The Scent of A Woman: Memories of My Mother & a Childhood on a Farm

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It’s said that scent is one of our most enduring memories. Having grown up on a farm, I can recall a mixture of aromas, strong and delicate, sharp and sweet.

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The heady scent of honeysuckle drifting into the farmhouse with the spring breeze. The smell of sunshine and earth clinging to a tomato plucked fresh from the vine and begging for a knife and a little salt. The mouth-watering aroma of a homemade cobbler, made with blackberries picked on a trip to the pastures, baking in the oven.  The acrid scent of a warming wood fire on a  cold winter’s night. thCABU735V

And the not-so-pleasant ones.

The stench of “cow patties” steaming in the summer heat on the path down to the pastures. The strong whiffs of ammonia inside the poultry houses after their inhabitants had been in residence for several weeks. 

The curious metallic tang of blood, sharp as a paring knife’s edge, mingled with the odor of singed feathers on the days when some of those chickens went to the chopping block, their eventual resting place in the deep freeze on the back porch.

Some scents, not necessarily of the most delicious kind, were so familiar as part of the landscape of my childhood they remain strangely comforting—the smell of chicken feed pellets pouring into the giant bins atop the poultry houses, for example. That scent memory returns to me every time I open a bag of dry dog or cat food. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I can never forget the unmistakable aroma of the Vicks Vapo-Rub my mother applied to my chest when my many allergy and sinus problems plagued me, its fumes working their way into congested nostrils, allowing me to breathe a little more easily once again.

And I remember the scent of my mother herself. Working on a farm surely left her sweaty and dusty, but the aroma of physical labor is not what I recall.

It’s the fragrance of the cream she religiously applied each night to her face, encountered as I pressed a good night kiss to that soft and slightly greasy cheek. The clean smell of the Dove soap she washed her face with each morning and evening and the body powder she applied liberally after showering.

It’s the scent of the various colognes she wore over the years, most especially Youth-Dew, which became a sort of signature fragrance for her. I was allergic to its spicy Oriental notes and could not wear it myself, yet I loved the way it smelled on her. thCAD3CHSC Youth-Dew was a treat, a luxury she wouldn’t buy for herself, so it was often a gift from one of her girls. Mama reveled in its rich, uber-feminine scent, and was delighted when gifted with it in its various forms—eau de parfum, dusting powder, lotion—allowing her to layer the fragrance and make it last even longer.

And it still lingers with me, four years after she left us. If I catch a whiff of Youth-Dew now, my nose twitches and my eyes water a little  (yes, still allergic), yet I cannot help but smile.

It smells like Mama. BeFunky_247758_10201273982156793_942115194_n.jpg Happy Mother’s Day to you all.

About fedoralady

I'm an LA native--Lower Alabama, that is. My husband of more than 30 years and I live here on a portion of my family's former farm with two gorgeous calicos and a handsome GSD mix. My background is art education, and over the years I've been a teacher, department store photographer, sales associate and a journalist. My husband, his business partner and I have Pecan Ridge Productions, a video production company, for which I shoot & edit video and stills and manage marketing. I also still write part-time for the local paper. I love movies, music, art, photography and books, and my tastes in all of them are eclectic.

16 responses »

  1. Youth-Dew: the names they came up with for stuff back in the day … 🙂

    Farms really do have distinctive odors and I’m actually grateful for my association with them even though I never especially liked farm chores and was happy my parents didn’t farm. I feel like, in our overperfumed world, it wouldn’t be bad if more people were familiar with actual bad smells. That’s probably a weird perception to have …

    • I agree with you, Serv. We lived in such an insulated, climate-controlled, smell-neutered environment these days, I feel as if many people are missing out on, I don’t know–the scent of life?? Of course, I made my way back to the country, and although there is no working farm here anymore, I still enjoy some of those scents of my childhood–the honeysuckle and sweet shrub scent that is currently wafting through the bedroom window, for example.

      And when our neighbor “across the branch” put out that ever-potent chicken fertilizer on his fields recently, I relived another childhood memory when the wind blew just right. 😉 Farming is a tough way to make a living (the reason my parents went into poultry farming is cash crops, cattle and hay weren’t paying the bills) and it’s not something I’d recommend going into for a living. Yet I am really glad I got to grow up here.

      Youth-Dew–yes, I need to see if I can find the reason for that name. 😉 It is one of their oldest fragrances to still be marketed, a testament to its enduring popularity.

      • The thing I always think of is the pea harvest. Our neighbor had a big field that came right up to the end of the lot that was planted in peas every third year or so. When those peavines were harvested, usually early July, it stunk so badly you couldn’t sleep from it — and the house was not airconditioned then so the windows were wide open all summer except it was raining … I’m not nostalgic, but I know what a bad smell is and it’s not human sweat.

        Now that field is a subdivision where all the houses look the same, the neighbors complain about unpruned trees on my parents’ lot, but we don’t hear them b/c the house is airconditioned and the windows are closed all summer. Times change …

        • I understand where you are coming from. We didn’t have air conditioning, either, so the smells of the farm, good, bad and indifferent, came in to live with us. I actually could not go into the chicken houses at a certain point because the smell of ammonia mixed with the heavy dust and all those feathers (to which I was also allergic, it turned out) wasn’t just unpleasant; I could feel my throat literally starting to close on me. I still can’t use ammonia as a cleaning agent. It was one way to get out working in there on the worst days. 😉

          Times have definitely changed. We don’t have working central air right now so I am reliving my memories more easily of late. It’s getting hot again so soon will be listening to the hum of the window air conditioner drowning out the birdsong . . .

  2. Such a lovely remembrance of your mother, Angie–this has always been a rough time for me since my mother passed away in 1999. She was very ill at the last, but up until she became ill that last time, her faculties were in good shape and she was able to enjoy holidays and celebrations; so it was really only the last six months that her life was not what I would have wished for her. I do still miss her and think of her almost every day.

    • It’s really a bittersweet time for me, too. I’ve been feeling emotional the last several days and this morning I just had to have a bit of a cry about it all. Mama was always such an active person but a series of breaks and fractures (both hips and an ankle) began to slow her down a bit physically those final years. And she had incidences of mini-strokes, which left her with some deficits. It was difficult to see someone who had always been so independent and proud of that independence becoming rather frail and uncertain.

      We had to pool our resources together, my sisters and I, to put her into assisted living as I was working full-time then and we worried about her being out here in the country by herself. There were nursing home stays when she got sick with pneumonia and was too weak to go back to Pine Needle and oh, she hated it in the nursing home. I left in tears and frustration more than once. Because I was the only child living nearby, I was the one with her the most. In the end, we certainly didn’t want to let go of her, but her health had declined to the point there was no getting better. Signing the papers to remove someone from life support is one of the hardest things you will ever do. But it was also what she’d told me she wanted time and time again.

      I will always miss her.

      • Although I had promised her that I would never let her be put in a nursing home, the local hospice organization finally insisted because I worked such long hours (my brother did also at that point) and we had problems finding sitters to go up to Signal Mountain where we were living at the time. I’d fought them off for almost four months because I kept telling them that she wouldn’t survive if they took her to a nursing home, but they insisted, telling me it would just be for however long it took me to “sort things out”. She passed away less than 48 hours later. And no, I will never get over it. I know that my brother never did either.

        • We have to make some tough choices in life when it comes to our loved ones. Mama lived for almost seven hours after everything but the palliative measures were discontinued. My sisters and Benny were there with me. In a way, those agonizing hours helped because we had to watch and listen to her labor for every single breath and it just reinforced our knowledge that the quality of life wasn’t there anymore. The heart attack she’d had before slipping into unconsciousness more than a week before had thrown clots and one had cut off the circulation to her foot. It had gone cadaverous. She had infections that had set in on top of the pneumonia.

          I told Benny this morning that the saying “Time heals all wounds” is inaccurate. Oh, the blow may be softened a bit, but the pain never quite goes away.

  3. One of my favorite country scents has always been honeysuckle–on the rare occasions I wear cologne, I wear one with a honeysuckle aroma that I found at a specialty shop here in DC. I still love it.

      • We don’t have any where we live at the moment, which is surprising since the property itself is fairly large and surrounded in the back by fencing. I wish we did–we do, however, have a lovely iris right in front of the house which has bloomed beautifully over the last two days. WE had a huge storm last night and I was afraid the poor thing would get beaten into the ground–it does look a bit bedraggled, but it’s still mostly upright and the blooms are still pretty. I’m hoping it will hang on for another day or so.

  4. I luckily have my mother still with me. She lives with me now so I can look after her. She’s soon to 90. I laughed and cried at your essay of “Remembering Mama.” For me it’s Emeraude perfume. My Dad started her wearing it, he’s been gone now 30 years, the victim of the dreaded “C”. It’s green, you can only get it sometimes at some local drugstore, Rexall, CVS, etc., so when I see it I buy it. Her skin is still beautiful and soft, I can never remember her ever smelling of anything but Emeraude. Thanks for sharing the memories of your mother with us. I willingly share my mother with you. Her name is Eleanor. She has always had plenty of love for all of my friends. She would not hesitate to give you a hug.

  5. Thank you Angie for this post. I have thought of my mom in the past couple days also. My mom has been gone for 9 1/2 year now, we where never close as she was very close to her own mom and that was the way it was. But you only have one mom and when she is gone you lose a bit of yourself. I got on because I was young and the boys where 12, 4 and almost 3 at the time, they needed me to be their mom and not fall apart on them.

  6. And I’m sitting here crying because I miss my grandma so much… I have the scarf she wore around her neck every day, and for about a year after she passed, I could still catch an increasingly faint scent of her on it; but now it just smells like the bag I stored it in. Having that sense memory of her would be so precious… I’m so glad for you that you have it. :}

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