Wednesday, November 09, 2011

1980 Smelled Like Sunshine

You know how there are certain scents that can take you back?  Like the smell of Coppertone and Banana Boat in the summertime, or the smell of a thunderstorm, or ginger bread cookies at Christmas? Well, I caught a whiff of nostalgia earlier today. Oh boy, did I ever.

Granted, what with all the stuff that has befallen our family in the past year (2011 has been an ill-contented bitch to say the least), it's not a stretch of the imagination that I've been feeling a big nostalgic about the past, but wow...just wow... I was kicked back 31 years in an instant.

I can't remember a smell ever affecting me this strongly. I was walking through the hall this morning and smelled it for the briefest instant. Hello Sunshine perfume by Avon. It seemed so clear to my nose... I recognized it immediately, which is amazing, since I haven't smelled that perfume in years. It struck me as completely odd. Familiar, yet out of place. I stood there, confused, breathing it in, and my mind was racing - where could it be coming from? I didn't have an answer. I still don't. But I was suddenly struck with the vibrant memory of holding the perfume bottle in my hands. It had a yellow cap on top. The bottle was clear with a cute, summery print that wrapped around the bottle.

Once that one memory jarred the door loose, it let in a barrage of other memories behind it, a flood of stuff I haven't thought about since I was a little girl.

Like that yellow, apron-style dolly dress with a tiny rosette applique I used to swap from doll to doll. It was my favorite. The teddy bear with the yellow, zippered, removable fur. And again that perfume...The smell of Hello Sunshine had seeped into my old Holly Hobby jewelry box from the 70s, and back then, all I had to do was open the lid, and the scent came drifting out. A daisy chain formed. The jewelry box had me thinking about the toy box my dad built for me. It fit in the corner of my bedroom when we lived in Crossroads, a huge wooden trunk by the bed. I loved the box, but not that room. The look of melting, haunted faces glowered at me from the paneling. I used to tack up posters of kittens and magazine pop stars to hide the frightening ugliness. In that corner, there was also my collection of stuffed animals that I kept for many years. In particular, a well loved raccoon hand puppet I'd had since I was 3. I miss that thing even now. And the gold and orange floral wall paper in my en suite bathroom. I can still recall the way the light above the sink looked so yellowy when I was scared and left it on at night to keep the shadows away.

I swear the memories just kept pouring out after that... Little things that turned into bigger things. Full scenes I'd almost entirely forgotten. Like the green shag carpeting that smelled like lavender vacuum powder. We had that carpeting around the time our beagle Penny died. I barely remember what she looked like, but I still remember the musty scene of her fur. That old, loved doggy smell. Penny was quiet old when she passed away with canine leukemia. It was storming the night she died, and I remember Dad's glassy-eyed tears when he broke the news. He had to dig a hole for her in the back yard in the rain. Sad and afraid, I sat trembling on the couch with mom. I was too shocked to cry. I sat numb in the dark living room, in the presence of my mom, grandma, and grandpa. They'd turned on cartoons to get my mind off of it. The Popeye Valentine special was on TV that night. And Peanuts. I distinctly remember the Dolly Madison cake commercials had Charlie Brown in them. It's all a vivid blur.

Hugging mom made me remember the silky feel of this seemingly fragile, striped polyester shirt she wore in the late 70s. She always paired a small gold pendant with it: a simple gold coin with a scrolly, engraved "L". I haven't seen that necklace since probably 1985. The shirt, she had that before we moved to the apartment. We didn't live there long. I was quiet young, but I remember dad teasing me after work one night. He brought home a coke bottle radio that I thought I could drink. He also brought home a dark green balloon with the word LOVE printed in 70s stylized letters. I remember it drifting up to the silver flecked "popcorn" ceiling in our living room in Newton. Dad paid a dollar for it at the mall in Dallas. I loved that it could float upward without a breeze. That was absolutely amazing to me. Just let go of the string, and it went clear to the ceiling. It was Christmas Eve when he bought that balloon, and we had gotten home very late, around midnight or so. I imagine my parents were exhausted, because they told me Santa came early, and let me open my presents before bed: a Baby Alive doll, a box of play dishes, and a tin litho stove and sink set. They let me play with it for a little while, then convinced me we had to all go to bed. Those are the few memories I have of that place. That, and the steps out front. In my mind's eye, I picture the way my parents looked back then, so young, but then I was young, too, so I didn't see it.

Other things I remember...passing glimpses... I had a cache of toys shoved under my bed to keep from picking them up. I'm pretty sure my mother knew. My first grade backpack: a messenger bag that looked like an open box of crayons. I would hold it in my lap on the bus and chew on the strap when I got nervous riding the bus home. I didn't like the bus, it was noisy, loud, and I didn't know anyone.

Once, at that very apartment, the one in Newton, I stepped on a straight pin that somehow got lodged in the gold shag carpeting in my parent's bedroom. I screeched like a howler monkey when it happened, and my mom came running, only to make this sound of exasperation when she saw the problem. A pin in my toe, instead of me lying on the floor in a heap of broken bones. I'm sure she was relieved. But still she had to wrangle me under her arm just to be able to look at my toe and the pin. I struggled so hard she called me by my first and middle name, which meant she was dead serious. She told me to be still. And so I was...for barely a minute. But then, she was quick, and plucked it out. Just like that. A thorn pulled from a lion's paw. And I was stunned to see the bright red drop of blood that appeared on the end of my toe. She went right into the bathroom and grabbed down a tin, came back, and covered the blot with a band aid that I refused to stop picking at, because, the end of your toe is an odd, uncomfortable place to wear a band aid.

In the evenings after Dad came home from work, he would bouncing me on his knee while listening to It's Okay, by the Beach Boys. He did that until I got too big. Now, Mini sits and bounces on his knee. Seeing that always makes me happy. Those were sweet days of my childhood. I miss those times. I want it to be okay. I do. And then it is. I remember that one clear day...such a perfectly formed memory, of  my mom driving us home in the old Cutlass. It was a sunny afternoon. The car was avocado green, and had bench seats, and no air conditioning. We lived in Granbury, Texas at the time, and that afternoon, we were coming back from what seems like nowhere.

We rode with the windows down that day - the air was nice and not too hot for once. I was sitting on the front passenger's side of the seat and rode without a seat belt. No one really worried about that sort of thing back then, and I distinctly remember holding a boxed, Lime Chiffon doll with Parfait parrot in my hands. I was fascinated with the doll's green hair and dress. Green was my favorite color back then, and  probably still is. I vividly remember itching to open that box, but knowing I had to wait because I would need help getting the ties off the cardboard insert.

Amazing how that one scent made me think about all those things, but there it is. The memories poured out of me so quickly my skin prickled and for a moment I stood staring at the bathroom door, caught up in a profound sense of Deja vu. Then the scent was gone. Poof. I can't imagine where it came from. For ten full minutes I wandered up and down the hallway in my house, trying to find the scent again, but I couldn't.

The rest of the afternoon, my brain kept turning those thoughts over and over. Recounting those memories made me think of other memories. And other familiar scents, too. Such as the perfume my mother used to wear in the late 70s, and early 80s. Very clean and just a hint of fragrance. I didn't realize until tonight that scent wasn't perfume, per say, it was her makeup. I don't know why that is so important to me suddenly, but it is. Maybelline pressed powder, a dab of nude lipstick, and a pat of hair spray. Literally, a pat. Instead of spraying the hairspray directly on her hair, mom would spray it into the palm of her hand and pat it over her hair. I haven't thought about that in years, and it made me cry a little to be able to sum up that telling action so succinctly, to know and remember that so well. The scent that is her is a nostalgia of its own. I have probably always thought of that makeup smell as part of her essence. It is the smell in her house to this very day, and when I breathe it in, it fills me with comfort.

I don't know why I chose to write all this down, but then I guess I needed to. For me. It has been a hard year for our family. We've been dealt a lot of loss.

Time goes by so quickly, and there are so many little things we tend to forget because we are so busy, forever changing, always growing, and whether we realize it or not, moving forward. Our lives are dramatically different from what they were in what I think of as our glory days. I doubt my parents realize I remember that much elusive detail, but I do. Great times. It's all buried in there somewhere, in my head, waiting for a whiff of something sentimental to draw it out.

I don't want to live in the past, but I don't want to forget anything either. While cooking supper the other day, I was telling my husband, that gradually, one by one, the older generation is not only leaving us, they're putting us in charge of the family line. After hearing of my Uncle George's death earlier this week, I know this is true. It scares me sometimes, even though I know it's natural and inevitable for us all. I'm the age now my mother was in my happiest memories. Thirty-six. Mini is the same age I was then. So it begins again. A cycle I'm allowed to live again. I'm so blessed. And I hope one day Mini has little snippets of memories that come drifting in when he's grown. I hope the same for Oldest, too. I hope those memories give them comfort when the family widens and shifts again.

So that's my waffle for the day. Nothing serious. Just externalizing the internal. I hope I haven't gone too deep. But even if I did, that's okay. The little things matter. And apparently they add up, collecting in the mind like treasures stored in a dusty attic. There's inspiration in all that somewhere. Fuel for future writing fires. I don't know how I know it...I guess sometimes you just do.


  1. Oh yeah, scents of things can really bring memories back, can't they. I used to wear Truly Lace from Avon and whenever I get a whiff of something that smells like really brings me back.

  2. That's beautiful, Cora. All the good memories held tight. A whiff of perfume unlocks the door in our mind's eye and we can feel that rush of happier times. There will be happy times to come as well. Those you will make with your boys. :-)

    I've been sick with this flu bug and not on the computer much as it wears me out, but after that day we went 80's retro shopping, and of course, mum's anniversary of passing, I've been dreaming a lot of things from my twenty-somethings. Also my teen years.

    I recall mum buying me Hawaiian White Ginger perfume from Avon, because it was the only Avon perfume that didn't seem to make me break out. I loved it. Can't find it anymore.

  3. This entire post just made me kind of sit back and wistfully sigh. I know what you mean. The same thing happens when I smell certain detergents or when I hear certain songs. It's like a serious force of deja vu and it's offputting how strongly those memories return!

    Thank you for this. It made me feel warm and safe, somehow. :) Cass is right. You have so many of these great memories to make with your boys. One day they'll grow up and feel that same warmth about you. Isn't that just an awesome feeling?


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