“The Smells of Home” * Memoir * Kate Chamberlin

I remember a beautiful old Victorian home in Wellsville that yowled “Cats!” even as you stepped onto the wide front porch. Here in Walworth, one of my friend’s home smells of candles and paint; another like the farm; and another actually has no smell at all.

As I walk through my home, I can smell which room I’m passing – especially on a hot, humid day. You’ve heard of being led by the nose? Well, the nose knows.

In the kitchen, we have a variety of fragrances. The kitchen smells will depend on the time of day and what food is being prepared. It might be grape jam in the fall, strawberries in the spring and bread baking any time of the year. Quite possibly there will be a strong smell of Clorox, as that is what I clean up with when all the dishes are in the washer, the left-overs are in the fridge and the garbage has been taken out.

Before looping into the living room, the kitchen blends into an area where an old paymaster’s desk sits. Somewhere along the desk, a faint odor of dead mouse emanates from behind the wall. It happens each spring and fall. We’re not sure how they come in nor how to get them out.

As we pass the porch, a waft of Hosta lily, cedar chips and damp cement come in. My guide dog, a friendly Black Lab, is always more attentive to sniffing the porch rug on humid days. It is a very old rug and the dampness seems to bring out new smells for her to investigate.

The dining room gets a lot of sun and usually smells of dry dust and sun-bleached shears near the picture window and furniture polish nearer to the stairs. Opening the door at the top of the stairs to the air-conditioned bedroom level, I’m reminded of a big hotel. It has a “closed” smell to it.

Our bedroom air varies, depending on the time of day, from a hot, soapy shower and my husband’s shaving stuff smells to fresh laundry to fold and, if the window is open, garden fragrances of freshly cut grass and pool water.

As we pass the spiral stairs on spring nights, we smell the Hoya blossom. My very old Hoya Carnosa is a potted vine sitting in the bottom rung of a three-rung bamboo hanger. The vine twines up, through, and around to support thick, fleshy leaves. The blossoms are waxy succulents that release their cloying, sweet fragrance only at night.

Just opposite the spiral stairs, is our one-year old’s room. Unfortunately, it’s apt to smell of dirty diapers waiting to be taken out to the dumpster. At other times, fresh air blows in from his open window.

The laundry room can smell hot from the dryer, soapy from the laundry detergent and, “Pewwie!” from the laundry waiting to be washed.

My study has a “plastic” smell from the computer, mixed with the smell of books and boxes of computer paper.

The front guest room still has the faint smell of new drapes, fresh wood, and new paint.

Passing the front bathroom in the morning is nice because the fragrant shower gel our daughter uses lingers in the air. Later in the afternoon, it smells like the lemon cleaner I use to keep the room fresh and clean for guests and our little one’s evening bath.

My favorite place to stand and sniff is at the top of the family room stairs. It reminds me of my grandmother’s home: Old wood that has been lovingly polished over many years, an old piano where children and adults have shared fun times and the acrid odor from the old wood stove. Yes, yes, there’s even the musty, mold spores from the rug and stuffed chairs.

One hot, summer day, When we returned home from grocery shopping, I opened our back door and stepped into the kitchen. An invisible wall made me gasp and take a step back. The odor was over-whelming.

Our two teenage sons had been shooting hoops with two teenage friends when my husband and I left on our shopping trip. During that time, the boys got hot and went into the house for cool drinks of water. Then, they decided to go downstairs to play computer games. Their hot, sweaty teenage odors had filled our home like foam insulation sprayed into the closed house.

I remembered stepping into other people’s homes, subconsciously making an initial nasal appraisal. My best friend’s home usually smells of cinnamon raisin muffins baking in the oven, a snack we’d eventually sample. Someone else’s home smelled of a cat’s litter box; another like wet dog fur, and a third, very old home was rife with mold, mildew, and dry rot.

Except for this morning, I’d like to think the initial fragrance a guest would detect in my home would be Tide laundry detergent and Downy fabric softener on laundry days or Lavender sol and Lemon Pledge on a house cleaning day or just fresh air wafting through the open windows.

On this particular day, my husband started putting away the groceries as I went to check on the boys. My nose led me down the stairs to the computer room, where I dare not enter. I mentioned that now that we were home to provide life guarding supervision, wouldn’t they all like to go swimming?

My husband went out with the boys to open the pool and supervise their joyous whoops, crazy dives, and the silly game of Marco Polo. I opened the windows and grabbed the Lemon Pledge.

My favorite time to smell my home is when I come down to a breakfast my husband has made. There is nothing better than the smell of fresh, hot coffee and crunchy cinnamon swirl toast in the morning.

Oh, Dear Gussie!* When I step into my house after visiting friends and take a whiff, it smells like, well, it smells like home.

*Editor’s note: Having never heard this expression before, I asked Kate about it to which she responded: “*”Oh, Dear Gussie!” Is a phrase I’ve used for decades in my newspaper column. When people saw that in my column, they knew there was a punch-line and the article was safe for all ages.” You can read more examples of the colloquialism in action on Kate’s blog.

—About Kate Chamberlin—

Kathryn (Kate) Chamberlin is a current member of the Wayne Writer’s Guild, Visionary support group, free-lance writer/editor, Accessibility Ambassadress to the Memorial Art Gallery (Rochester, NY); former Anglican educator; newspaper columnist for 15 years, Clerk of the Holy Cross Vestry for ten years, and Chapter Recording Secretary of the Daughters of the American Revolution for 9 years. She and her husband are now empty-nest great-grandparents and enjoy having lunch out, country walks during the good weather, and mall cruising during the inclement weather.