By Tim Hayes
When I think of my Grandma, I think of the scents she created.
A young bride, married at the age of 15 in 1920, she bore six children, including my mother. Over the course of her life, she made a safe, happy, thriving home for her own offspring, and a source of fun and family and loving memories for her 18 grandchildren, including me and my two sisters.
We had a special advantage, though, since Grandma’s house sat about two and a half blocks from our house. We could pop in there anytime, and frequently did. And over the course of my first 16 years on this earth, those innumerable visits and the smells they implanted in my brain became part of my very core.
Imagine a loaf of fresh, hot, entirely homemade bread coming out of the oven, being sliced with a big serrated knife, slathered in butter and placed before your drooling visage. You think walking past Panera smells good? That’s a joke.
An eight-year-old kid, taking in the full olfactory impact of her bread in that little kitchen? Soft, salty slices with a dusting of flour across the top? Absolute heaven.
Then she’d pull out the grape jelly. No, no, not Welch’s from the grocery store. This was – again – totally homemade jelly made from plump purple grapes grown in an arbor in the backyard. So sweet and delicious, scooped out of Mason jars kept in the fridge. Nothing has come close ever since. I sure was one very lucky boy.
On Sundays, the entire clan would descend on Grandma’s house for a spectacular sumptuous dinner. As aunts, uncles, and cousins kept pouring through her gate, kids running around, dads sitting under the grape arbor sharing a beer, the ladies inside getting the tables ready, Grandma held forth in the kitchen, spatula in hand.
She’d been preparing spaghetti sauce for hours. Made entirely from scratch with a huge chunk of bone-in beef sunk right in the middle of the pot, the aroma of that sauce wafted out to where my cousins and I played, stopping us in our tracks. Rich, red, and ripe, that sauce ran through my veins more prominently than blood. When we got called inside to eat, mounds – and I mean mounds – of spaghetti were piled onto our plates. Those plates only made it to our places at the table, though, after Grandma had doused the noodles with that magical sauce.
And the fact that she ladled that sauce out of her stove-top pot not with a ladle, but with a ceramic coffee cup, somehow made it even more special. She had a way of making even the most routine things different, unique. Something to associate with no one but her.
Like her one-of-a-kind homemade cookies. Little blobs of nirvana, covered in lip-smacking sugary icing. Every part of which she whipped up, baked in her oven of wonderment, and served in a seemingly unending supply – and the recipe existing only in her head and her hands. Wizardry in action. And we couldn’t get enough.
Other scents that come immediately to mind from Grandma’s include the smell of pine needles from the two giant trees that stood in the front yard – one of which eventually became the official Christmas Tree in our little town’s business district one holiday season.
With nearly unlimited access to her house, I discovered the stashes of penny candy hidden in various spots – to the point where I could literally sniff them out. I also had nearly open access to cases of Regent soda pop in her basement, too. Cherry, orange, cream soda, root beer – whether chilled in her downstairs fridge, or room temperature straight out of the wooden case – sucking down those little intoxicatingly aromatic glass bottles of carbonated sugar water, I certainly was a very lucky boy.
Grandma had a fig tree in her backyard, too. Plucking a fresh fig from a branch, sniffing its unique scent, and munching away at it is a memory I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to recreate. When it became my job to cut her grass, the smell of those fresh clippings filled my senses in a special way, as well.
And you know, it’s funny. Even the unmistakable odor of moth balls from when she pulled her winter coat out of storage, then climbed into the back seat of our car as we picked her up for Sunday Mass, I recall with sentiment and love.
But the best, most powerful, most memorable, most treasured scent of all? Remembering when Grandma would just reach out and take you into her arms, tell you she loved you, hugging you against her well-worn housecoat, a soft and slightly tattered old smock that contained all of those wonderful smells.
Bread, jelly, spaghetti sauce, candy, coffee, those little magical cookies, and herself. It was all there, filling not just my nose, but my mind, with images and pictures and stories that can be conjured up with alarming specificity, more than 40 years after she passed away.
Her daughter, my mother, has carried many of those traditions on in the years since with her children and their children. It all circles back to family and bonds and a mother’s love.
All I can say is, for my entire life and forevermore, thanks to those two remarkable ladies, I am one very lucky boy.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Copyright 2020 Timothy P. Hayes