My mother died in 1987, when I was eight years old.
My brother was five and my sister was two. Her breast cancer had been discovered too late by condescending doctors who had pooh-poohed her earlier complaints and symptoms, so by the time it was officially caught, the cancer had already begun doing a number on the rest of her body, including, eventually, her spinal fluid. There was chemotherapy, hair loss, weight gain, and the hallucinations I remember trying to calmly and rationally talk her out of while I stood meekly at her bedside.
The chronology of that year and a half and the exact circumstances of her diagnosis, treatment, and eventual death remain a blur to me. And now that all four of my grandparents and my father have died as well, there are precious few people around anymore who could tell me the objective details to set the record straight, if I even dared ask them. So, the story of that time remains an eight year old’s.
Part of that eight year old’s story is that, sometime not long after the wake and funeral, perhaps only a day or two, I was pulled aside by my uncle, my father’s brother, who told me quietly, “You know, it would be a big help to your dad right now if you could go stay with Barb and Steve for a little while.” Barb was their cousin and Steve was her husband, and at that time they had two daughters around my age and a third a bit younger. They lived about an hour and a half east of us, in a rural area near South Bend, Indiana.
Though my uncle’s tone made it sound like a suggestion, a task I might pursue in order to be even more the model daughter than I already was, the decision, of course, had already been made for me, the arrangements already set in motion. I had no choice but to assent, even though it felt, devastatingly, as if I were being sent away. Which, no matter what way I look at it even now, I was.
I could see no reason why I should be the one to be packed off. I was the oldest child, the one most capable of being helpful around the house, the one most able to be self-reliant, while my brother and sister, three and six years younger than I respectively, were true children who needed taking care of and looking after. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to jettison one of them?
The only remotely satisfying conclusion I’ve ever been able to come to is that I simply looked too much like my dead mother, with my brown eyes and then-curly dark hair and precocious maturity. Seeing me hovering at his elbow at that delicate time likely would have driven my father into inconvenient paroxysms of grief.
And so eastward I was driven, to a house I remember as enormous, on a piece of land I remember as sprawling, nestled near several actual working farms I remember as confounding and mysterious. Having grown up in a small town about 45 minutes away from Chicago, even at that age I felt divorced from any sense of belonging to Indiana’s Heartland heritage, casting my lot instead with the bustle and culture afforded by and associated with the big city.
The classic “stranger in a strange land” story I always tell about that sojourn in the country is about the time when Barb asked, by way of involving me in the family’s chores, if I would go get the mail. I went out onto the porch and looked for a mailbox mounted to the side of the house near the front door, the equivalent of where it would have been at my house in the suburbs, and saw nothing. So, I went to the back door and there, too, saw no mailbox. I recall then circumambulating the house, probably multiple times, and checking both doors again for good measure, looking for where the mailbox could possibly be hiding.
Eventually, feeling a horrible combination of frustration, shame, and defeat, I went back into the house after who knows how long and, burning with helplessness, confessed to Barb that I couldn’t find the mailbox, that I’d looked on the front porch and it wasn’t there. I remember her expression melting as she gently explained that it was at the end of the driveway. I got the mail, relieved to be of use once again.
I have no recollection of how long I stayed with them; my best guess is something like a week to ten days. I do know I would have been there through the end of May and likely into the beginning of June. In other words, it was the late spring—when manure gets spread on the cornfields.
One morning I remember waking and going outside into the rising heat of the day and being blasted with the worst smell I had ever smelled. It was like the odor of changing my baby sister’s diapers but writ large across the entire landscape. The stench was like a wet quilt wrapped around me, totally enveloping. I had no context for the enormity of it and, more alarmingly, no expectation of escaping it. As long as I was bound to that house and its immediate environs, that smell would be there. If there was a brief moment of blessed respite, the wind would shift direction and blow a fresh assault at me.
Once again, my hosts tried to compassionately explain that manure was just something to be expected out in the country, an inevitability of farm life, something to be borne at first and eventually habituated to. I didn’t, however, really feel like I needed any more lessons in life’s inevitabilities at that point, thank you very much, and inwardly seethed at what felt like a final, revolting insult, one more marker that I didn’t fit in, that I didn’t belong, that I didn’t understand the way things worked.
I don’t think I ever outright complained about the smell of the manure, though I suppose I didn’t have to. My poker face has never been the best, and I’m sure my initial, obvious revulsion was responsible for their launching into an explanation of the manure’s purpose in the first place. But, what I couldn’t have explained at that time, even if I’d wanted to, was that I was infatuated with the power and magic of smell, perhaps to an abnormal degree.
It just wasn’t in my nature to let a scent, even a horrendous one, fade into the background of my consciousness until I could figure it out. Even if figuring it out simply meant—as with the magnificence of soft, clean towels straight out of the dryer; fresh cut grass mixed with lawnmower fuel; chocolate chip cookies getting warm and gooey in the oven; the invisible, mineral approach of the lakeshore on a drive to the beach; and other familiar scent pleasures of childhood—figuring out how can I get more of this up my nose and into my brain?
And so, restless and fixated, my nose got stuck on the manure, essentially trying to solve the problem of it—circling the house, trying to find the mailbox. I was searching for a hint that maybe there was something appealing hidden inside it, the way rubbery skunk blast always secretly brought me joy. But I only ended up encountering, time and again, my own resistance to it, my outsider’s unfamiliarity with the way it worked. Its noxious, maddening persistence eventually beat me at my own game.
Well over ten years later, on a springtime road trip from the Bloomington campus of Indiana University north to Valparaiso with my best friend Mary and her fiancé Mike, we passed through a particularly pungent fog of manure that had evidently been recently laid in the fields along the highway, somewhere in central Indiana. As Mary caught a whiff and bellowed a knee-jerk “yuck!” from behind the wheel, Mike, perched in the front seat, cranked up the car stereo. “I’m sensory confusion guy!” he laughed, the idea being that he was drowning out the noise in our ears with music rather than rolling up the windows to stop the assault on our noses.
I’ve been delighted by the absurd elegance of that joke for over a decade now, despite the fact that I can never seem to accurately convey how extremely funny it was to me at the time. Partly it’s to do with the late-’90s brand of non-sequitur humor my group of friends cultivated in college, but mostly it’s to do with the implicit acknowledgment that the scent of manure is unresolvable, irreducible, in many ways impossible to “fix” and therefore ridiculous and best dealt with through mockery. The regime-toppling power of humor turned out to be the last, and best, recourse to dealing with the terror of its mute, brute force. That, and the ability to speed away from it at last, at 65 miles per hour, with friends who loved me, and understood me, and spoke my language, and also brought heavenly smelling, fresh-baked banana bread along for the ride.
With gratitude to Tara Swords of Olfactif for instigating and igniting my thinking on scent memories.