Janet Sheridan: The smell of a lake
A former lady marine, Miss Erickson taught physical education and health to seventh-grade girls uninterested in either. Wearing her current uniform of slacks, a Pendleton jacket, and a whistle, she taught PE by assigning a game then asking what we were waiting for. Health, however, she taught with enthusiasm and skill.
One day, she started our health class by announcing we would be studying our senses, beginning with the sense of smell. She said she would introduce the day’s lesson by asking us to close our eyes so we could concentrate on a smell she’d release. After she used her drill-sergeant glare to subdue our laughter at the idea of a teacher releasing a smell, she continued, “When you identify the odor, concentrate on any memory that pops into your head because that’s what I’ll want to know. And If you peek, I’ll poke your eyeballs out.”
Squeezing our eyes tight, we sniffed heartily until, given permission to look, we saw she’d been waving a pine bough around the room. When asked what memories the smell had triggered, we spoke of hiking in the mountains, decorating Christmas trees, going to 4-H camp, and gathering pine nuts to roast. Now interested, we willingly participated in the rest of the lesson and learned smell is the sense most closely linked to our memories; and, because we first experience smells when young, odors frequently evoke memories of childhood.
So when I smell Crayola crayons and remember my first-grade teacher saying, “I like the way you colored your sky all the way to the ground, Janet,” or when the smell of lilacs reminds me of holding the fragrant blossoms Mom cut for the graves of our loved ones on Memorial Day, I also remember Miss Erickson.
Of the many smells I experienced as a child, the one that overwhelms me with memories is that of a muddy-edged lake surrounded by the rich, complex smell of water-soaked marshlands and decaying organic matter. I first smelled such a lake, Utah Lake, as crickets thrummed in the deep seam of night and my cries of pain awakened me to a trusted presence, one that held me, rocked me, and eased my pain: the smell of a lake and my mother forever entwined.
Then, when I began exploring outdoors with my siblings or when we slept with our windows open on hot summer nights, I inhaled the air of the lake with each breath I took, air thickened by murky water and tinged by decomposing reeds and salt-marsh grasses. When playing at the lake, my sister and I pretended its smell was the breath of depth-lurking creatures with ruby eyes and incomprehensible speech: fierce, fanciful, amorphous creatures — but kind and happy to see us.
Lake-smell also meant startled seagulls and limping killdeer, cattails and willows, a drain ditch, steep-sided and forbidden, a raft clumsily poled after carp, and cows kicking their heels at horseflies in a nearby field causing the odor of sage to mingle with that of the lake. Though its waters extended farther than I could see in any direction, I knew from family excursions to West Mountain that its smell didn’t change when it lapped a rocky shore in the shadow of a mountain.
To this day, when I smell a lake with water like liquid earth flooding the tangle of dense vegetation around it, I see myself walking through hordes of high-whining mosquitoes, the sound of my dad singing in the barn, and the twilight smell of a lake, cautiously carrying a bucket filled with milk toward a house leaking warm light.
Images of my home, my family, and my childhood rise to the smell of a lake.