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Published on September 2nd, 2011 | by Lady Quebeaum


What Does Your Childhood Smell Like?

The Tiger Balm patch was hidden under my work blouse. I threw breakfast on the table and instructed my son to get his lunch out of the fridge and put it in his backpack. As we jostled around each other in the kitchen, he said, “You really smell like our house today.”

My childhood smelled like turpentine. My mother is an artist and there was always the astringent scent of turpentine and coffee in our dining room, which for years doubled as my mother’s studio. This scent is imprinted in my brain forever as “home” and “comfort” and “love” and “work.” It was even faintly in our laundry. It is a smell that means to me that mothers work, nothing is nine-to-five, and rooms are multi-purpose.

As we embark on our own grown-up lives, are we aware that we are building this place in a kid’s subconscious? Sure, when our kids are not much more than blobs in blankets, we wax poetic about how we want to make them memories that they cherish. Those of us that play derby may even talk about lessons in empowerment via our involvement, but memories are made from the mundane. The blur of day-to-day living contains what really sticks.

This boy is not little anymore. A great number of his formative memories have been solidified by now. The majority of his life has been lived with a woman wearing analgesic sports rub who leaves numbered and patched polyester laundry hanging over the shower that’s always in his way in the morning. There is gear drying on the floor by the radiator near the kitchen, usually, and she always seems to have a rash on that one elbow, visible as she tries to brush his hair as he picks at breakfast, since it’s the only time he holds still, even though he is more than old enough to do it himself. He gets leftover packets of airplane snacks included in his lunch box fairly often, and when he can’t find a helmet for the skatepark or a bike ride, he knows there’s always a spare or two on the coat rack. That’s where we keep all the helmets in the house, and there are a lot of them. And everything always smells faintly of Tiger Balm.

This thing we built out of love and thin air has been normalized in at least one little boy’s mind as what home is. The menthol, camphor, cloves and Frito smell of gear laid out to dry, this is what I gave my son, so that when he leans in and catches the scent of the patch wafting out of my clothes, he feels like he’s home. I didn’t really know it until he said so.

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