Saturday, April 27, 2013

the odours of kinfolk

how many of my other memories of the house on oak and life there, both while i was an occupant and after my parents moved to a 3-room rental on monroe, are photographic, I don't know. it served as a sort of family center for my grandfather's family, the johnsons, even though they lived in paragould, so the album had lots of photos of johnson uncles and aunts and cousins, held in place by gummed corner frames. but my memories of the smells are my own, suggested by but not contained in, the photographs. oddly enough there are no olfactory memories of my parents. but the preceeding generation was redolent.

my uncle ott--otto--comes first, because he smoked cigars. he was the youngest of the johnson brothers, although minnie--minerva--was younger. ott always wore pin-striped suits with a handkerchief in the breast pocket, and he drove buicks, which not surprisingly also smelled of cigars. he had a wife, orphie--orphelia--but they were estranged.  they never divorced, i think because they didn't trust each other enough, so they shared ownership of a dry cleaners, ott having an apartment upstairs and orphie having the house. ott also had a cabin on portia--pronounced porshy--bay and a mistress, cordie--cordelia--who was a 'beautician' and smelled like permanents. everything about ott was slightly shakespearean in a falstaff sort of way, although I think he drank budweiser.

by contrast fred, the oldest surviving johnson brother, uncle ed having died before my birth, was chaste-smelling in an old spice sort of way and drove dodges. his wife sally--selma, and often called that--owned a business machine company and had no children and didn't seem to like children. there are no pictures of me being held by fred. I may be imagining the old spice, it being the default odor of that generation.

minnie always smelled slightly sour. she was married to an undertaker, mr. emersin, who was very thin and highly cologned, but minnie always smelled slightly as if she had just cime from a hot kitchen, which often she had done. she was a serious cook. her son billie, also a cook, in the army, always smelled like starch. years later my mother would tell me that billie's clothes (he was a love child, as it were, born when minnie was a teenager bereaved by the death of her mother and comforted by someone whose name she took to her grave) had always been provided by the unkles, and starched at ott's cleaners.

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