Thursday, May 06, 2010


In exile in the North American Midwest I am robbed of the essential smells that gave me shelter as a child. Surely there are memories made up of images and memories made up of songs and memories made up of stories remembered as you lay in bed on the cusp of sleep. There are memories that flood the brain from tastes and those that rise out of textures that have soothed or scratched. So the right kind of mashed potatoes can make me feel truly warmed on a cold night, and black pudding is all about my father, and there is a certain spin of wool, that which matches the Hudson's Bay Blankets that kept the night air off our child bodies, that instantly makes me tired. But I can not find the smells.

Lake Michigan is beautiful and wondrous, but it does not smell like big water to me. There is no salt in that breeze to fill the nostrils. There is no gently rotting mix of seaweed and fish either. The scent of the truly far away does not hang there, in any version, not the slightly sour scent of the Foyle, or the cold briskness of the Donegal beaches, or the sharp notes of the salt-water marshes that define the archipelago that is New York City.

And the smell of wood burning in iron stoves is great on a cold afternoon. That is redolent of the pioneers carving their paths through the vast continental forests and of the kind of nineteenth century Americana so often depicted on Christmas cards. But it is not my odor. More than anything I miss the clinging aroma of peat burning on the grate. What could define an impoverished history more than the need to burn what is really just the earth itself? Peat doesn't truly burn anyway. It smolders and smokes and the scent covers you and wraps you. And when I smell it now, on that first night back each trip, in the pub or as I walk down a residential street, a brief reverie built on a thin trail of smoke, it ignites precious corners of my brain. The house on St. Patrick Street springs into ethereal life, with ma, the aunts, the uncles, my cousins and me running in and out, the sisters laughing, my brother learning to be the adult he would barely get to be. I can touch the hard stone of the streets climbing the hills, and the old wallpaper and the cold wood floor, and the deeply worn polish of the handrail on the stair, and the rough strength of my father's hand.

(c) copyright 2007-2010 by Ira Socol

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