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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Potent Wizard

Recently, I picked up a leather purse and the fragrant leather reminded me of my dad. He had great respect for good leather and took exquisite care of his leather baseball shoes and gloves. I remember him sitting on the back porch working on them while my brothers worked on their baseball gloves. I believe they rubbed oil into the gloves to make them softer, but I’m not sure on that.
 When I was a young mother, kid gloves had come back into fashion. I had a collection I’d carefully gathered: black kid long plus shorty gloves, also white kid were elegant. I still keep them in my top drawer and sniff them from time to time!
 It’s fascinating that the sense of smell is directly linked to our brain and memories from the past. Here is more on that:  Despite the tight wiring, however, smells would not trigger memories if it weren't for conditioned responses. When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory -- associating the smell of chlorine with summers at the pool or lilies with a funeral.
 When I smell things that recall my childhood, like leather or coffee, I have a sense of well-being.
 My mother perked coffee on top of her gas range, in a Pyrex coffee maker. Once in a while, she’d use her big electric percolator, when she served a crowd.  Either way, the fragrance of that coffee was heavenly, long before I even drank coffee.
 One of the year’s best smells was Thanksgiving dinner. Early in the day, Mother always simmered the chopped celery and onions in a little broth, before adding it to the cornbread dressing.  Of course, the huge turkey would already be baking. Now that’s how Thanksgiving dinner is supposed to smell!
 During my college years, I had a date every Thanksgiving with the same guy. Thinking back, I see the reason for the pattern.  We always had homemade pumpkin pie, and often one of Mother’s delicious three layer cakes. I don’t think he was all that crazy about me, but he loved my mother’s cooking!
 On the big dinner days, Dad was always in the kitchen with Mother. They made a great team. They never owned an automatic dishwasher so he stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes and pots as she prepared the food. He used to laugh and say he tried to keep ahead of her, otherwise the kitchen would be a disaster area. Her fried chicken was the world’s best, and I could identify our dinner from the fragrances coming from the kitchen. She cooked the chicken in those big, heavy iron skillets so of course Dad was needed to clean them.
 I used to love nothing better than to find honeysuckle in bloom. While walking around outdoors, its scent was delightful. I would break off the bloom and suck the “honey” out of it, just a teeny, sweet droplet. I tried this not long ago when I found honeysuckle growing in my neighbor’s hedge but it had no flavor at all…sigh…….
 My Tony did not want to have his dinner the very minute he came home from work. He wanted time to change clothes and unwind a bit. In warm weather, he usually walked out to the dock and after we moved back to Augusta, he often swam in our pool. However, he needed reassurance that he was going to be fed. He would get very upset with me if he walked in the house and didn’t smell food cooking. I finally figured out that if there was something cooking, he was fine. So if we were having anything with onions, peppers etc, I made sure to saute them a little to get the old scent going. I have been known to throw some cinnamon and cloves into a pot of water and simmer that a few minutes before he got home. I used to make a lot of homemade applesauce, so the spices were not so far fetched.
 In one of her columns, Erma Bombeck said she just dabbed some vanilla flavoring behind her ears when she heard her husband come through the door.
 Walking outside on a cool fall evening with the smell of a wood fire in the area is comforting to me. Our big gas grill that came with the house when we bought it is really convenient and we use it a lot. But it can never compete with a charcoal fire, no way. Alesia and Michael also love the smell of a wood fire.
 A neighbor, in Tennessee, had an adorable basset hound. Who knew that he had figured out the relationship between a fire in the grill – and something good to eat?! One Saturday evening while sitting out on their patio having a beer, Herman came strolling up with a huge, thick steak he had removed from someone’s grill.
 Driving across the causeway or bridge to one of the Georgia or South Carolina barrier islands, the smell of the marshes and later the sea is always soothing to me. I can actually breathe deeply and totally relax once again. Conversely, I feel the same way while in the Smoky Mountains. No smell of the sea, of course, but the clean fresh air of the mountains. Hmmmn, perhaps that’s the heritage of a Cherokee Great-grandmother. I don’t have to go far for those smells, either. A lovely thing about my state is that Georgia has mountains, plains, and beautiful coast.
 Have you ever picked fresh tomatoes right off the vine? The scent of the tomato leaves smells fresh and clean to me, also the scent of very fresh corn on the cob. My dad and I liked to cook fresh tomatoes, okra, and corn just cut off the cob, all together just til tender. Some folks call it soup mix etc. but we just called it corn, okra, and tomatoes. So good!
 Dee and I agree that the fresh smell of rain on sun-warmed sidewalks, in the city, is a smell we love. When I was young and dating a lot, I often walked down Peachtree Street, after a movie, in the evening, with my sandals in hand. Quite often, the fireman would open a hydrant to wash the sidewalks and the clean, cool water on the pavement felt so good to bare feet and smelled so good!
 I’ve left until last two of the loveliest fragrances. One is the lemony, sweet Magnolia blossoms. One doesn’t want to stick one’s nose into the blossom, however, because one is likely to snort a couple of ants - best to love it from a distance, like some people we know.
 The other is my all time favorite - gardenias. They were the only flowers used in my wedding and I think I’ve planted them everywhere we’ve lived, tho’ the climate was nearly too cold in Tennessee. They thrive here so we have six healthy bushes.
 I leave you with this quote from the remarkable Helen Keller:
Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived. 

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Size of the Heart

A few days ago, I received an interesting email about a study in animal behavior. An African Leopard was fed a morsel of meat which landed on the floor of the cage. Immediately, a tiny, furry, gray mouse appeared and began to munch on the meat. The leopard observed this, and other than giving the mouse a couple of gentle nudges, allowed the tiny fellow to finish his meal. I do so wish there had been a follow up story. Did they become friends? Did the mouse come back for each feeding? Did the leopard finally eat the mouse after he was fattened up? The relationship between the animals was fascinating to me – such a big cat and a tiny mouse.

I am wondering if my angel dad was lurking, with his size 13-D shoe on the tail of that leopard. [Angels do wear shoes, don’t they? Somehow I can’t see Dad flying around in the clouds with bare feet.] Over the years, growing up and beyond, my dad often said that it was important for big folks to take care of little folks.  He was the prime example of that rule. He did lots for my mother that she could have done for herself and did do when he was not around. However, it would probably have taken her longer or been much more difficult for her. Dad was an exceedingly strong, athletic six foot four inch man while Mother was just under five feet tall. She was a good tennis player when she was young but we never thought of her as being athletic. She was strong mentally, had great faith, but that didn’t mean she could lift the heavy, baked turkey from the low oven, or even hang heavy, wet sheets on the clothesline. [They finally had to get all the linens done at the laundry. When I was young, the laundry man came to the door and picked up the dirty laundry. Then he returned it all clean and ironed, a few days later.]

Now in the case of animals, I don’t believe that rule applies. I read somewhere that dogs have no sense of relative size. So the old saying that it’s not the size of the dog in the fight that matters … but the size of the fight in the dog .. may well be true.

One year, when we lived out on Melton Hill Lake, between Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Knoxville, I awoke to a dark, snowy, cold day. Tony was away on a business trip, Dee was not yet home from UGA for Christmas Holidays, and most depressing of all, Bruce was stationed at Fort Hood, Texas and would not get home for the holidays.  Recently, our old Basset Hound had died. We were down to two dogs, a big, German Shephard mix and a Doberman mix. Though both were exceptionally gentle with the family, they could be fierce. I am not a person who mopes so I started checking the Classifieds in the newspaper for pets for sale. Dee came home that afternoon and the next morning, I woke her with the news that we were driving to Gatlinburg that day. We needed an early start for the one hour plus trip because the weather was supposed to turn even worse. When we got there, we had a short, lovely lunch among all the holiday decorations, surrounded by the beautifully Smoky Mountains. I do love that area.

After lunch, we finally found a house up the low side of the mountain. A man was there whom I had spoken to earlier that morning. He showed us to a heated garage room and there we met an absolutely, adorable litter of Basset hound pups. I asked if there was a runt and there was, a tiny female. The man was so surprised when I said that’s the one we want. Her brothers were a darling, rowdy crew, very young but so cute.

After all her papers were collected and money paid, we started home with our new baby. When we got to Knoxville, I drove straight to our vets office, owned by twin brother vets,  - fine doctors as well as friends. They were closing when we arrived, but opened back up for us. I did not want to introduce any ailments, worms etc. to my big dogs at home. By the time they checked her over, ran the tests etc, it was black dark and snowing hard. As we were leaving, the guys said, ”Uh, Elva, you do understand that this two pound bundle will be running your household very shortly, especially the big dogs.”  She was our third lady Basset so I did know, actually.

Molly did not just “run” just the big dogs, she ran all of us for the next 14 years. We always chose a female runt because they are smaller as adults and ………. It is just easier to rub the tummy of a female?!! My point is that Smoky Mountain Lady Molly McMillan, though the smallest member of our household, pretty much had her rules and we obeyed. She was the boss, even at 6-8 weeks old and the big dogs obeyed. The few times I had to leave her at the vets’ office, she was never put into a cage. She needed to be free to supervise the troops.

Miss Coco is the current reigning Queen in our household, and we all adore her. She is a fierce guard dog, and an amusing and amiable companion.

Whether you’re a big person or a small one, it doesn’t matter. It’s the size of your heart that counts.

[below, my parents and my children]