Every morning, between our first cup of coffee and “breakfast”, which is usually more like elevenses, Simon, the boys, and I go out for a morning romp. Simon feeds the pigs and alpacas, I give the chooks their morning eggshells, Shakey has a morning constitutional, CJ chases his tennis ball, and Cully does whatever Cully does.
This morning, though, CJ couldn’t find a tennis ball and then, suddenly, he disappeared into the bush. When we all came in, I detected a whiff of deja vu. Something like . . . what? Ah! I remember! The summer a possum crawled under our air conditioner condenser and died.
Filling chez Ziemke with the bouquet of road kill.
We spent the night in a motel.
CJ has had a bath.
Some childhood memories, I can do without.
Music can tap into memory in a powerful way and has, for me, become a transformative outlet for my tangled emotions. Taste can trigger memories. For me, tomato sandwiches (on squishy white bread with Blue Plate Mayonnaise) will always taste like summer in Georgia. But smell alone can, almost literally, transport me back in time. It is far and away my most evocative sense, for better and worse.
The smell of bread baking always — every single time — carries me back to my Mum’s kitchen.
The smell of chlorine or coconut oil takes me back to long, lazy summers hanging around at the Green Acres Pool — and probably earning myself skin cancer.
The smell of wet wool conjures blizzards, snow forts, and wet beanies and mittens.
And I can smell when it is going to snow.
Then there is dead possum.
And the smell of liver and onions frying. We had liver once a week until (God bless ’em) the nutritional powers-that-be declared it unfit for human consumption because of its high cholesterol. Liver and onions smell deceptively delicious when they are cooking, especially when they are cooked — as Mom always did — with bacon. I, however, was not fooled.
And fish baking.
Mom was a marvellous cook. Almost everything she touched turned to deliciousness.
With two exceptions: liver and onions, and her baked fish casserole, which replaced liver and onions night post-cholesteral consciousness raising. She layered thawed flounder fillets (which came in unappetising-looking fish bricks) with canned tomatoes, sliced onions and green peppers, and topped the whole thing with sliced lemons and breadcrumbs.It smelled like some ill-considered tex-mex cat food and tasted worse. Dad claimed to like it. I think he was trying not to ruin his weekends. It was disgusting. I prayed for fish fingers. They never came. I’ve never quite recovered and still have an extremely cautious relationship with fish.
All these years later, when I get a whiff of the fish monger at the Farmers’ Market, I get a pit in my tummy that says “Oh, no. Fish casserole.”
Forgive me Mom.
Now I am starting a new life, in a new home, in a new country.
My life in New Zealand is full of new smells that are building new emotional memories that will stay with me wherever I go.
Wee piglets. I will never forget the smell of our Wee Charlie when we first brought him home. You know how babies smell like milk? Well, Wee Charlie did, too. I know. I bottle fed him for four weeks.
Turns out bottle feeding a Kune Kune piglet is a full contact sport.
The hangi, a Maori banquet cooked in the ground — sometimes with wood, sometimes in geothermal steam vents. I’m not Maori, but the smell reminds me of family.
Rotorua, which smells like boiling mud because it is full of , well, boiling mud. And spas. What’s not to love?
Penguins, which, come to think of it, smell pretty much like Mom’s fish casserole.
Muddy chickens. We don’t have any sand, but there is a sunny, peaty spot where the Saltenberger girls like to take their dirt baths. It makes them smell like the earth.
Alpaca spit. Ok, not all smells are good. But if you smell alpaca spit once, you’ll never forget it. Shearing day is also our annual alpaca spitting contest. Domino is the undisputed champion.
Manuka smoke, which makes the bacon buttie stall at the Market almost irresistible. But, I think of the smell of wee piglet and resist. Fortunately, they also sell liquid manuka smoke, which is magical.
And the waiting room of the Hutt Valley DHB Mental Health Services, where I went every week for six months and where my lovely therapist introduced me to me. When I started, that room smelled like any medical waiting room, a combination of fear and anxiety. As Jane helped me, gradually, to let go of what I didn’t need — guilt, grief, insecurity, and failure — and embrace what I had left behind — my happy childhood, my inner musician and artist, the future, and kale — that scent of fear transformed into one of healing and growth.
That smells like life.
That smells like victory.