The Smell of Burning Leaves
If one mentions the word Trigger it quickly calls to my mind a picture of a golden horse with a white patch responding to its owner Roy Rogers. Different strokes I guess.
The brain is a strange little computer. We respond to the senses and a smell, taste, sound or a glimpse can evoke the most intense memory and catch us completely off guard.
One smell that induces the most extreme reaction for me is the smell of burning leaves. If there was a candle that smelled like burning leaves I may be tempted to keep it lit all day.
Occasionally I’ll smell something that reminds me of a fresh spring day after a rain and feel that sense of contentment spring brings, but it’s the burning leaves that stoke my flame of happy memories.
Growing up in the Midwest, autumn was such a happy time filled with sights, sounds and moments captured by one scent—burning leaves. It doesn’t induce a single recollection, but a torrent of memories, happy and heartwarming that bring me to a moment in childhood special and revered.
Autumn meant the beginning of school, new clothes and clean saddle shoes. A trip on the first day of school to the corner drugstore to pick out supplies, including a new loose leaf, pencils and a clean eraser. The excitement of a new school bag complete with clear, zippered pencil case and a fresh box of Crayolas, tips sharp and shiny.
Coming home after school and changing into play clothes then going outside to play with friends and watch the neighborhood boys play football in the street.
I can still picture a leaf gently falling and covering the green grass after turning the most exquisite shades of reds, oranges and yellows. The pure joy of crunching the leaves while walking to school and then jumping in them after my father raked them to the curb. Of hearing him grumble because I messed them up and he had to redo them, yet he was never really angry. I always suspected he wanted to do the same himself.
For me it also meant the Jewish holidays were near and I looked forward to meeting friends at synagogue then walking to the bagel factory after services. The fun of Halloween and choosing a costume, begging for candy and rushing home to look through and see what wonderful delights the treat bag held.
The smell of burning leaves promised Thanksgiving and turkey roasting in the oven while we watched the Macy’s parade on television. Then soon came Christmas, Hanukah and the smell of latkes would arrive with vacation time.
No mention of autumn could be complete without invoking the smell of freshly crushed apples at the Cider Mill. The giant wheel mashing apples into submission as they released their delicious juices then paired with hot cinnamon donuts in a grease-laden paper bag. Followed by a ride on a hay wagon into the orchard to soak up the autumn colors or climb ladders to pick the ripe fruit off their trees. No memory would be complete without the crunch of a caramel dipped apple on Halloween.
Yes, that’s a lot to put on a single smell, but that’s why burning leaves are so powerful. I’m certain if you ask any Baby Boomer what smell evokes autumn for them it will be the same.
There’s a certain comfort in memories now. When younger I never thought much about the past because I was too busy living in the present, and of course when one is young there is very little past to recall.
This past year when I’ve been forced to come face to face with my own mortality and had little ability to move my life forward as I’d have wished, the past seems so suddenly important. It’s as if I pulled out an old scrapbook filled with pictures and suddenly recalled how precious each snapshot has become.
Nostalgia has been a big part of how I’ve coped with this captivity because although I wasn’t free to travel outward, I could travel backward at my leisure. I could reflect at will upon those memories that had settled into the nooks and crannies of my brain and become hidden from view. Whenever a scent or sight drew them out of hiding I luxuriated in their warmth.
There has been a great deal of sharing with old friends on the phone and of course Facebook, and recalling time spent in childhood schools, stores and hometown haunts. Remembering my favorite foods makes me long for a local deli, great burgers or pizza, Chinese food on Sunday or a trip to the DQ. The burning leaves seem to be the magic carpet that transports me to the past, flying over childhood and once again absorbing the sights, smells and tastes of my youth. Filling me with the warmth so desperately needed in these cold, scary COVID days.
Even now when I’m walking and come upon a small pile of fallen dried leaves I will crunch them under my feet and feel a sense of satisfaction as the sound hits my ears.
Perhaps it isn’t the COVID that has captured my imagination and yearning for happier times. It may simply be a side effect of baby boomerism. I can’t say for sure what has created this new desire to share memories with those with whom I shared my youth, but it is a heady and incredibly magnetic feeling.
The question “do you remember” could probably be translated as, “oh, how I miss.”
Whatever the reason I shall always love the smell of burning leaves and the wonderful feelings they evoke and in this uncertain world, of that I am certain.