Thursday, May 23, 2013

Scents and Scentsibility

The Fragrance of Flowers
For me, the giddy sense of renewal we associate with spring always goes “hand in hand” with a fair bit of nostalgia. Or maybe I should say “nose to nose,” because it is the fragrance of spring flowers that invariably transports me back in time.  I look forward to the scent of lilacs, crabapple, Lily of the Valley and peonies equally as much as I do to seeing them bloom. Every year, when I close my eyes, stuff my nose into one of these little floral time machines and breathe deeply, I see four year-old me, launched directly back to the backyard of my childhood home on Sherburn Street in the west end of Winnipeg, circa 1957.

Our house was situated on a small city lot, but we had a large crabapple tree that kids in the neighborhood came to climb, even if not invited, and my mother would bang on the kitchen window and shout, “You kids! Get down from there!”  It produced an abundance of sour miniature apples that my parents engineered into sweet jelly every fall. But it was spring when it was at its best. A crown of white blossoms made the branches bend toward my second-story bedroom and on evenings warm enough to have windows open, it filled my room with spicy, sweet scent.

A few peonies grew along the south wall of the garage, ants coaxing their unraveling, their heavy heads bending down into the grass after a rain. There was a lilac bush bordering our yard with our next door neighbors’ and more bushes up and down the backlane behind our house. The whole neighborhood smelled of lilacs along the alley. Those blooms were the sweetest for being stolen for giant bouquets.

Delicate Lily of the Valley sprouted up beneath our lilac and ran along a dilapidated, old wire fence. There were enough to pinch off several stems and bring them into the house for my mother to put in a small jar of water to set on a window sill.

For a few moments every spring, I am a child again holding flowers up to my nose. If you have lilacs, or peonies or Lily of the Valley in your yard and you try like I did today to gather them into your experience and think, "They go so fast! How can I  keep this moment alive until next year?" Never fear! The sense memory, or should I say "scents" memory, is stored away, waiting for you.

Grill of my Dreams
In an unrelated spring-time flashback, I took a trip back to seventh grade the other day when I was cleaning the grill. Not two events you’d normally associate together, am I right? Me neither, but as I scrubbed, I remembered my math teacher, Mr. Edwards, tapping his fingers on my desk one May schoolday and saying, “Come with me” and me thinking, “Oh, crap. What now?” Mr. Edwards and I had never really seen eye to eye on the relevance of mathematics. He had already moved me from the back of the room to the front row hoping to improve my grade by commanding more of my attention.

I followed him nervously to the teacher’s lunchroom. When he opened the door he nodded toward the sink. Two barbecue grill pans sat in murky water. A can of Ajax and some steel wool sat on the counter. “Would you mind cleaning the grills for our teacher’s picnic?” he asked, altthough I recall it sounded  more like an order. I think I was speechless. I might have nodded. Anyway, I spent the better part of an afternoon scrubbing the previous year’s greasy crud off those grills. I went home with rust stains on my white Phys. Ed. blouse. My parents were livid. "I can't believe he asked you to do that!!" That was my Dad, roaring. My mother, never really a feminist, seemed to be perturbed that Mr. Edwards would ask a girl to do a woman's job - i.e. another teacher.  I begged them not to complain to the principal. For me, it might have been a bit of an imposition, but I had spent the afternoon on a free pass out of math class. For Mr. Edwards it was probably a way to remove my blank stare whenever he explained math equations, and get me out of his classroom .

Friday, May 10, 2013

The House of Irk

May 10, 2013

Mrs. Edith Wharton

“The Mount” Estate

Lenox, Massachusetts



Dear Edith,

It’s probably a bit ghoulish to be writing to you now that you have been dead for 76 years, but, for obvious reasons, I never got a chance to say what a fan I am of your books; notably your dark, tragic novels, “Ethan Frome,” “The Age of Innocence” and “The House of Mirth.” They were brilliant, ironic essays on social manners in America’s Gilded Age.  But also your other masterwork, “The Decoration of Houses” (1897.) As a retired designer myself, I happen to know it has become regarded as the very first textbook on interior design.  

I think if you are looking down from heaven, you must be giving a nod of approval to the designers whose work is currently on display at the Dayton Philharmonic’s Volunteer Association’s “Designers’ Show House.” I toured there this week and I must say that they seem to have followed your principles to the letter: restrained taste and elegance; coordinating colors throughout; furnishings in compatible scale and proportion; garden spaces conceived as outdoor rooms; toss cushions fluffed just so; exactly as you ordained. “Edith’s Edicts,” I call them.

I toured the house with a group of about 50 ladies who had all attended an afternoon tea. Everyone was enchanted, or so I would believe based on the comments I overheard. “Oh, I LOVE this room!” “Oh, look how pretty those drapes are!” “Oh, I could totally see myself waking up in this bedroom!” “Oh, isn’t that the cleverest towel hook you’ve ever seen?” There was no end to the oohs and aahs. It was like we had walked into 3-D, live version of “Martha Stewart Living” (gee, maybe you are her Patron Saint?)

The friend I was with observed that women in show homes seem to get a bit restless. You can almost hear the wheels turning. Some are plotting the transfer of decorating ideas to their own homes. Some are planning to hire the designers to work magic especially for them.

 At one point, my friend said, “You know, these decorators are so clever! I can never get it right! I can never make up my mind what I want! I think I like something. I buy it. I get it home and I hate it! Do you ever do that?”

I said, “Oh, once in a while!” thinking, “You have no idea how often!” Seriously, for someone with training and experience, I am notoriously bad at decorating. I’ve lost count of how many dumb mistakes I’ve made. From our very first dining table — a trestle around which I put trestle chairs that simply wouldn’t fit under it — to the series of totally uncomfortable couches we’ve had, hated and discarded over the years, starting with the one dubbed “the ouch” to the current monstrosity lurking in our living room. When the delivery guy unloaded it, he said, “Are you sure this is the couch you ordered, ma’am?” I wasn’t. I remembered my feet touching the floor in the showroom. This hulking mass of upholstery bore no resemblance to what I thought I picked out. We let Riley sleep on it. We’re hoping it will fade fast so we can call Goodwill for a truck to come and get it.

And then I can go back to my fantasy that somewhere out there I will finally find the perfect piece of furniture to pull my whole room together. Which brings me, dear Edith, to wonder if somehow I missed the chapter in “The Decoration of Houses” on how to coordinate a whole room? Does your book contain a secret code only decipherable by the uber-talented? It has been a life-long irk of mine that I didn’t get the decorator gene. That damn couch is just throwing that in my face every time I look at it!

 A clever towel bar by a talented designer