Certain Smells Evoke Childhood Memories of Visiting my Grandparents

I had a happy childhood in a loving family

Photo by paul morris on Unsplash

My grandparents’ house

When I was a kid in the 1960s, we spent part of every summer holiday visiting my Mum’s parents in Ontario. We had no family in New Brunswick so interactions with the relatives were limited to this part of the year. My grandma hobbled around with two wooden canes. She walked hunched over, and we always had to plump and straighten a cushion under her before she sat. My grandma had become crippled with arthritis when the family moved from Scotland to Canada when she was fifty. Even so she still managed to cook meals with my Mum. I took a long walk to my aunt and uncle’s house the morning they made headcheese. I wasn’t eating that. I was invited to eat salad instead and phoned home to say I wouldn’t be back for lunch.

My grandparents’ house was a narrow two story one in Oshawa — a town where most people worked for General Motors or other automobile related companies. My granddad had done okay working there. They had a separate house with a driveway. The houses on the street behind were row houses for the factory workers. The house was the width of a single room and hallway. There was a thin strip of flower garden running along the driveway. At the end of the driveway was an old wooden garage painted dark red, and between it and the house was the back door. The door was always unlocked when we were there same as back home. If it did get locked the key was on a hook near the top of the door.

I spent many hours with a small bouncy ball and that garage door. Bouncing once on the ground and then onto the door or just straight onto it. Underhand, overhand. There were no electronic toys back then.

The big garage doors were never opened. Instead you went to the back porch and there was a small door there. It led into my granddad’s shop filled with tools and vices and various smells that were unidentifiable yet strongly associated with that space. Maybe the smell of oil. We rarely went there except if a tool needed to be retrieved.

Gardening was my granddad’s greatest joy

His flower garden was the most outstanding in the neighbourhood. Snapdragons were my favourite of his flowers because you could put your finger between the jaws and pretend it was biting you. I helped my granddad harvest the big seed heads of the Oriental poppies. I liked their bright red flowers. When the seed heads were ready there were holes just under their hats. I liked to sprinkle their tiny black seeds throughout the bed. Grandma thought there were already more than enough of them. There were Sweet William as well and I took some of those seeds and planted them at our cottage in Muskoka. On our last visit there, I harvested some of those seeds and took them with me.

At the front of their house was a cement porch where the stairs curled up from the driveway to the front door. One time my granddad asked me if I painted. I thought he meant like watercolour but I got pressed into service repainting the metal silver on the porch.

There was a lilac hedge heavily trimmed in front of the sidewalk and on the non-driveway side going as far as the house. They didn’t have any access to that side of the house for painting it or anything. The property line was tight against the wall. There were various families that lived there but the friend that I still talk to who lived there was Denise. Her dad spoke French and her mum spoke English so she grew up completely bilingual.

Always stop to smell the roses

There were red climbing roses next to the porch covered with masses of bright red blooms. Back then there weren’t any hybrid roses. These old fashioned roses were full of perfume. My granddad would cut some, then go into the backyard and cut some asparagus fern for added greenery. If you don’t harvest your asparagus fast enough you end up with ferns instead of a vegetable. Into the house the bouquet would go. My grandmother always said she wanted flowers while she was alive and could enjoy them. When I visited her when I was in university in Toronto I brought her chrysanthemums instead of roses because they last longer.

The block was filled with European immigrant families. There were Dutch, Ukrainian, and others. This was the house that my mother had grown up from when she was five years old. The families that had first lived there had grown up, and now there was a new generation and tons of kids. A year is a long time to a child. I’d have friends while we were there but then by the time we returned the next year they hardly remembered me.

Road trips to a lake were nice

My grandmother couldn’t walk very far. Not even as far as the street but she could get to the car in the driveway. My grandparents didn’t have a car. My uncle George brought their grocery shopping home for them. Before he met his wife, Kay, he had the middle bedroom upstairs. He’d been married once right after the war but his wife was from a different country and just used him so she could stay in Canada. A year later he was single again and stayed that way for many decades looking after his parents. After he’d moved out the rest of us would all squeeze into our car and all six of us would go for a ride. Back then cars were much larger and the the front seat was a bench seat same as the back one. My brother and I got the two middle seats. My grandma got a side one with a pillow under her.

A few times we went to Lake Simcoe. My dad bought us each some fish and chips from the food wagon. Occasionally on these trips my grandma would feel faint. Out would come the small glass vial of smelling salts. The tiny lid would get taken off and the bottle held under her nose until she recovered. If I felt carsick out it would come then too.

My mother never carried or used smelling salts. It was just a memory attached to my grandma. It’s been many decades since I last saw smelling salts. They just vanished from our culture as if they were never needed.

Smells can trigger a memory

It’s been a long time since I was last at my grandparents’ house. I still remember though how the compost had a strong earthy smell in the backyard, the tomatoes had a pleasant smell that I try to replicate with vine tomatoes at the grocery, and the books in the basement smelled musty. Oshawa had storm sewers that never worked. Every time there was a major thunderstorm the street would fill with water and granddad would be downstairs mopping the floor. The storms were exciting though even if they did affect the basement. It was a rich life that we had when we visited our family.