The Power of Smell

As a toddler, most things that happen to you are in the daytime, with mothers being the likely fillers of later memory gaps – especially in the 1950s, when hands on mothering was encouraged. My mother was never a reliable witness though, due to her diminishing grasp on reality, so the caulking for this tale has been periodically provided by my brother.

I had just had my second birthday and Brubby was nearly ten: it was December, it was cold, and my mother was ironing in the only heated room of the house. We were with her. Brubby was up to some familiar and apparently annoying antic, causing our mother to shout at him. The sound made me jump and I lost my balance, putting my hand out for the nearest thing – the fireguard. Being the common type we had in those days, it was designed only to keep sparks from the room, it slipped away casting me into the fire.

My mother snatched me up and ran to a neighbour, whilst Brubby was left to fend for himself. It seems he had the presence of mind to unplug the iron, or things might have been worse. Perhaps he stayed to mind the house, or perhaps another neighbour took him in. Either way, he must have been worried about me and, perhaps, blamed himself for what had happened. By chance, my left hand landed high on the baffle-plate at the back of the fire, saving me from falling face down into the grate. The palm and fingers of my hand were, however, completely seared. Now, I don’t remember any of this, and most definitely don’t remember any pain although it must have been severe. I do, though, have an enduring memory of the months that followed.

I was rushed, by whatever means, for medical attention: probably from the District Nurse, who lived at the other end of the village. Certainly, it was she who regularly changed the dressings: a yellow square of camphor and lanolin soaked gauze, carefully taken from a flat metal tin, was placed onto the palm of my hand using tweezers; a layer of soft lint followed and a light binding of gauze held it in place. Then, I was tightly bandaged from the finger tips to the elbow, using thicker gauze bandages that had no give in them. This was to stop the air from getting in and me from flexing my hand. It must have worked well, because I remember not being able to play with my toys properly. I also have a vague recollection of one of Brubby’s long socks being used, to cover the bandage and keep it clean. I don’t think I minded, as I looked forward to seeing Nurse Ashby: I was captivated by her bright eyes and bouncy brown hair.  As she painstakingly dressed my hand, she kept smiling at me and then, one day, she gave me a present. It was a book. She had bought it especially; I thought she was lovely.

After a few weeks, the tight gauze bandage was exchanged for a crepe one and I was able to move my fingers, the tips of which now peeped out. They were pink and plump and shiny, like new born mice. I still couldn’t pick things up, but I was pleased: this bandage gave some room for me to sniff at the ointment soaked dressing. I loved that smell. In fact, I became so attached to it that, when the last dressing was removed, I cried and cried. I shouldn’t have worried, the smell had permeated my flesh; I slept happy, my hand to my nose, every night for weeks.

With no disfigurement and no mental scars from the incident, I have never blamed anybody. Why would I? The care was excellent and the action so prompt, I was saved from a skin graft; because I was so young the distinctive whorls returned to my finger ends and I have a lifeline as does everyone else. Of course, my mother said it was her fault; mothers blame themselves for lack of vigilance and beyond that I thought she meant because she’d yelled. Years later, though, she said it had been done to punish her. Why she thought she might be punished, and by whom, was not then clear.

For a long time there’ve been more modern ways for treating burns but, just sometimes, I’ve caught the smell again – it always triggers visual flashes of Nurse Ashby, and a feeling of being content. How lucky!

Pets, Emotions and the Embedding of Memory

image from Wikipedia
image from Wikipedia
Our parents were keen that my brother and I learned about life, compassion and loss, by caring for pets. Of, course I say parents, plural, but my mother could not always be part of this equation and I have no knowledge what her real influence was, apart from the budgerigar.

Our budgie, joined us when I was a baby. He was, apparently, my mother’s choice in that she refused the more common blue variety, insisting on one that was bright green. A few well placed yellow feathers gave ours the look of a cheeky boy, so that’s how he was named – Cheeky for short. If this was my mother’s choice, it reminds me there was a fun side to her that I seldom glimpsed, but I think it more likely my brother’s call and that the pet was a distraction for him when I was born.

It was, though, when a replacement was needed I witnessed my mother’s insistence on the colour. I was about eight, at this point, but didn’t ask her reasoning. Her brother, my uncle, had an aviary of such birds but mainly blue; perhaps my mother saw a green one as an oddity, echoing her own strangeness, or perhaps, to her artistic self, the pop of colour brought her joy. Anyway, it was our first edition Cheeky that provided one of my earliest memories – anchoring, for me, a period where my mother was at home and where life must have equated to somewhere near normal.

It was the practice in those days, to place very young children in the fresh air for the afternoon; coach built prams accommodating offspring until around two years of age. These ‘naps’ lasted in the region of two hours and happened more or less year round, barring thunderstorms or other times of driving rain. It gave mothers a welcome break and built resilience, both mental and physical, in their children.

On the day in question, I remember it to be pleasant, later fixing it as being autumn – on account of coloured leaves swirling above my head. I recall liking them and the nearly bare trees, against the pale blue sky. I was pleased too, because my mother brought Cheeky out to keep me company, saying it was a nice day and the air would do him good. His cage hung from a chrome stand and had an elasticated ‘skirt’: a bag made of lightweight plastic, slipped over the cage base, stopping thrown seed from strewing on the floor. (Note: much of the detail for this description comes from our having the cage for many years, so that I saw it daily, bolstering the visual memory, nonetheless I was aware of the bright gleam of sunshine on thin metal bars, at the time.)

I know that, as I glimpsed the cage, I chatted to Cheeky in my own way. But it was when the breeze strengthened and the cage began to swing that I became excited. I can remember trying to sit up,  putting my hand on the left side of the pram and pulling so that I was half raised. I would have been strapped in, of course, and frustrated not to sit up entirely – but then his cage came crashing onto the pram. I rolled back with the shock, bundled in all my warm clothes, but rallied and took up the conversation again. Cheeky, agitated by his unexpected flight, began to calm down. (Note: this detail of reasoning, comes from subsequent reflection on the embedded visual.) But here is the strangest thing: I can remember, and have always remembered, thinking, ‘I have a friend to talk to now; Cheeky is my friend,’ delighting in the fact. I absolutely remember trying to tell him the word friend, but was also conscious my attempts at the word were not right, trying again and again. I have then to deduce: I had the capacity for thought and for embedding memory, but not the language to articulate it. I knew my chat was merely babble.

Now, I am sure many will say this is a false memory, that presents itself as real: that it came from versions others told. I cannot prove it otherwise, but can say this: my brother, seven years older than me, was shocked to hear me speak of this a few years back. He, as the only witness, told me more. Apparently, he arrived home from school to find the cage tipped onto the pram, as I describe. He could see it had blown over and worried that our pet was hurt or flown. When he saw all was well he became  amused at my jabber, being more than he had heard me talk before.

In the way of older brothers, he decided to entertain me with his superior knowledge, explaining birds ate seeds, but others also ate worms. To show me what he meant he proceeded to find one, bringing it to let me see. And yes, you’ve guessed, I grabbed it from his hand and gobbled it right down. Terrified he’d poisoned me he ran for help, telling only of the fallen cage and fretting for the rest of the day, in case he was found out. Thankfully, I have no memory of the worm event, excepting a vague image of my mother, with her dark hair and housework pinny, rescuing me from the garden where my brother had left us.

As to exactly when this all occurred, I can’t be sure, but clues remain. The visual chain memory hints at the second of my homes, making me nearly three, if my assumption of autumn is correct. On the other hand, my brother insists it was before we moved (a garden also overlooked by trees), putting me at less than two. Elements of the story suggest this to be true. I don’t really accept I could embed such memory earlier than this, although the instinctive consumption of the worm might contradict that. Beyond this it is the absence of my grandmother, who joined our household when we moved, and the presence of my mother that seems to prove my brother right. That I had the capacity of thought, with only some understanding of language and without the means to articulate it is, however, undeniably clear to me.

Where it all began

early days at school
early days at school

I began life in rural Oxfordshire: in a village of both political and religious dissent; a place that harboured secrets and where tales of witchcraft still whispered in the walls. Within that context, I was nomadic from the age of two.  

My mother suffered from serious mental health issues and, although her mother (Nanna) was drafted in to fill the mothering space, I was determined to be free range. Family time and energies were caught up with other things and, with a close village community, my wanderings rarely caused concern.

Perhaps it was the notion of things not being right at home that lead people to take me in, or perhaps I was an enchanting child. Whatever the reason, I walked through open doors and many that were normally closed. I was welcomed at tables where others feared to go and it is that broad church of experience, that began to carve the person that is me.