Most of us probably associate specific aromas, scents or smells with specific places, events or people. Some of these are pleasant and nostalgic, while others are negative or unpleasant and we’d rather not remember them.
Among my strongest olfactory memories and pleasant, positive feelings are those associated with a trip to my grandmother’s farm. Many years have passed since Grandma lived in the farmhouse and I visited there, but I can recall some of those scents very clearly.
The smells associated with a visit to the farm in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains began when my family left our home in a small town on Cayuga Lake. It was often still dark and we smelled the damp farm fields as we rode south along the lake.
Later, the ride became unpleasant as we entered the hills and mountains and the car was stuck following a milk truck or some other big rig in a no-passing zone. Old Route 17 was only two lanes wide then and the trucks’ exhaust fumes always caused someone’s stomach to feel queasy. My father would pull to the shoulder and adjustments were made to the seating arrangements (moving someone to the front seat) in hopes of avoiding an upset stomach.
Our trips were in spring, summer or fall, and I remember the scents of grass and hay, wild roses and day lilies and perhaps dead leaves from the roadside. If a farmer had recently used the manure spreader, aka the honey wagon, in the fields, we held our noses and yelled “pee-yew!” Of course, we rode with the windows open in warm weather since cars weren’t air conditioned at the time of those trips, so the outdoor scents and aromas filled the car.
When we finally turned into the farmhouse driveway, Grandma, in her apron, stepped out onto the kitchen porch, a dog barked and our two cousins, who also lived there, ran into the yard.
When we made our way into the kitchen carrying bags and suitcases, I’d take a deep breath and know I’d arrived. The smell of wood smoke imbedded in the kitchen and the house formed the overpowering memory that I have of Grandma’s kitchen.
A huge, black woodstove stood impressively on the left between the wood box and the door my uncle used when he went back and forth to the barn. The woodstove had been in the house since it was built and women had cooked on it for family, farmhands and, in my grandmother’s case, summer boarders. I clearly remember the odor of breakfast toast burned over the coals of that great woodstove as well as the delicious aromas of pies and cookies baked there. Freshly chopped wood, manure carried in on my uncle’s boots and lingering cooking odors formed the basis of my memories of that kitchen.
Outside in the front yard, the air was fresh and carried the scents from the fields, woods and gully. In the cow barn, we held our breath as we tried to block out the fresh manure smells that our cousins didn’t seem to notice. The hay mow was a sweet-smelling retreat, though, and we loved to play there.
I know I was lucky to have visited a working farm and inhaled the unique scents that are unknown to many American children today. I wish those scents could have been preserved and saved. I would have treasured them and passed them on to my children and grandchildren as a precious piece of their inheritance.