top of page

An Accidental Writing Prompt: 5 Defining Smells

I’m walking around the empty cul-de-sac for the third time that phone call, aimlessly chatting with a friend when a bit of rough air catches in my throat and I cough.

'Sorry,' I say into the dangling earbud microphone, 'I’m not sick, it just smells like burning leaves and I got a big breath of it.'

My friend responds like I’d just admitted to TP-ing someone’s front yard. “Burning leaves? You’re not allowed to burn leaves!”

This felt like a strange attempt at humor and so I paused wondering if he might be serious.

He was.

'What do you mean you can’t burn leaves where you live? The smell of burning leaves is like one of the most defining smells - like if I had to list the five most defining smells from my childhood, burning lea - you know I want to actually think of what the five most defining smells from my childhood are.'

Burning leaves is one. It’s as fall as them come. I’m a little kid running in circles in my backyard. My brothers and dad are working on one thing or another and I’m asking them how many times I’d have to run around this tree to equal a mile.

The familiar tickle in my nose flares up and my dad says something about Maggi burning leaves. I fall onto my back and breath in the season. I am seven-years-old, watching billowing smoke from two doors down and feeling like the entire world is born again in autumn.

'You know what my second one would probably be? You’re going to think I’m being weird or kidding or something, but it’s probably manure. Hear me out...'

My childhood home sat next to what, at that age, seemed like an endless farm field. The farm grew feed for animals, and I think long before we had any concept of calendars or seasons, my neighbors and I measured time by the height of cornstalks.

I can hear my mother shutting the screen door and closing the window, warning that the farmer was spreading manure. I can see the kids, with pinched noses, on my school bus driving past another farm and slamming their windows while my neighbors and I cruised on unphased. I am eight-years-old and convinced that my tolerance for manure makes me some sort of legend.

'There’s got to be some sort of bake good that makes my list. I did think about the brownies my mom and her family frequently made. But honestly, the very first thing I thought about was the Christmas cinnamon rolls. It seems so silly to be a defining smell when that’s only once a year, but honestly…'

Every year on Christmas morning, my mother would take the store bought cylinder of cinnamon rolls, arrange them on the cookie sheet in the shape of a tree, add a drop of green food dye to the frosting, and lure my brothers and I out of bed to the aroma of a warm breakfast.

Two cinnamon rolls on the red tin plates that were only for Christmas time and that were not microwave safe, I am nine-years-old and convinced if I can stick my tongue out a little further, I can knock that frosting off the tip of my nose. I am also about to crash from sugar consumption. It is Christmas morning and time stands still.

'I didn’t go to the pool that often, so chlorine wouldn’t be one. I don’t have any distinct memory of my grandparent’s house smelling a certain way. Wet dog is definitely a vivid smell but not one that is inherently ingrained into my mind. I need to focus on those early years. So what really defines my childhood?

I have my fourth one. Grass stained knees.'

“Oh like fresh cut grass? Yes!”

'No. Not fresh cut grass. Grass stained knees. It’s different, somehow.'

Our yard was the Capture the Flag yard. Next door was where we played Ghost in the Graveyard. The cul-de-sac was for hockey. Down the street was for exploring the woods.

I’m one of the youngest in the group, brought along under the supervision of my brothers. We’re playing rundown, sprinting between two old rags while the two people who are “It” toss the ball aimlessly back and forth.

One of the throwers misses and we’re off. My neighbors and I tumble to the other towel, laughing and panting and sliding into safety. There’s a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip where upon examining his grass stained skin, Calvin turns to Hobbes and says, “If your knees aren’t green by the end of the day, you ought to seriously reexamine your life.” I am ten-years-old and scrubbing green knees in the bathtub, thinking I’ve got just about everything right.

'Okay, I need one more. One more really defining smell from childhood. I have some other ideas but those are more high school or college things. What is a smell from childhood that...

Wait. Crayons.

I kept my crayons in one of those giant pretzel tubs. Half-broken, wrapper-torn-off crayons mixed and matched in a pretzel tub with the lid on. I can feel the thin weight of the coloring book sheets as I flip pages looking for one that my bouncing mind can focus on. I can feel the coloring book crease crunching between tiny hands as I will the page to stay open.

The pretzel tub screws off and the smell of at least 64 crayons washes across the kitchen table. The sky can be purple today. The grass can be blue. I grip the chewed edge of an orange macaroni and cheese crayon, a product of the dog who lays at my feet and required that the crayons be safe-kept in a giant pretzel tub with a smell-trapping (and puppy proof) lid. I am six-years-old and coloring outside the lines.

I am 25-years-old and asking my friend to read a document I’ve just typed up about defining smells from my childhood. I tell him I know it isn’t a typical Smile Project blog. I tell him I forgot how much I’d missed this kind of writing.

He suggests a few edits. I make a few changes. He tells me I need an ending. I tell him I don’t know how to do that. He says to wrap it up into a nice Smile Project blog conclusion, like I’ve done over 500 times before this. I realize I can’t.

There’s no real moral here. It’s a self-indulgent piece that was bouncing in my mind. I don’t know what the lesson is. I don’t know how to tie it back to Kindness and Happiness and present it in a neat little box.

Maybe it is a little unusual for the blog.. or maybe this unexpected writing prompt was my way of forcing myself to open the pretzel tub, make the sky pink, and create again.


bottom of page