“Smell is the most powerful trigger to the memory there is. A certain flower or a whiff of smoke can bring up experiences long forgotten.”
– Rupert Giles, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: I Robot… You Jane”
Sometimes, I miss my maternal grandparents’ house in Chicagoland as much as I miss my grandparents.
My Grandma Mary was a typical Sicilian grandmother; a worrier and an advice-giver (also known as a meddler). She loved that her children and grandchildren excelled. She could cook amazing Italian dishes and always had stuff for us to eat. She also stocked sweets, which were usually verboten at my parents’ home. She didn’t always know what best to do, but she always tried her best. She was a sweet woman.
I always got along best with my grandfather. Grandpa Kelly (real name, Canio) was born in Italy. He grew up in Chicago from the age of eight. He was smart, clever with his hands, and, I swear, could figure out any construction problem. He could sight angles and level wood by eye like you wouldn’t believe.
A short stocky Italian who had done semi-skilled and manual labor all his life, he was very proud that my mom finished college. The Depression had interrupted his chances.
He loved that I was smart and did well in school. I tried to learn his tricks of the trade, though I hadn’t the talent. He told great stories and loved to show off his dye-making and lathe tools, especially the ones he made himself.
In the 1950’s, when he had a family of his own, Grandpa Kelly built a house in a semi-rural area (which later became a suburb called Franklin Park). The house was a beautiful white Americana-style structure with one main floor, a large basement and a big attic. The attic had a loft that, when I grew older, I loved to sleep in at night – way creepy, in a good way!
Though it was a lovely entrance, the front door was rarely used. This was probably because the steep steps would be slippery in the icy winters. The main foyer was also small and would have been hard to keep clean and dry.
The most unusual feature of the home for me was the back entrance. There was an outer door that lead into a narrow enclosed stairway. Five steps led down to the basement. A window set in the kitchen above the cellar looked into this anteroom, which had its own windows and skylights looking out. Another set of carpeted stairs went up to a door that opened onto an closed-in porch. Once there, you could access the house proper.
I used to love going to their house, especially in winter. For one thing, a trip up north in winter meant the possibility of snow. For another, I always felt more at home in Franklin Park than I did in Metairie, Louisiana. I may have left it at the age of two, but Illinois seemed ‘normal’ for me. We always had family to visit, and the energy was different. If I had to live in a big city, I’m pretty sure I could find a niche in Chicago.
Considering the amount of wet and snowy boots that had tramped up and down those steps, that outer room had developed a distinct musty smell over the years. Weird though it may be to say, I loved that smell. Even when emotions in my grandparents’ house got tense (and there were always sparks between my mother and me), I could go into that mud room, take a deep breath and calm down. For all I know, the mold might have given me a slight high!
On the other hand, I hated school. I didn’t mind the lessons or the teachers. When I went to Catholic school, most of the nuns were actually very nice. I simply couldn’t relate to my fellow students, and they didn’t like me. I was an avid reader and rather klutzy. I was driven to succeed academically and, being socially awkward, was never good at making friends. I read stories and watched TV shows my fellow students had never heard of, and couldn’t stand the bubble-gum book series like “Sweet Valley High”.
I remember I began at St. Benilde School in the third grade. I found out (years later) that it was a remark I said that first year that set up the rest of my five years there. I wasn’t wanted to join in games, and I eventually stopped trying.
I was teased for my looks. I found myself more comfortable hanging out with the teachers in the recess yard. I did it frequently, as much for company as anything else. I’m sure that did nothing for my popularity.
It was late in my tenure at this place that I discovered ‘the spot.’ I can’t remember what year it was–sixth or seventh grade—that I found it. I had gone walking around the convent wall, trying to find a quiet place to think and not feel the press of others. I remember it was near a window unit and a drainpipe for the gutters. At the time, all I thought was it was out of sight of the school yard, sunny and not too hot (a rare thing in Louisiana). I was also considering whether to slip out the gate and try to walk home.
As I leaned against the wall, I smelled it. It was that same musty scent that I remembered from my grandparents’ house in Chicago. It was wonderful. It was familiar. It soothed me.
I went there every day I could.
In the end, some of the “bad girls” found the isolation useful for their own purposes and drove me from ‘the spot.’ Yet, I’ve never forgotten those recesses when I felt relaxed, safe and at home.