Wednesday, September 1, 2010

School Breeze

July, she will fly
And give no warning to her flight.
August, die she must,
The autumn winds blow chilly and cold;
September I´ll remember...

Simon & Garfunkel

August nearly managed to live up to its venerable name this year, filled as it was with bold heat waves and solemn convocations. But August has also, in typical fashion, come and gone with undignified speed, bringing with it the abrupt transition from lighthearted leisure to respectable routine. The school year always arrives sooner than I expect.

Every summer, those July days seem to stretch themselves out in lazy rows across the calendar, a succession of blank squares, open to whatever we choose to fit inside them. And then the page flips to August, and I discover with a start that we are left with a brief two weeks into which we must cram every "sometime this summer" activity that has yet to be realized before the khaki-trousered school schedule begins: one last trip to the pool, one last picnic in the park, one last bicycle ride around the neighborhood, one last hurrah. As July gives way to August, I am reluctant to see the empty grid fill up with hastily scribbled registration deadlines and carpool commitments, uniform fittings and snack duties. I look at all those full days ahead and wonder, once again, how summer could be coming to such an untimely demise.

But sometime during that first week of August, a breeze will rise, winding through the dry lawns and harvested fields and overgrown vacant lots, carrying with it a scent that tells me that the time has indeed come for the slow and easy days of summer to end.

The roses may still be in full bloom, the sun may still be blazing, and the brown-shouldered high school girls may continue to parade down my sidewalk in their halter tops and flip-flops, but that distinct scent in the wind announces, even before the school supply list arrives in the mail, that it's time to begin stocking up on crayons and non-marking tennis shoes.

I can smell back-to-school.

Some researchers have noted that smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers known to man. And I believe them. A quick browse of the Web reveals that medical and psychiatric journals are constantly publishing new data on this topic, mapping out "hippocampal brain activity" and the way neurons connect to the olfactory bulb. Neuroscientists can minutely describe the neural pathways where smell and memory collide.

But no PhD is required to experience that sensation that has struck us all at one time or another—when a place long forgotten or a person long dead is momentarily restored to life through an agency no more miraculous than the human nose. 

I know next to nothing of the neurological events taking place inside my brain when this happens. What I do know is that I have been casually walking along behind my orange stroller, thinking of meal plans or shopping lists, when an unexpected change of wind will lift me entirely out of the present and blow me to some distinct moment in the past. A rare perfume of wet leaves, cheap cigarettes, and car exhaust will send me sailing back in time to a Warsaw tram platform beside a chilly November marketplace where thick-ankled Russian women sell sauerkraut and pickles from plastic-lined barrels. A momentary whiff of shoe polish and gravied pot roast and Old Spice drifting from an open window will float me into my grandmother's Sunday afternoon kitchen, where I sit at the table shelling freshly picked peas into a white glass bowl. I step through the doors of a nursing home, and as the overpowering, antiseptic odors of Lysol and Pine Sol and menthol (and other substances ending in "ol") reach my nose, I am six years old again and terrified—terrified of meeting, just around the corner, the hollow-eyed, toothless man in the plaid shirt and overalls who once followed me down the fluorescent-lit hallway with loud, low grunting noises and drool pooling on his protruding chin. I do not need to see him. I smell him, and that is enough.

And it is enough, too, for me to catch that unmistakable, peppery-rhubarby smell in the August wind. By that alone, I know that school is coming just when it should. I smell that yellow-flowered weed whose name I do not know, and I am transported back into my navy nubuck Mary Janes and white cableknit tights, back to my first day of school in the basement of the Paradise Hills Church of God, perched on a hill above a freshly harvested wheat field where the wind would blow the spicy fragrance through the open windows and across the playground. It's the unmistakable smell of school.

That smell is in the air at this moment. July may have flown without warning, and August may be about to die what had seemed a premature death, but through some strange working of scent and memory, I know that school ought to be underway. I am about to turn that page to September once again, and all I have to do is inhale to know that this is just as it should be.


Anonymous said...

Have had lots of these thoughts lately. What's surprised me is that the smells in Edinburgh seem to be the same as those in Tacoma--similar enough, anyway, to transport me repeatedly back to elementary school over the last week or two. So strange! It almost feels magical!

Thanks, as always, for the lovely way you capture these "mundane" thoughts into words.

Bev Atwood said...

Now that you've identified that plant, I have successfully located it myself. Now we just need to know what the real name is!

Claire said...

Beautiful, Hannah.

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