August has always been a time for travel in my family.
But right now, traveling isn’t possible for me. So I’m traveling in the only way I can — down Memory Lane.
For instance, I’m remembering my family’s summer car-trips to New York when I was a child to visit my mom’s parents in Brooklyn.
Every trip began with my father making a pilgrimage to our local Jewish deli. His mission? Acquiring enough meat, bread and condiments to provision the daylong journey of a family of five. I always tagged along, following him around the deli and holding the bag in my lap on the way home so I could inhale the intoxicating aroma of dill pickles, corned beef, and fresh-baked onion rolls and rye bread.
Dad always put himself in charge of the sandwich making. This was probably so he could ensure that one set of sandwiches, at least, had a sufficient amount of mustard (i.e., an amount my mother could never bring herself to believe was healthy). These he marked with a giant “M,” scratched with difficulty into the waxed paper they were wrapped in. This always confused me. Maybe it stood for “Mustard,” but couldn’t it just as easily have stood for “Mom?” Yet somehow miraculously we all survived.
When we got a little older, my parents bought a station wagon, and my two brothers and I fought to take turns stretched out in the “All-The-Way Back.” (It was deemed only big enough for two of us at a time.) My parents had furnished it with leftover cushions from an old sofa that had otherwise disappeared. I still remember my joy at being able to bury my face in those cushions which, now that I think of it, smelled of nothing so much as dust. Sun-baked dust!
There were many memorable aromas once we got to Brooklyn, from stuffed cabbage (yum!) to Grandma’s special chicken (double yum!) to her butter cookies, which I’ve never been able to duplicate. But the highlight of every summer was always the trip to Coney Island.
It’s weird what you remember from your childhood. I remember the smell of wet sand, of course, and the briny tang of the ocean breeze, plus the distinctive perfume of Coppertone sunscreen — or as we called it then “suntan lotion.”
There was one other ingredient in those memories that I didn’t realize belonged to them until something reminded me of it years later: the smell of wet cigarette butts stubbed out in the sand. Of course, back then there was no such thing as a “smoking section” (or a non-smoking section either, for that matter), so the entire beach was the smoking section… and the ashtray.
That’s one aroma from my childhood that I’m happy to do without.
But the power of scent is such that it instantly takes you somewhere, even before you know why or realize you’ve smelled it at all. And the scent needn’t always be pretty.
I remember reading a newspaper story a few years ago about a woman who commissioned a perfume-creator to concoct for her a personalized scent. (And if you have to ask “What does that cost?” then you can’t afford it.)
She made him go with her as she opened up her vacation house for the summer, because she hoped he’d be able to capture its scent even though she couldn’t put a name to it. “It isn’t everyone who feels joy at the smell of mildew,” he said later about the trip. “But she insisted that to her it always meant ‘freedom.’ ”
Better than anything else at Coney Island, of course, were French fries … and Nathan’s hot dogs! There is still nothing like a day at the beach for working up a healthy appetite, and hot dogs at the beach just taste better than anything anywhere else on the globe.
Back home again, summer meant mornings at swim team practice, followed by afternoons watering Dad’s tomato plants and then a nap in the sun, lost in the mingled aromas of tomato plants, marigold flowers, and a bathing-suit’s-worth of chlorine (so full of chlorine I’d smell it again as I rinsed it out at the end of each day).
Thanks to those summers, I got so used to the smell of chlorine that even now I greet it as an old friend.
If I were designing my own summer fragrance, I’d include: hot dogs, crushed marigolds, suntan lotion, seaweed… and just a hint of chlorine bleach!