Things smell all right

A long-held belief — whether it’s based on myth, practice or even superstition — says that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Taking that analogy a step farther, we can then assume that a broken bone actually heals and becomes tougher, or a person who survives a particular illness soon become impervious to that ailment, a kind of immunity.

It was later in life that I heard many versions of the “makes us stronger” mantra, usually on the football field or at some athletic event.

I wonder, then, whether some of the body’s senses act the same way. Specifically, when I began smoking, around my junior year in high school, I started noticing that my sense of smell weakened. The piquant aroma of the really hot chile Mom used to make somehow didn’t hit me in the same way.

Before that, coming for supper each evening after delivering papers, I could usually recite Mom’s entire menu for that meal.

I smoked for more than two decades, and marrying into a family of non-smokers, I was criticized, both for the odor the cigarettes emitted and for my inability to sense, for example, whether food was being overcooked, or burnt. The difference between me as a smoker and non-smoker seemed great.

When I quit — and that quitting somehow left me with absolutely no desire ever to pick up the habit again — my sense of smell not only returned, but it increased. Of course, that can be a mixed blessing, as there are some odors we prefer not to run across.

In an earlier column, I wrote about how I’m now able to “return” to a time in my childhood when those aromas surrounded me. In that column, I wrote that having been in virtually every house on my route, when I delivered Optics as a teen, I can still capture the aromas of each house. And if there were a way to have preserved these scents, I’m confident I would still be able to say, “Well, that smell I remember from Mrs. Kemm’s house, across the street.”

A few days ago, for example, I was walking along Railroad Avenue, in my childhood haunt. At our house, continuously occupied by a member of the Trujillo family, until just a few years ago, there used to be a hydrant near which grew some spearmint leaves. We’d often grab a handful to chew on, or we’d use the leaves to flavor the water we drew from the hydrant, and enjoy our own brand of mint tea.

During this walk, a few doors from my childhood house, I got a whiff of this “menta verde,” or as we called it, “polillo,” and I thought for a second I’d turned back to my childhood. The scent of the spearmint was acute, and for a few moments I recalled things vividly.

I could almost see the then-populated streets and sidewalks where there was constant activity. Lacking Smart Phones in those days, the ‘40s and ‘50s, we entertained ourselves on the street. We used to have one of the more attractive houses and gardens on Railroad. It became that way because our dad acquired a slavish devotion to plant life. But it came gradually.

When we were growing up, we had a huge mound of ashes in back, courtesy of our wood-burning stove. There was a ramshackle shed, which we kids played in. Not a blade of grass grew there.

But one day, a police officer making the rounds stopped at our house. His orders were to instruct all residents in that area that the city government had issued a cleanup order, which would mean large-scale removal of junked cars, trash and woodpiles.

Though probably miffed at first, Dad almost immediately transformed the back yard to a real showplace: An upper and lower lawn, a nook for barbecuing, a variety of flowers, gorgeous trees and carefully designed walkways.

Of course, the garden became Dad’s passion, and visitors could scarcely escape a tour of the premises. My main recollection was the fragrances. Until I began smoking, I could distinguish each individual plant, even if couldn’t identify them.

The years have modified things for me. As with most people in their 70s and older, the hearing slips; the eyes lose their acuity, and the teeth, well, let’s not go there. It all makes me wonder why my sense of smell remains so keen.

I wonder whether the fact that some food smells so good makes me eager to indulge more, and in the process, keep putting on weight.

• • •

Surprisingly, some people are familiar with the Spanish word, “fregar” as a verb meaning to scour dishes. Christine Garcia told me her parents used the term, which I had never thought of in that context, until just recently.

Mayor Alfonso Ortiz, similarly, possesses an entire lexicon of terms he grew up with. In the future I hope to examine some of those words. And finally, a co-worker came across a scouring pad called a “fregón.” It is now tacked on to my office bulletin board.

You will recall that the only context in which I ever heard “fregar” was in the sense of someone who pesters people. “No friegues” is what we tell someone whose buggability penchant is high. But a “fregón” as a scouring pad? I’m surprised, as that’s the same word Mom often used on me each time I’d ask, “Is supper ready yet?”

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