My restless brain is in overdrive search now that I have all this time and nowhere to go, so when I heard that one of the symptoms of Covid-19 was the loss of smell and taste, I free associated back to a bar of the same name (No Smell No Taste) in the West African country of Liberia. As Jerry Jeff Walker said about going to jail “I wasn’t there on a research project.” No Smell No Taste was a shanty bar, part wood, part corrugated tin, dirt floor on the road from the airport at Roberts Field to the capital, Monrovia. Big fun. Heineken beer preserved and fortified with formaldehyde (not unlike Trump’s injection of disinfectant) and a favored watering spot for Pan Am crew members. But, that’s another story.
Next in my Covid-19 free association ramble brought me closer to home. One of my grandsons came up short in the no smell no taste department last month. He’s fine now but it’s likely he had the virus though he was never tested. Thank you, Donald, for doing such a great job with that. But, that’s another story too.
Here’s the story I want to tell you about smell:
I come from a small family. My father was the youngest in his family by 13 years, and my mother and I are both only children. We never lived close to any of the extended family, but I remember my Granny well from the times we did visit. She was the matriarch in a patriarchal family, a farm wife in the hardscrabble world of Depression-era farming. She died before I got to know her well, but I remember how she would wrap me in her soft, wrinkly arms and pull me onto her generous capacious lap. I was her youngest and last grandchild. She loved me and her embrace enveloped me, but her smell was off-putting – one I associated with old people.
Moving on; my father had his own set of smells. He was 75 when he died and though I didn’t think of him as an old man in his last years there was smell about him too. I remember opening the closet door to hang my coat and being overwhelmed by the pungent mixture of old age and cigarettes. Mind you, this was the closet where his business suits hung, but people didn’t launder or dry clean their clothes as often then as they do now. There was always this aroma that went with my father. It came from the combination of contributing elements. He smoked—a lot. It’s what killed him. Regardless, to this day, I remember the whiff of body odor and cigarettes that met me as I opened his closet door.
I was reminded of those family smells last fall when the New York Times ran an article entitled, Do Older People Have a Different Smell? The study was inconclusive. The jury, they said, was still out, but I come down hard on the “yes” side of the question. You might see where this is going. The “family” smell and my age have combined to give me a heightened sensitivity to the “scent” of old age. I hate the idea I’m giving off an offensive odor. I picture an old cartoon figure surrounded by a cloud with wavy lines emanating and people backing away. Yuck.
Because of that and the fact that I’m OCD, I shower with the vigor and compulsiveness of Lady Macbeth then shave and add a dollop of Bath and Body Works Orange-Ginger Aromatherapy lotion to my face. I could swear my sweat never had an odor, but now, in the age of coronavirus, I’m not sure. I mention coronavirus only because I live so differently as its captive. I’m disciplined and regimented, but except for every other day bike rides I get almost no exercise…yet, every morning I wonder if there’s a hint of odor as I head for the shower. Paranoia? The power of suggestion? Or is it true? No way am I going to smell like an old man…even if I am one. The derivative etymology of scent is the same as that of senescence or the gradual deterioration of the organism – of growing old, and after reading the Times article, I think the scent I associate with my grandmother’s embrace and my father’s closet probably WAS due to their senescence.
My wife is appalled and astonished at my choice of subject matter. “You can’t write about BO.” Why not, I ask? I’m exploring life’s continuum. What are we like at different stages? “You’ll embarrass me,” she says. “It’s not about you,” I say, as she leaves the room in disgust. “You might mention the after-dinner grease spots on your shirts while you’re at it.” That’s her thing. Smells are mine. Spots are hers. She’s a consultant to senior health care facilities and tells me all the time that one thing you can count on with old guys in retirement homes is that they are covered with spots. Spaghetti sauce. Olive oil. Ice cream. Drool. All the things that make life worthwhile. Nevertheless, since I’m incarcerated and under her care, Nurse Ratched makes me change shirts after dinner if I’ve dripped. It’s a power thing…and a laundry thing. She loves the washing machine and folding clothes is her meditation, so I do what I can to keep her happy.
It looks like eternal vigilance is the price of a fragrance-free body, and I will continue to bathe daily and support Bath and Body Works to make it so. It’s my hope that senescence will stay socially distant while I try to do better with the spaghetti sauce. Here’s hoping the smells I associate with Granny and my Dad are anomaly not family legacy.
Stay healthy. Wash your hands. Smell the flowers. And, love your family and friends.