Sunday, April 26, 2009

I Smell Red Jelly Beans

Ever since I was young, I have had a keen sense of smell. That sounds like a strange comment to make, but I don't mean simply that I have a sensitive nose. What I mean is that my nose has superhuman smelling ability. While the average person might walk by a house with an open kitchen window and say, "Hmmm, someone is baking--I think it might be a cake," I could walk by the same window and say, "Oooh, that woman is baking a cake, and she added a touch of orange zest to the vanilla batter!"

When I was very young, I woke up from a nap one afternoon and remarked, "I smell red jelly beans." Sure enough, upon putting me down for my nap, my mom had eaten one red jelly bean. Just one. I had been asleep for an hour and a half, but I could still smell it upon waking and could distinguish that not only was it a jelly bean, it had been a red one. My mom still tells the story and I get the sense that she's proud of my olfactory talents. She repeats, "I ate ONE red jelly bean. Just ONE," and holds up one finger rather solemnly, as if to say, "My daughter's sense of smell is so refined that she could be used in place of a trained police dog." Sometimes people are impressed, but other times I get the distinct feeling that after hearing about my "abilities," the newly enlightened become increasingly aware of their own personal bodily aromas and stand just a little bit further away from me and my amazing nose.

For me, memories are strongly linked to smells. Whenever I smell blooming jasmine, memories of my old childhood bedroom wash over me. It's even more intense than just remembering how my old bedroom used to smell, it's as if I'm once again 10 years old, sitting cross-legged on my twin bed, combing a doll's hair. I can smell the jasmine coming through the window on a warm July breeze mixed with the sweet mildew of the swamp cooler. My adult burdens of bills and work and responsibilities are momentarily lifted and I'm offered a sweet respite from being a grown-up.

About a month ago I experienced another one of my all too vivid scent-induced memories. I was in the grocery store, perusing the organic broccoli selection when a middle-aged woman whisked past me with her cart. She was moving so quickly that the hairs that had loosened themselves from my ponytail suddenly blew back where they belonged as a result of this woman's close proximity to me as she raced by. The aroma she left behind her, swirling around me in the produce aisle, jerked me back again to my childhood, to my Grandma's backyard. I was watching her hang clean laundry up to dry and she was in her "uniform," which, if anyone outside of my family saw it, they would say she was wearing a mumu. Grandma made her own "uniforms" for the summer time when it got too hot in the San Fernando Valley to wear clothes. Unfortunately, decency does not allow for the traipsing around of people in their birthday suits, so Grandma donned these beauties to wear around the house during the unbearably hot summer months. Apart from her mumus, she was actually a very fashionable woman and was famous for never leaving the house until she'd "done her face." That phrase used to worry me a little as a small child, but soon I learned that it meant she'd be applying her daily make-up. My sister and cousins and I would sit beside her at her vanity and watch as she drew in her brows, perfectly arched, brushed on black mascara, and applied her bright red-orange lipstick. She was classy. And she always smelled so good. Unlike most people, when she sweat it smelled clean--like soap. The soap smell was so prominent that it was as if she had just stepped out of the shower. It was a strange but beautiful mixture--her clean soapy smell combined with her Listerine mouthwash. That was my Grandma's smell. As far as I know, she didn't wear perfume or lotions--strong smells tended to give her immediate migraine headaches. But she always smelled fresh and clean, even in the sweltering heat. When I was still small enough to get away with it, I would sit on her lap or lean against her and bury my face into her, taking in a deep breath of her smell. I don't know if she ever knew what I was doing, but if she did, she never let on.

And so, when the stranger whisked past me in the grocery store, I stood there stunned, my eyes brimming with tears. She smelled just like my Grandma who has been gone now for nearly 12 years. Sometimes I can't remember what her voice sounds like and it bothers me. But I can always, whenever I think about it, recall what she smelled like, and in that instant, I'm standing with her, face buried in her uniform, arms wrapped round her as she bends down to hug me. And the sun beats down mercilessly upon our heads on that unbearably hot San Fernando Valley afternoon.

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