Friday, June 14, 2019

Love smells


I'm like most humans. Certain smells get to me.

Drop a nice hunk of butter onto a red-hot skillet and before it has melted I am transported to my brother Joe’s apartment in Queens, watching as he carefully prepares the special pancakes that he knows I love so much. Pour out a glass of sweet red vermouth and at the first whiff my dear Uncle Dominic and I are sitting under his grapevine, telling stories and watching the bottle slowly drain as the summer sun sets.

Recently I awoke in the middle of the night to the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete. I love having the smell of freshly mixed wet concrete inside of me—because when it is inside of me so too is Uncle Joe

From the time I was old enough to carry a handful of bricks or move a filled wheelbarrow without assistance my mother’s eldest brother made certain to put me to work. He did not need a little kid working on his crew, but the man took his job as uncle (and godfather to me) very seriously.

After my father died Uncle Joe became even more committed to watching out for me, and by the time he himself passed I had become a pretty decent laborer. I remember the last summer that I worked with my uncle, the one where I had finally gotten the hang of not just mixing but properly laying down fresh concrete. It was a fairly large bit of sidewalk on a job in downtown Brooklyn and Neil, my uncle’s best concrete man, hadn't made it in to work.

“This one’s all yours, chief,” I heard that ever benevolent voice say from alongside me. “Time you took charge, don’t you think?”

I was by no means in charge, of course, but did manage to lay down a respectable bit of sidewalk, with the patient guidance of a man that I loved as deeply as any other. 

I’m proud to have the smell of his sand and gravel and mortar living in my brain forever.

My strongest scent memory by far involves my father. And a jar of Noxzema skin cream.

Every night, right around my bedtime, dad would be in the bathroom shaving. He always kept the door wide open and often could be heard saying this or that to my mother or to one of us boys. Before heading off to bed I would come up behind my father and tap on his leg or on the small of his back. He’d turn and bend down so that I could reach up and kiss him goodnight. His skin was smooth and moist and warm—and strongly smelling of Noxzema skin cream, his prefered beard-softening elixir.

It was my favorite daily ritual; I looked forward to it each and every evening.

On the early morning that my father died, the firemen and EMTs carried his body from our kitchen floor and into his and my mother's bedroom, where it would lay, covered in a clean bedsheet, until the undertaker came to collect it. As the rescue team carrying dad brushed past me, unsuccessfully attempting to shield a young boy's view, I could swear that I smelled the Noxzema that dad had shaved with only hours before.

It’s been 50 years since I last kissed my father goodnight, and I can still smell the Noxzema today.

I mean right now, at this minute, right here.

I can summon the aroma at will. Anytime. Anywhere. Just try me.

There it goes now.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Men and their gardens



I come from a long line of earth tenders. A very long line.

That's Mister Bua you see there, grandfather to several of my cousins. He and Mrs. Bua lived in the ground floor apartment of Uncle Joe's house on Berriman Street in Brooklyn. A general contractor by trade, my uncle bought the property because it had enough room for his red dump truck and assorted building materials, space for lots of family cookouts in the summer, plus a good-sized garden where he could grow vegetables.

The tree that Mister Bua is tending is a fig tree, a healthy one too. The trellis on the left is for a squash-type vegetable that we call googootz (here's a link that explains), and the vast majority of the plants that I see are tomato plants.

I do not see a single weed. If you are at all familiar with vegetable gardening then you are likely as awestruck by this as I.

In a week or two I will have my own garden, a 24'x24' plot of earth, fully planted. Like my uncle and Mister Bua, along with many other men I grew up admiring for their skill and loving for their generosity of spirit, tending to a garden in summer is a need, not a choice. If I didn't have to nurse my fig trees (four now), tomatoes (a couple dozen plants, at least), googootz (always a crapshoot), garlic (230 or so this time around) and assorted other things I really do not know what else I would be doing from mid-June until September.

I know this may sound silly, or at the very least quaint, but looking at this photograph of Uncle Joe's garden makes me all kinds of weepy. Go ahead and click on the picture, enlarge it and really take a good long look. Mister Bua, a sweet man with a kind heart, is exactly where he wants to be at this moment and doing exactly what he needs to be doing. Every single thing coming out of the ground is lush and beautiful, tended to by men who care deeply for them. Hell, even the sheets drying patiently on the clothesline, possibly Cousin Ursula's, Mister Bua's granddaughter, make me nostalgic.

Things just could not be more perfect.
 
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