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THE FRAGRANCE OF MEMORY


Long Beach, California in my childhood was a beach town, an oil town, and a sailor town. The memory of odors is very rich.

We lived a few blocks from the beach, within easy walking distance for a child, and the smell of the ocean is like perfume to me. The Pike was an esplanade with rollercoaster, merry-go-round, and all sorts of shops, etc. which led onto the beach, and the smells of hamburgers, cotton candy and salt water taffy beckoned a hungry kid with a dime in her pocket. It was the time of the Great Depression, and if you couldn’t scrape up a dime, you took a tuna sandwich made with lots of pickle relish in your pocket.

Oil had been discovered on Signal Hill and aside from the oil derricks decorating the top of the hill, it gave off an unmistakeable scent.

The Port of Long Beach has always been an important one, and home to the Navy, and the place from which my father departed and returned frequently. On the occasions when we dined aboard my father’s ship on a Sunday afternoon, I was allowed to steer the shore boat.

In our small neighborhood the ice man delivered, and the man who tarred the many cracks in the street came with his smelly hot oil, which if you waited till it hardened, you might steal a piece to chew on. The Red train ran straight up the middle of American Ave. where we lived, and took you to Los Angeles, where my Great-Aunt picked us up. In their great wisdom, someone tore it out some years ago. I always thought it had a distinctive and exciting odor. Maybe it was the smell of anticipation.

There were always fresh fragrant oranges, ripe figs off the tree, and a penny candy store which smelled divine. A nickel bought a lot of candy, and there was a dentist right there who gave out sample tubes of Ipana toothpaste, which if you never smelled it, consider yourself lucky.

Each morning after my mother tortured my straight hair into Shirley Temple curls with a curling iron heated on the gas stove, and with the smell of hot hair still in my nostrils, I ate breakfast alone and went off to school. My only friend in the neighborhood was Gail Hollandsteiner, whose father was a banker, and who I thought must have been rich because her mother slept late every day, thus allowing Gail to trick the maid into thinking she had actually eaten her breakfast. I tried it at home, but my mother got up early, so it didn’t work.

Larraine Day was an early movie star who lived next door to Gail, and we always hoped she could get us jobs in the movies. That didn’t work either.

The Long Beach of today has nearly half a million people in its confines, the neighborhood I grew up in is mostly industrial now, and the Pike has been replaced by the Queen Mary as a tourist attraction. Whoever coined the phrase “You can’t go back” was right.

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7 comments on “THE FRAGRANCE OF MEMORY

  1. A phrase that leads me to another train of thought. And~each minute that passes can’t be regained.

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  2. Wisdom, I see, runs in the family.

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  3. Nothing takes you back as swiftly and surely as your sense of smell.

    In recent years I have lost much of my ability to smell. Philadelphus and lilac were particularly evocative for me and the suddenness of the awareness of them would stop me doing whatever I was doing to relish the smells and the memories, especially those of childhood. Yes, and the smell of newly laid Tarmac or greased steam engines, and bonfires too, to a lesser extent.

    Nowadays my attention has to be drawn, not always successfully, and I have to concentrate hard.

    But I get by. 🙂

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    • Yes, an odor can be the strongest memory trigger.  We visited all of the California missions with our small children, who were told at one, that we were looking at an Indian burial ground.  The sweet alyssum was growing everywhere, and one girl said, “Yes, I can smell the dead Indians”.  We always plant it, and I always remember her comment.

      ________________________________

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  4. “…the smell of the ocean is like perfume to me…”

    I know that all too well! I grew up not too far from the water in Connecticut, but have live land-locked ever since. Whenever I visit my parents the first thing I notice is the salty breeze – it gets me so excited to be near the water!

    And similar to Richard, lilac is incredibly linked to my childhood. My mom inherited a lilac bush from her grandmother, so it already had a storied history. But when my dad installed a tire swing, the lilac bush mysteriously started to die off and become sickly…. but when the rope broke, it started to thrive again! Little did we know my little brother was using it for ‘target practice’ on the tire swing! It’s amazing what memories are associated with certain fragrances!

    And on a random note, I can’t believe you all would chew on the tar from the road!

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