It is one of those smells that you inhale as a young child and never quite forget as an adult.
I remember it, though I am not really quite sure how old I was at the time. I was at my grandparents’ house in the country, and I woke up on one of those very, very cold holiday mornings, close to Christmas, when stepping on the wooden floor of the farmhouse with bare feet was not only uncomfortable, it was painful. The house got so cold at night that I swear I remember seeing my breath in front of me in the morning. Coming out from under the thick, soft, warm blankets took an act of real courage for a small boy used to the comforts of the city (read, mill village).
But get up I did, as I always did, on that cold morning. Soon someone, whether it was my Grandaddy Jack or my Grandma Ursula or some other responsible adult, would come into the den or the living room (I slept in both over several years of visits to the middle Georgia farm) and do that thing which both terrified and saved at the same time.
They lit the little tan box that was a gas heater.
Now, it was a step up from them having to light the fire, the actual wood fire, that had warmed that front room just a little while before, with its smoke and ash and popping embers. That was another smell for another day, to be sure.
This was a little metal box that had a tiny, single metal grate or guard in the front (little good that did, truth be told), a box that they lit with a long match, a little under a foot long, at arm’s length, and it roared to life with a whoosh and a gush of warmth that was welcome and yet singeing at the same time. I swear I think I still have little white marks on my shins from the times that I sat too close to that heat on those cold mornings, almost wanting to suck it into myself without consuming me, to warm me up from the inside out until it was time for a breakfast of sausage, hard yellow-yolked eggs and biscuits that only my Grandma could make.
It was a whooshy, gassy, warming, burning, wonderful smell/feeling on some of the coldest winter mornings of my idyllic childhood visiting my grandparents’ farm.
I was at work that day, making rounds with the residents and the medical students. I was in a comfortable state of drowsiness, even at that barely-caffeinated time of the morning, as some student or another droned on about some patient or another that had been admitted on some day or another. My pager (yes we did not have smart phones, or even dumb phones back in those dark times) went off.
Odd, I thought, for this time of day. I wondered if my very young daughter was okay…
“You need to come quickly. Your house is on fire.”
My house is on…my HOUSE is on…..MY HOUSE IS ON FIRE!
“I have to go. Now.”
Out the door, into the car, roaring back toward the opposite side of town, turn into the subdivision, down the main street, turn right, a couple of blocks, and on the left, on the left…
Our gray, wooden frame, attached-carport, baby swing hanging from the tree limb in the back yard single family home, which we had recently moved out of and just rented to someone to get us through the next few months until we could get it sold and move on to the next chapter…
The firemen had responded quickly (thank the Lord for that) but the fire, I later found out, had started when the renters, moving in that cold day, decided to start a fire in the fireplace while they labored, but did not properly open the vent. The flames roared too high, climbed the inside of the chimney, raced to the attic and then across it, and soon the whole roof blazed like a giant torch.
The house was not a total loss (we would later rebuild it completely and sell it), but the smell, that smell that hit me as I got out of the car and saw something that we owned, that we had lived in with a little baby, burning and smoking and dripping now-wet ash, was a smell that I would never quite banish from my nostrils.
Acrid. Hot. Wet. Smokey. Acid.
I walked outside today, leaving the office at a leisurely pace, getting ready to drive home from the South Carolina countryside and the clinic we maintain there. It had been a very light day. Many of my new patients, scheduled to come in right after the holiday for their first appointments with me, had decided that taking down Christmas decorations or cleaning up after the New Year’s Eve party was a tad bit more important than coming in. I was ready to call this one done and go home.
The smell hit me, and a thousand memories rushed into my head, as if poised there and just waiting to be given the signal to come back.
It was that smokey-cold, biting, slightly pungent smell of a wintertime coming later than usual to these parts. A delayed fall, early winter smell that was welcome, since we’ve had unseasonably warm temps and higher than usual creeks and rivers over the last few weeks in both Carolina and Georgia.
It brought back good memories, warm and pleasant thoughts of hayrides and warm, bulky sweaters and hot chocolate and apple cider and knowing that the winter was coming, and feeling sure that meant spring could not be too far behind.
I smiled as I turned Rosie into the bright, low, winter sunshine for the drive home.