Making scents out of the senses

Making scents out of the senses

Nothing puts you in the holiday spirit more than paying six bucks for a string of lights that cost $1.99 a couple of years ago.

Complain all you want, no one cares. They’ll just blame inflation.

But what’s a person supposed do? You know that as soon as you untangle the ungodly mess you created when stashing stuff away last January, at least five of the strands won’t light. No one knows why this happens, but it’s an immutable Christmas fact, right up there with insipid Hallmark Channel movies and receiving a card from someone you didn’t even think about until it was just too late.

Christmas sometimes seems built for disappointment.

Remember something called the Wish Book? It was a Sears and Roebuck catalog that offered anything and everything a kid could want. You’d spent hours paging through its hundreds of glossy pages, marveling at the toys and the games, sometimes even circling your favorites so that your parents couldn’t miss the hints.

And then you’d get socks and underwear or something even worse, a sweater you wouldn’t be caught dead in or book you’d never read.

One year, when I was maybe 12, I had my heart set on a tabletop pool table, a scaled-down version of the one I’d discovered while on summer vacation with my family. It was cool as all get out, with cue sticks and those multi-colored balls just waiting to be chased around the seeming acres of faux green felt. I didn’t get it.

I think the reason I was given was that it would cut into my homework time, but I knew better. The thing cost nearly $50.

That was a lot back in the mid-Sixties.

I’ll bet something like that goes for 10 times that these days.

But let’s listen to the Grinch, before we stray too far afield.

“‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.’”

I used to love that line, the way it simply cut through the noise, extending a metaphoric sprig of holly to the holiday overwhelmed.

These days, though, I’m pretty much immune to such platitudes.

I prefer the world-weary wisdom of the Rolling Stones: “Nothin’ I do don’t seem to work, it only seems to make matters worse.”

But you can’t cut yourself off entirely from the spirit of the season, whose inescapable ubiquity creates a sensory overload once you’re compelled to venture from your comfort zone. In my case that means work and the less I say about that, the better we’ll all be.

Still, there was a moment last weekend when I found myself drifting back in time, guided as if by my own Dickensian Ghost of Christmas Past, and it caught me utterly, wonderfully by surprise.

They say that the sense of smell is the most potent in terms of its ability to transport a person from the here-and-now to the then-and-there, as anyone who’s ever opened a can of Play-Doh knows.

We all have those olfactory triggers, be they burgers on the grill or that new-car smell, perhaps sandalwood incense or fresh-cut grass.

I suppose that if it were put to a vote, smell would finish first if the question was, “What sense would you immediately part with?”

And I understand that.

Sight, touch, taste and sound seem infinitely more important.

But they’re all gifts from God and, as such, deserve our deepest gratitude, even when they’re much too often taken for granted.

“I once felt sorry for myself,” the saying goes, “because I had no shoes, and then I saw a man who had no feet.” Something like that.

And speaking of walking, I was faithfully doing my rounds the other night, just after sunset, when I became aware of the most pleasant, piquant aroma. It took me a moment to place it in that industrialized setting, the last place I’d expect a small miracle.

Then it all came rushing back to me, the smoky scent of a wood fire in a glowing stove on a winter’s night, skaters gliding – or stumbling, depending on their agility – across the ice, carols rising on the wind through suspended speakers, everyone happy, smiling.

For a minute or so, I simply stood there, as if frozen to the spot, remembering the sound of gloves sizzling as they dried on the surface of the stove, thinking about those stocking caps with the extra-long tails we used to wear and how kids would yank them off and skate away, prankishly, almost innocently. And then I thought of a girl I hadn’t in years, and the way her mittened hand fit snugly in mine as we made our way around the surface, nicely in step.

I don’t know where that smoky wood fire was burning or who was enjoying it that evening, but I wish there was a way to thank them.

All of a sudden, I was young again and gas didn’t cost anything as I covered those miles in a matter of seconds. If only for a brief, lovely interlude, time and distance melted away. I know it wasn’t real, but that’s undeniably part of the allure of this special season.

And it’s OK that I didn’t get a pool table back when I was a kid, paging through the Wish Book. Socks and underwear didn’t break.

Mike Dewey can be reached at or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. He invites you to join the fun on his Facebook page, where comforting aromas are in the air.

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