage;

A hammer, a saw, and a scattering of nails on a 2 x 4 piece of lumber portraying our once-in-a-lifetime homebuilding adventure;

A grouping of family heirlooms—perhaps a chair, a plate, a crocheted doily: items that tell the story of my attachment to family and family history;

A tent, a canoe, and a campfire all in the midst of a small square of outdoor space, testaments to my love of camping, water, and nature;

A collection of photo albums—more proof of my strong sense of family as well as my love of photography, nature, and wildlife;

A corner filled with bumper stickers, protest posters, sit-in images, and a couple of rabble-rousing speeches representing my passion for human rights, all sorts, and my years as an activist and leader in social change movements;

A few fruit- and vegetable-filled canning jars next to some colorful seed packets resting atop a small mound of well-composted garden soil—evidence of my gardening and food preservation heritage and interest.

All of this would, of course, be displayed against a backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains while the sounds of bird songs and a waterfall are piped into the exhibit space.

Looked at as a whole, such an exhibit speaks to me of eclecticism (or perhaps the inability to settle on any one thing). I like to think it also speaks of an enthusiasm for life, a certain joie de vivre. But I see what isn’t there, too—in some cases, things I wish I’d had a chance to experience or was passionate about, but in truth am not; in others, things that once mattered and have been cast aside. I see the absence of objects that are critically important to other people but don’t matter a whit to me.

(Conspicuously absent is anything about my family—other than the references to the photo album and family heirloom exhibits. Make no mistake: they are, every single one of them, central to my life. But with this kind of exercise, it’s all too tempting to focus on other people and to turn the whole thing into a cliché, so I resist the urge.)

Chances are, there are also things that have simply skipped my mind in the moment. If I were to write this piece next week or next year, an entirely different collection of objects might appear.

I wonder what my exhibit would say to the casual observer? What about yours?

Soul Food

Since the Gnome and I took up gardening in a serious way, food has sort of taken over my life. It all starts in January when I sit down with the tall stack of seed catalogs that have been filling my box for the last month or so.

The pictures alone make me drool. The exotic new vegetables, the colorful ones, and especially bean seeds capture my imagination. In truth, beans aren’t my favorite dish, but I’m batty over the seeds. So, beans take up a fair amount of the garden landscape.

After the seeds arrive in February or March, I begin diagramming the garden. How much space to allot to this or that veggie, how to rotate the crops, which plants will be good companions are all questions that come into play during the planning process.

Spring means cleaning up the previous year’s garden, weeding, and watching long-term forecasts to determine when I dare to plant the earliest crops. By late spring, I do an almost daily dance with the weather, trying to outguess its long-range plans. Can I push the planting up a week this year or should I err on the side of caution and wait for that ‘last average frost date’?

At whatever date I settle on, planting begins in earnest, along with mulching and more weeding. Seeds need moisture to germinate, so I find myself in the garden with a hose on dry days. Within days, maybe up to a couple of weeks in some cases, tiny green sprouts begin popping up out of the ground. It’s a magical time and my joy is palpable.

When I’m gardening, I’m following in some mighty big footsteps. Feeding the family from the land was the work of all my grandparents and theirs before them. For them, it was honest work that meant survival. Every moment I’m in the garden feeds me ancestrally.

But harvest time is what truly feeds me, both literally and figuratively. I can’t help but smile when I look at a dinner plate filled with only the bounty of our garden: green salad, asparagus, Swiss chard, squash, rutabaga, corn, kale, eggplant. Whatever the dishes of the day, I’m satiated before I take the first bite.

Harvest time also means preserving, another soul-fulfilling activity. The hours and days I invest in food preservation mean we’ll have tasty, healthy eating from our garden all the way through winter and right on up until the next harvest season rolls around.

Typical grocery list during gardening season

Harvesting food and preserving it make me sing. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So Beautiful It Changed My Life

What an amazing concept—something so beautiful it could change a life. Most of us, if we’ve lived long enough, have had at least a couple of life-changing experiences. But by nothing more than beauty? That was the writing challenge I was presented recently: a time when something was so beautiful it changed your life. It took me aback for a moment. But only for a moment. As I scoured my memory, it came to me.

Driving from Kentucky to the mountains of North Carolina in 1979, after the Gnome and I had made the mental decision to move but before we had actually taken action to make it happen (in other words, it would be easy enough to back out), I looked at the mountains on the horizon with new eyes. It was as if they were cloaked in blue-green velvet.

Their apparent softness overwhelmed me. Though I didn’t have words to articulate it, I sensed something magnificent. Those ancient rocks, some of the oldest in the world, had been worn down by eons of rain and wind; in the process, they had been reshaped from the haughty cragginess of youth into the gentle wisdom of age. Their strength lay in their graceful endurance. I didn’t want to back out.

We spent a week searching for a spot to call home Discouraged by all the not-right-for-us places we’d been shown, we were about to head back to Louisville with unfulfilled dreams. At the last minute, our realtor recalled a secluded piece of land tucked away on a mountainside, and our decision was made. In early April, things were still pretty barren; still, we were confident we’d found what we were looking for. We signed some papers and went back to Louisville to prepare for the big move.

When we returned to our mountain with all our worldly goods not quite three months later, my heart stopped as we drove into a meadow bursting with daisies. (How did the universe know to greet me with this outsize bouquet of my favorite flower?) 

It stopped again the first time I looked over a cloud-filled valley, mountaintops peeking out like islands in a sea of snowy foam.

I knew I’d never leave.

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(To read more about our adventure of moving and building a home with our bare hands while living in the wild, begin here.)

Here’s to What We Don’t Know

Another quick assignment in my Wednesday writing group—you’ll find the prompt in the last nine words of this post. (Unh-uh! No skipping to the end!)

Living in a tent on ten acres of land in a strange place with no water, no electricity, no phone access, no knowledge of local weather conditions—like that severe thunderstorms could and would pop up daily with no warning, no jobs, and no money but with two elementary-aged children, two neurotic cats, and a notion we could live this way for as long as it took to design our own house, get planning approval, and build the entire thing with nothing more than our own four hands and a few hand tools . . . well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Remembering the Forgotten

I’ve been participating in a social media challenge called 52 ancestors in 52 weeks. It’s an effort to encourage learning about and sharing our various family histories in small, doable chunks. Participants are given a weekly prompt to start them on their way. Earlier in the year, one of the prompts was “census.” This is what I wrote.

(Disclaimer: I am not descended from Hardy Watkins. In fact, it’s unlikely he had any descendants. That’s why I want to tell his story. When Granddaddy became the superintendent of the Johnston County, NC, County Home (aka poorhouse) in 1930, Hardy was already there.)

If Hardy was like most folks who were relegated to the poorhouse, no one ever came to see him. Maybe he had no family at all. But neither the absence of visitors from the outside world nor his developmental disability did anything to dampen his enthusiasm for life. He was a good-natured, cheerful sort—until he was pushed too far. Then he’d curse a blue streak. He never missed a service at the nearby church—always sat in the front row. He couldn’t carry a tune in the proverbial bucket, but he sang his heart out on every hymn, always with hymnal in hand, even though he couldn’t read the words.

I grew up hearing tales about Hardy from my dad and his brothers, who lived in the poorhouse during Granddaddy’s tenure there. Whenever our family gathered for reunions, Hardy’s name inevitably came up. He was discussed with animated affection.

This is the tale they shared most frequently. On the rare occasion the boys could scrape a few coins together, they thought it was a hoot to offer Hardy a choice between a penny and a dime. He always chose the penny because it was bigger. At least that’s what they thought. They were grown before they figured out what he surely had understood all along: if he’d ever taken the dime, they’d have stopped playing the game. Instead, he maintained a growing collection of their pennies. It took a while, but with that realization, the brothers finally got their comeuppance.

I got curious about Hardy. I asked my genealogy-savvy husband to check the poorhouse census records. All these years I had thought Hardy was a kid near my dad’s age. But we discovered that when my then nine-year-old dad showed up at the County Home with the rest of his family, Hardy was forty-seven. He was born in 1883. Why, Hardy was even older than Granddaddy! We also learned that Hardy had arrived at the poorhouse long ago—sometime between 1900 and 1910. So, he had been there at least twenty years, perhaps closer to thirty, when Daddy’s family moved in.

According to newspaper reports, poor nutrition marked poorhouse fare in the early years of the twentieth century. Before Granddaddy took over management of Johnston County’s poorhouse, fruits, eggs, milk, and other dairy products were a rarity for the residents. Surely, such a diet would have a negative effect on one’s longevity. I already knew that for the average person born in the late 1800s, like Hardy, the average life expectancy was only forty-two or forty-three years. That got me to wondering what happened to Hardy.

Census records from 1940, the most recent available, showed Hardy was still living at the County Home. He would have been fifty-seven at that time. He had already defied the odds. Further exploration led to the discovery that, in spite of all the cards stacked against him, Hardy lived to the ripe old age of eighty-nine.

At the time of his death, Hardy was still in an institution. The poorhouse was no more. But the building was still there, having transitioned to a privately-operated care home for the aged and infirm in the mid-1950s. So, though the operation of the facility changed hands, it’s quite possible that Hardy stayed put. My bet is he lived all his days since arriving at the poorhouse in the same place, maybe even the same room. (Well, not quite. A new building had been constructed in the early 1920s so he would have moved at least once, though only a few hundred feet.)

Over time, poorhouse records seem to have disappeared. Only the rare newspaper article and a few official reports remain to provide any poorhouse history at all. Hardly anyone is left to tell the stories of the people who lived there.

If he’d had a chance, I wonder what Hardy might have told me about his life at the poorhouse, about his family, about his relationship with my dad and his brothers. About how he defied the odds. What was the rest of his story? Just like the rest of us, Hardy—and everyone else who lived at the poorhouse—had stories to tell. We’ll never know what they were. But they deserve to be honored.

The former County Home in Johnston County, NC, is currently an assisted living facility. You can learn more about Hardy, other poorhouse residents, and the County Home itself in my book, Boyhood Daze and Other Stories: Growing Up Happy During the Great Depression.

 

 

Resilience and Grace

She never asked to be a widow—hoped not to be. Yet, she fully expected it. She was up on gender and life expectancies, so she knew the odds were strong that she’d outlive him by some years.

It wasn’t that she was happy about it, but I wanted to stamp my feet every time Mother made some comment about living longer than Dad. To me, it felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and one I didn’t want to think about. But Mother was simply being realistic.

And though she went straight from her parents’ home to sixty years with him, she somehow knew how to survive on her own when at eighty-one she found herself alone for the very first time in her life. They’d been married for sixty years.

A couple of years later when she broke her hip and had to spend more than two days in a hospital bed awaiting surgery, she found the tiniest movement excruciating. Yet, she was loath to press her buzzer regardless of her need—didn’t want to bother anyone. She couldn’t help emitting a groan, though a tiny and apologetic one, when it was time to change the sheets or reposition her. But instead of complaining and bemoaning her constant pain, she made it her purpose to bring laughter to the nurses, aides, and others who looked after her. One nurse aide regularly took refuge in Mother’s room because it was such a pleasant and safe place to be.

My mom has always looked life straight in the face and taken it on wholeheartedly. Tears are so rare I can count the times I’ve seen them on one hand and still have a finger left over. The first was when I was six years old; the last more than fifty years later when Dad’s ashes were delivered to her. Instead of focusing on what’s sad, she looks for things that bring delight—a sunset, a newly discovered flower, a snowfall. I remember her saying she couldn’t imagine anyone being unhappy—sad, occasionally, but not unhappy.

The last thing she ever wanted to do was leave her home for assisted living, but once the decision was made she never complained, never looked back. Again, she began looking around her to see which worker needed a smile or a word of encouragement. (Needless to say, she’s a staff favorite.)

Once, on the phone from her one-room confines, she said to me, “I’ll bet there aren’t many ninety-two year-olds as lucky as I am,” reveling in the birds at her feeder, her books, her crossword puzzles, the cats who frequent her room, and memories of her family and happy marriage. She continues to offer similar sentiments two years later. If she’s ever had a regret, I don’t know about it.

Her job as a mother is never-ending. Though in many ways over the last few years our roles have reversed, she’s still teaching me, especially in the art of aging well and with joy. May I learn her lessons well.