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Smells of the things

Moscow region


Hot wax on a wool dress. I was four when my great-grandmother died. I distinctly remember the coffin standing in our village house with her body in it. All the mirrors were covered with black rags. Wearing a new wool dress that my grandmother had knitted, I was running around the yard with a neighbor’s boy. I can’t recall his name. There was suddenly a hole in the dress but none of the adults noticed that. They put me on a bus and took me to the cemetery. I was given a candle and was told to hold it carefully so that the wax would not spoil the new dress, which was no longer new. The wax was dripping on the sleeve; so warm and beautiful. The smell of a burning candle mingled with a faint scent of fluffy woollen threads. I don’t remember the funeral, I only remember the delicious-smelling wax pattern on my not new wool dress. (Russia,Moscow region-May 2020)

As a child I would spend every summer with my grandmother who lived in a village by the Nara river in the Moscow region. We had a house and what then seemed to me like a large kitchen garden. There was a field opposite the house.

During the daytime the neighbors’ cows grazed there, and in the evenings all the children were catching May bugs and putting them into glass bottles. A little farther down the field there was an abandoned church. My childhood memories are accompanied by the smells of the things that surrounded me back then. There is a theory called the “Proust Phenomenon“. It says that odor-evoked memories create a sense of” time travel” transporting us back to the most distant and emotional moments of our life. They send such powerful signals to the human brain that meaningful moments from the past are recalled in great detail.

The house no longer belongs to us. It burned down a few years ago. Nevertheless, I go to my village every summer, stop by the fence for a few minutes, inhale the country air and mentally put it into bottles once used for maybugs, so that I can take the fragrance of that carefree time with me. The time when my grandmother, grandfather and father were still alive, and we were all drinking tea together on the terrace.

Strawberry jam. There were always plenty of strawberries, and my grandmother used to make jam out of them. Its scent spread all over the house. We couldn’t leave the kitchen and waited for grandma to remove the foam from the jam and give it to my brother and me. The foam was warm, ash-pink, porous and fluffy and so delicious! Later, when the jam cooled down, we added it to everything! Apparently, I ate too much strawberry jam as a child, and that’s why now I’m allergic to it.
Jasmine Bush. The washstand, like everyone else’s, used to be outside. In order to brush your teeth and wash your face, you had to get dressed, get out of the house and walk around a huge jasmine bush that had grown to such a size that one would do a real deed if one could go through and round the jasmine branches without getting scratched. The daily ritual was accompanied by my grandma’s grumbling at my grandfather because he was just too lazy to cut the bush. Behind the bush on the fence there was hanging a large cubic-shaped iron tank filled with water from the well; a tap clumsily welded to it. The water was very cold, as it would cool down during the night. It seemed to me that the bush had been blooming all summer, and its persistent smell always was an integral part of my quick due to the icy water morning routines.
Well water. There was a large vegetable garden behind the house; a lot of things grew there, and they all had to be looked after: weeding, digging, and, of course, watering. In the courtyard there were huge barrels that collected rainwater for watering the plants. In summer, there was little rain, so we had to go to the well with buckets for water. The whole family went for water; silvery steel buckets rattling in our hands. Dad was pulling a thick rope with a bucket filled with clean well water. And we, the little ones, were allowed to take a few sips from the common ladle that hung on the lid of the well. The water smelled icy cold and of burning freshness; it dripped slowly down the throat, scorching it, making you numb.
Homemade Nescafe instant coffee foam. When I was little, my parents didn’t even hear the word “cappuccino”. This foreign word meant nothing to them. They had their own coffee, instant Nescafe, bought at the village store. Now I can say for sure that it had nothing to do with the taste and smell of real coffee. My mother would put three teaspoons of Nescafe, two teaspoons of granulated sugar and one teaspoon of water in a mug and then stir, and stir, and stir it. She was stirring it very quickly for a very long time until it became lighter in color. After about fifteen minutes, she poured boiling water forming a thick fragrant coffee foam on the surface. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee yet, but what a delight it was to eat the foam! It was amazing!
Field grass. The grass in all the fields was mowed almost at the same time. Fresh, fragrant, and not yet tarnished, it lay in ragged armfuls on the ground. I loved this moment. There was some magic in that fragrance! Gradually, the smell and color of the grass was changing: it was getting less bright and less saturated. After some time it was laid in huge stacks left to dry in the field for a long time. The boys dug tunnels and hid in them. I never climbed into them, because my friend’s grandmother used to tell us scary stories of pitchforks accidentally left in the haystacks. Then the hay was loaded into trailers and transported by the tractor to the sheds, so that there was something to feed the cattle in winter.
River ooze. We used to go to the river in a huge crowd of friends and relatives. I was about six years old and couldn’t swim, but I always said I was just being lazy. I had a blue bathing suit and a pink swim ring. I held on to the swim ring and swam to the middle of the river. The landmark was a brown-green ooze that was perpendicular to the riverbank and almost reached the center of the Nara river. There I would let go of my swim ring, plunge into the water, push my feet off the bottom, grab the swim ring again, and swim back. Once I swam far from the bank, let go of the swim ring, as usual, but could not push off. There was a hole in the ground that I didn’t know about. I tried to get to the surface and catch the swim ring, but it was carried away by the current. I tried to scream, but the water and mud got into my mouth, making it impossible to take a breath. I don’t think anyone saw me or heard me screaming. My mouth tasted like stinking river ooze. I was choking and going under the water. And then there appeared a huge stranger in a yellow child’s cap which was clearly too small for him. He pulled me to the surface of the river, handed me the swim ring, and disappeared as suddenly as he had appeared.-
Earth. At the beginning of May, we always planted potatoes. Almost the whole family were there. But for my grandfather. My grandfather never took part in this event. My grandmother prepared several buckets of ash in advance, and the rest – with seed potatoes. It had to be planted in straight long patches, so that it would be easier to take care of it: to collect beetles from the sprouts, weed and spud. Dad made a huge rake with five teeth to “draw” furrows. That was where his participation in the planting process ended. Then he would just sit down somewhere on the ground. Sometimes he filmed us. Me, my brother, my mother, my grandmother, my aunt, and my cousin would split up in pairs and go to plant. I was always paired with my grandmother. She would make a small hole with a shovel, and I would put a handful of ash and a potato in it, and my grandmother would bury the hole. I did not like to plant potatoes, because it was a very long and tedious process. I was given huge household gloves, just because there were no children’s gloves. They were terribly uncomfortable, they were constantly flying off. At first the gloves were clean and smelled like powder, but after a few hours of planting, the hands turned pale gray from the ash, and they absorbed the insipid, musty smell of earth.
Burnt matches. The toilet used to be in the garden. It was a small detached house. Inside was something that looked like a toilet in an ordinary apartment. A huge hole was dug under the house, which served as a kind of sewer. You can imagine what the smell was like inside and outside . For some reason, I don’t remember there was any air freshener; either because they were rarely brought to the village store, or because they were too expensive. My grandfather once told me that if I didn’t like the smell, I could burn matches. I guess he thought I was old enough to start using matches, as matches are not toys for children! I used to burn a whole box per visit to protect my child’s sense of smell from the aggressive smell of my family’s waste products.
Rubber car mat. Up to the age of ten I used to feel motion sick on any transport. I could only sit in the front seat looking through the windshield. However, small children are not allowed to sit there. When my dad and I went to the grandma’s house in the countryside, he always sat me next to him in his old blue Lada car. When the radar detector hanging on the rearview mirror started beeping, notifying that traffic police officers were somewhere on the road, I had to slide down to the new rubber car mat and stay there until dad would give me a signal. Dad has been gone for more than fifteen years. Now I am buying new rubber mats for my own car.
Palaroid photo of the house of my childhood, which burned down a few years ago.
Palaroid photo of an abandoned church in my village.
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Lena Altshul

Russian photographer from Moscow. Works with photography, collages, graphics. Her interests include family, working with individual and collective memory, and researching interpersonal relationships, studying… More »

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