For me, nothing evokes magical childhood summers like the smell of an old house, especially that of a smoker.
My sister and I spent summers at our grandparents’ place. Each year, she and I would board a propeller plane without parents and fly an hour to Hamilton, Ontario, where our grandfather waited in the tiny airport, smoking homemade unfiltered cigarettes and beaming.
These summers were delicious with danger.
Every day began at the kitchen table. With our bare legs stuck to turquoise vinyl chairs, we used to eat Lucky Charms and watch our beloved grandfather roll his daily batch of cigarettes. Despite having had a stroke in his mid-fifties that left his left side paralyzed, his technique was something of a dance. He’d trained his bad hand to smooth out each rolling paper, hold it flat, then act as a fleshy channel to guide the loose tobacco into place. He would lean down to the table to lick the paper’s edge, then with his good hand, roll it up and twist the ends.
While Grandpa sipped his coffee and enjoyed the first cigarette of the day, Pam and I scampered into the living room to lie on the rug and watch Davey and Goliath or Gumby or Rocketship 7–American TV. The living room thrilled me. The rug was scratchy, the coffee table was strewn with crossword puzzles I could sometimes finish, and, best of all, it smelled like a heady mixture of ancient floorboards, furniture polish, and years and years of cigarette smoke.
Our grandparents were perfection. They adored us, were permissive as hell, and called us “pet” and “love.” Being with them was nothing short of enchanting.
The rest of our days were made up of unsupervised swims in the backyard and grandparent-endorsed visits to the gigantic penny jar hidden in the hall closet. Barefooted and bathing-suited, still dripping from the pool, we’d scoop handfuls of pennies and hot-foot it to the convenience store where we’d count out whatever change we hadn’t dropped along the way and pay for our popsicles.
We didn’t have to hurry back. Most times, we took our treats to the end of the road, to the park on the Niagara escarpment, and sat on what we thought of as the edge of the world–the top of a rocky and wooded cliff rumored to house the decomposing body parts of the poor sod featured in the book Torso. Flakes of rocks tumbled hundreds of feet down the bluff as we ate.
If we had our towels with us, we’d attach them to our arms like wings and fling ourselves from the grassy hill to see if we could fly. For a fleeting moment, when I was up in the air, with an entire city below my feet, I was certain I did.
We were poked by rusty nails while climbing under neighbor’s front porches, scratched by prickle bushes while hiding from the town bully, chased by the creep from the haunted house, and rug-burned from sliding down Grandma’s carpeted stairs in our shorts.
From the Morning Glories that closed up at night, to the squirrels we chased out of Grandpa’s bird feeders, to the rows of berries and vegetables at the back of the property, to the laundry flapping on the line, our grandparents’ backyard was alive with summer.
So were we.
Don’t even get me started on the basement. It was dark and damp and filled with exotic things our uncles and aunts had left behind. Dartboards, lacrosse sticks, college pennants, and, in a special box beneath the stairs, a black baby doll. We’d never seen a doll like her–the stores in those days were full of blond-haired, blue-eyed dolls. This one was gorgeous–heavier than usual and the plastic smelled spicy and foreign and, yes, ever so slightly smoky. The mystery of her was intoxicating.
She had no clothes, so we wrapped her in blankets and made something of a bed for her in the box. But mostly we just stared at her in wonder. We wanted her SO badly. To take her home with us and dress her up and name her and introduce her to our regular dolls–all of whom suddenly felt boring.
But we never took her. We weren’t supposed to be snooping in that area and were terrified of getting caught. Truthfully though, we didn’t want the mystery of her to end. She was as much a part of that place as the tobacco-stained curtains, the white chocolate stashed in the dining room buffet, and the hornets who buzzed against the screen in the bathroom window.
I’m no smoker, but to this day, smoky plaster takes me right back there. Like I’m drinking in the spray of the ocean or the breath of a baby, I close my eyes and inhale.