StoryWorth – Sounds and Smells and Sensations from Childhood
This post will include some things I have described before, but the memories trigger one another and these have remained imprinted on my memory for most of my life. They are memories of sensations, sounds and smells and sights from early years.
From other posts, it is apparent that the swamp that lay about a block and a half from my house growing up was my bit of Eden. It was not only the look of the cattails that fills my memory of that place. The plants stood tall in the water. The Cattails had a texture like suede that was smooth and firm but gave way a bit to the press of a finger. When fully grown, the press of that finger would trigger an explosion of fluff. Each bit of fluff carried a seed. It felt like the goose down in an old feather bed. The water in that swamp was crystal clear, so the black water bugs beneath the surface were entirely visible. They were huge. They had two perfectly shaped oars, one on each side, gliding this way and that in a smooth, gentle motion, a bit faster, then slower as they reset the oars. There were, of course, the brown spider-like much smaller water bugs darting around on the surface, going nowhere in particular, but getting there with short sprints.
The tadpoles were a marvel, almost impossible to catch. They were so slick and wiggly. On rare occasions one already had back legs forming. Of course their parents, aunts and uncles added to the soundscape. There were small squeaky frog sounds and the deep bass croak of the huge bullfrogs, although they were mostly heard and not seen. Ah, the dragonflies. They were so beautiful, some large and elegant, most full of color, all with with lacy wings. Many had what I remember looking like perfectly square black flags painted on their wings.
The country club was next door to the swamp. There were Osage orange trees along the fence, covering the ground with their fruit. There were times hunting night crawlers at dusk when the greens and fairways had been watered. I remember the feel of their sticky bodies as I grabbed them while they were stuck together, unable to move fast enough to pull themselves back into their holes. Yes, I knew what they were doing. I took them to the compost heap in our back yard where they could feast on leftover coffee grounds and continue their hermaphroditic dalliances.
Some of the sounds of childhood that still trigger feelings of peace and security and calm came from human inventions. The train whistle during the night from the tracks across a huge cornfield lulled me to sleep at night, quieted by the distance it traveled to reach me. On summer mornings, lying in bed far too late for any but the laziest of children, the sound of Mom’s vacuum downstairs was for me a contemplative’s chanting an Om. The rustle of the leaves on the branches of the large Dutch Elms that surrounded the house on two sides (it was a corner lot) came through the open windows beside my bed, carried on the gentlest of breezes brushing against the fine hair on my young arms.
When the leaves from those trees fell into the yard we raked them into piles. After some running through them, jumping into them, and raking again to undo what I had just done (my Sibs were already gone from the house), the leaves were deposited in the long grass valley between the trees and the street to be burned. The smell of burning leaves remains utterly intoxicating. In these days of well-placed concern for air quality, that smell is a rare treat. Just of whiff of it immediately takes me back to the idyllic times in the Falls of my youth.
In the early summer clinging to the trunks of those trees were numbers of amber colored exoskeletons of Cicada’s that had served as a chrysalis while the adult Cicada formed inside. I can remember the crisp feel of those shells as I tugged them off the tree to add to that year’s collection. Then there were the adult Cicadas whose drone could make an ear hurt if it was too close. When the chorus was winding up to full volume, there was no point in trying to talk.
All year round, the vacant lot next door was filled with weeds, only named so because someone decided that’s what they should be called. They were teaming with life. Bugs and caterpillars and butterflies and moths hung out or scurried along all day long every day. Shoots came up through the brown leftovers of fall that chilled under the snow during the winter. Stems grew and leaves unfolded, buds formed and opened to reveal natural beauty, colors and shapes in no way ordered by human contrivance or by human hands. I loved the feel of the weeds on my legs as I walked through them. The caterpillars were a marvel, some furry, some brightly colored, some huge, some very tiny. The milkweed plants drew Monarch Butterfly caterpillars with black and yellow and white stripes circling their chubby bodies. The milkweed pods would also break open and let fly seeds feathered to catch the wind and find places to sprout, grow, and then feed the next generation of Monarch caterpillars. There were grasshoppers and walking sticks and praying mantis and ants. I loved the ants, busily running in and out of the little sandy mound entrances to their underground cities, sometimes carrying bits and pieces that were bigger and heavier than they.
We had a large screened-in porch across the front of the house. Sitting there during a gentle rain brought feelings of euphoria. The smell of the rain and the air afterward was healing. In my earliest years I was scared of loud thunder and nearby bright lightning flashes. Later I grew to love even them, but always the rumble of thunder in the distance was calming. I remember sleeping on that porch some summer nights. There was the sound of Dad’s loud snoring coming out of his bedroom window on to the porch. That was not one of the wonderful sounds of childhood, but both Mom and Dad’s snoring became a sound of security, a sound of home. Mostly, the night sounds, tree frogs and crickets provided the music of nature.
Of course the sounds of the Robins and Cardinals and Blackbirds and chirping sparrows filled the air during the days. The sound of a Red-winged Blackbird still thrills me. I can feel the thrill I experience when I hear it. They sang constantly all the while I was playing at the swamp. I also savored the sounds of silence. Resting on the neighbor’s back yard terrace, I settled into a contemplative mode before I knew what it was. Mesmerized by the clouds, I could lie there for hours. I can still picture those very puffy white clouds and the patches of iridescent blue sky in between. The feel of the grass as I lay back and settled in was among the nurturing sensations.
Dad took us for a drive pretty much every summer Sunday, looking for property in the country to buy. His farm roots remained his ground of being. He showed me how to distinguish between wheat and oats and Timothy grass as we passed by the fields. He taught me to identify the smell of pig manure in contrast to cattle manure as we drove along the country blacktop roads. There was Sumac to be spotted, Queen Ann’s lace, and various fall flowers to simply notice. The smell of a freshly mown field of hay was bright and spicy.
There was the smell of cigarettes since Dad smoked three packs a day in my early years. During those years I remember the sound of his spitting out what had gathered in his throat. Gratefully, he quit cold turkey around the time I was ten years old. The smell of cigarettes and the sound of the spitting ceased.
Lest this end with those less than pleasant smells and sounds, the kitchen was a source of wonderful scents. Daily the smell of cooking bacon and toasting bread filled the downstairs. The fare was simple and as a consequence simply good. The smell of a pork roast wafted from the kitchen often. The smells of bone-in beef arm roasts with potatoes and carrots and onions in the oven, homemade gravy on the stove, always using potato water or vegetable water and corn starch to thicken the meat juices filled crater formed in the ubiquitous mashed potatoes, stirred anticipation. Those smells are the smells of my youth. They led to the tastes of my youth.
I make no apology for the length of this post. I have written it for the pure joy to be found in the writing and the and reliving of those times.