The Power of Smell

When I was in Elementary School, I was to attend PS 104. This unforeseen and dreadful move was swift, like a thunderous cloud burst assaulting the unexpecting Carolina blue skies. It came like a freight train through my little garage room with the red concrete floor in the middle of the night. My father was living in New York already while we were still secluded, on our four acres of woods. In Stedman, North Carolina, we had been purposely isolated to allow for the freedom of drunken nights and outlandish weekends with an endless supply of liquor. We ran around with our waist-high panties or our little “Jane” outfits that my mother had tediously sewn for us during a sober day. Playing on one of the three ancient oaks that grew on the big four, we spent our days in the white sand of the Carolina Coastal Plain. Only the growing darkness, the sound of the bats and the trail of the fire-flies took us home.

The contrast of the six-story apartment building and copious amounts of concrete outside would bring cascading tears to my eyes as I thought of the big four. The news would frighten me also. I remember hearing about roaches living inside beehives (a popular women’s hairdo) and women being raped in basements. Fear was a shadow that would follow me where ever I would go, but now, that darkness grew profusely.

My most vivid and everlasting memory of PS 104 and New York was lunchtime. Often lunch was terrifying for me with one exception, and that was the awakening of my sense of smell most unexpectedly. The fragrance of hot soup spreading wings like a bird, as the aroma of her ingredients effortlessly went through walls and into the hallway. Filling each atom and particle of space with that glorious aroma, oh how it would entice my tastebuds! Marching each day into this tiny hall and then into the intimidatingly large auditorium, during which time we were not allowed to speak. We would sit in every other seat, and then put our boring and predictable bag lunch on the empty seat beside us. Then we quickly shed the thick layers of clothes from our tiny frames. Wearing all of our heavy outdoor clothing in the cold winter months was a requirement anytime we left our homeroom. This was necessary in case of a bomb or a bomb drill which we were always expecting. I remember thinking often, I suppose it is better to be dressed in outdoor attire when about to be hit with a devastating bomb! Yea, that never really did make a lot of sense to me even as a kid.

Most of my childhood I just didn’t get, but this smell, although a mystery in many ways, was one of pure envy. I wanted to sit with the few kids that were somehow special, and inhale the smell of this wonderous soup, and let it tantalize my hungry tastebuds. I never did get to see the extraordinary kids. I did imagine daily however, how the table would appear. It would have a white linen cloth covering an endless wooden table where large bowls and big glasses of satisfying milk awaited to be enjoyed. The children would be laughing and talking with one another. They would be enjoying their meal while sharing interesting stories about the fun that they would have after school.

Even today, many decades later, in the winter if I catch a whiff of vegetable soup coming from anywhere, I am suddenly unable to move. My thoughts and remembrances of that frightening, scary, concrete world I was taken to in the middle of the night, will briefly be awakened.

I realize how blessed I am and how I can have a bowl of vegetable soup whenever I so desire. Interestingly enough, I don’t like the flavor of this soup, only its smell. The unobtainable seat at that table, however, and the scent that would hover over me in that hall, is still with me today, taking me back to that short walk in the hallway toward the auditorium and my second-grade year at PS 104.

Interesting fact as an adult – I learned that these children were indeed very special. They were the impoverished and the children who attended the special education program. Funny, looking back, how we envision the unexplainable when we are young.

JKC 8/3/19

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