There’s a look. Perhaps you know it? Where one’s eyes widen, the lips purse to keep from shouting, the head slowly slides from left to right, two maybe three times as if chiding how could you? If she could shake your whole being with her bare hands and scream at you, she might. But it wouldn’t be appropriate, a mother shaking her child at her own mother’s funeral. All she can do is try to scare you quiet with a look that will linger the rest of your days.
My sin was that I laughed. I was twelve and I laughed at my grandmother’s funeral because the rabbi sang in Hebrew and I didn’t understand the words and his body swung back and forth while his feet didn’t move, so he looked like a human metronome. I covered my mouth but it was not enough. My mother, who was sitting in front of me, turned around and shot me that evil look but even then, I couldn’t stop.
Bernice, the Jamaican lady sitting next to me, whispered in my ear, “Sshhh, child.” I loved the Jamaican lady. She was my grandmother’s neighbor, the one who took care of her in her final weeks. Bernice discovered my dead grandmother in her apartment, next to the claw bathtub with the water still running. A heart attack, the timing of which now strikes me as unfair. Couldn’t my grandmother have enjoyed her last bath first?
Bernice always smelled like a woman to reckon with, potent not dainty. When I sniffed her for the umpteenth time during those final visits to my grandmother’s apartment on the Lower East Side of New York, she gave me a half-empty bottle of her perfume, Tabu.
Tabu’s tag line: The Forbidden Scent. Memory forbids me from recalling the odor now, thirty years later. If I smelled it on someone, would I recognize it? An online ad describes the perfume as “a legendary Oriental blend—rich with fragrant essences including: Bulgarian rose, orange flower, and jasmine warmed with patchouli, amber and musk notes.” But the words fail to evoke what I hope for, a portal back in time.
Twenty years after my grandmother’s death and today the smell is of deli food. Warm comfort food. My own mother is dying and my two older sisters and I are eating Reubens and French fries in a nearly empty hospital waiting room. Across from us, my father sits, his head hanging heavy on his neck, as my sisters and I laugh at who knows what. Infectious laughter that we can’t stop. Unnatural laughter. When my father finally looks up, it is a quicker sentencing, but a sentencing just the same. One hateful glance and a loud sigh before he exits the room.
As a child, I noticed how my friends’ houses each had a distinct odor, at least for the first few minutes upon entering. Then it would fade. I rarely notice a home’s smell anymore, unless food is cooking or someone is particularly unkempt. I know our sense of smell declines as we age. Perhaps my ten years of smoking cigarettes didn’t help either.
I recently confirmed something I’ve suspected all along: Every person has a unique odor. A “smellprint.” Like fingerprints, no people have the exact same odor. Except for identical twins. According to the science, your “smellprint” is determined by factors including genes, the environment, diet, medicines, your emotional state, your skin type, and even the weather.
I hope my smellprint is bearable.
I try, but I can’t recall my mother’s smell. Only a faint scent of lipstick.
A few years after my mother died, my father put our family home up for sale. As I walked through the house for the last time, I nearly suffocated on the overpowering scent of lemon. In preparation for the sale, my father and his soon-to-be new wife were trying to expunge decades of my dad’s pipe- tobacco stench. I watched them move about, packing and arranging things, and I wondered when their relationship began. I had seen her before, when my mother was going through treatment. But I don’t ask.
In the downstairs bathroom, I’m surprised to find the dust-covered blackish-green bottle of Tabu that Bernice gave me. How is it possible no one had thrown it out after all these years? Just the sight of this relic conjures forth my mother’s expression at my grandmother’s funeral and it hurts, a sucker punch to the heart. I consider taking the bottle with me, as though its removal from this house would serve as some sort of exorcism. But I change my mind. Instead, using our gleaming bathroom sink as my altar, I stare in the mirror and whisper an apology to my mother, one of so many whispered in a lifetime, and I imagine all the billions of apologies uttered daily around the world thrown together in one steaming, giant pile. What would it smell like? I wonder. Decay? Or incense? Something holy.
Amy Yelin’s essays and interviews have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Sweet, The Missouri Review, The Writer’s Chronicle, Literary Mama, and other venues, including two anthologies. She’s the recipient of a Pushcart nomination, a notable essay mention in The Best American Essays (2007), and a fellowship from the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Amy teaches writing at Grub Street in Boston, and is the former managing editor of Solstice: A Magazine of Diverse Voices.