What Do Your Memories Smell Like?

I keep a bar of Yardley Flowering English Lavender soap, still in the box, on my desk.  I guess that requires some explanation.

When I was a little girl, I attended Our Lady of Angels school in Brooklyn.  We sat at  wooden desks with fold-down seats, an indentation to hold a pencil, and a hole that once held an inkwell.  We’re talking old.  The front and one side wall of the classroom held enormous blackboards that ran the length of the walls.  The windows were so big it took two kids to open one.  The girls wore itchy woolen uniforms.  We had both lay teachers and religious, both nuns and brothers, though the brothers only taught the upper grades at the time.

The nuns lived austere lives in the little convent across the schoolyard.  I had the chance to go inside the convent one day to help one of the sisters carry some boxes.  It was so clean and quiet.  The corridor was lined on either side with the nuns’ cells.  The floor was covered in brilliant blue carpet that muffled the sound of my hard-soled shoes.  A statue of Mary stood on a pedestal at the end of the hall, flowers resting at her feet.  I was living at the time in a two-bedroom apartment with my five siblings.  I was seven years old before I got my own bed.  Clean was impossible and quiet could only be found in the pre-dawn hours.  I wondered what it would be like to live in that clean, quiet convent where I could even have my own room.

Luxuries were something nuns were not allowed.  It was rumored they weren’t even allowed toothpaste, so they brushed their teeth with baking soda.  When the end of the school year came around, it was customary to give the teacher a little gift.  For the nuns, my mother always chose a gift box of Yardley Flowering English Lavender soap.  It was a gift they clearly appreciated–a welcome change from the plain soap they used every day.

The smell of that soap conjures up wonderful memories of the last day of school.  It was a day of watching the clock.  A day of sweating in the heat of an early New York summer.  There were no fans or air conditioners, and those big windows facing the treeless street only pulled in the heat beating down on the sidewalk.  I sat in my woolen green uniform, report card in hand, waiting for the bell to ring.  When it finally did, I felt the way I imagine a prisoner would feel on being released from the penitentiary.  Freedom.  “No more pencils, no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks!”  Trips to the park.  Bike riding along the path under the Verrazano Bridge.  The beach.  Hot summer evenings playing in the open fire hydrant (we called it a “Johnny pump” back then).  All the good things a child daydreams about on a Tuesday in winter, right after the teacher announces a pop quiz.

I sit at my desk, trying to make enough money to pay a few bills, and I think of where I’d rather be.  I pick up the box of soap and inhale the wonderful flowery fragrance.  For just a moment, it’s the last day of school; and any minute now, I’ll be free.

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