The power of scent

Thelma Hill Boone Album

Kate Hill at home on Sixth St. in Williamsburg, KY
Someone recently remembered their grandmother as smelling like lilies of the valley. Someone else said they think of a grandmother each time they smell roses. Scent has the power to conjure our past and the people who live there. Sometimes good; sometimes bad. Sometimes just talking about a smell can do the same.
My grandmother smelled like old Avon. She hugged us with enthusiasm when we arrived and then rarely spoke to us for the rest of our visit. She sometimes smelled of Fels Naptha or onions.
My grandmother, the only grand I knew, had lived a hard life. In 1954, the year I came along, she had eight living adult children, half of whom had run from the hills of Kentucky to live large in other places like Dayton.
Kate was a 20 year old school teacher when she married in 1920. By 1921 she was both a wife and a teacher as well as a mother. She changed and cleaned diapers, fed the hens and milked the cow, cleaned the wood stove. It was solely her responsibility to have dinner on the table each night, so she cooked beans and cornbread and kept a garden. She killed chickens for Sunday supper and ‘dressed” them as well as any game meat that came home after her husband’s overnight hunting trips.
And she taught school in the camp. Until her oldest daughter could manage some of those responsibilities– her two oldest children were boys– it was probably 12 years before that domestic help came along. By then she had four children.
When her husband’s, my grandfather’s, lungs, filled with coal dust, quit working so did he and she took care of him until the cold January night my 15 year old mother ran to get the doctor who couldn’t save her father. Katie buried her children’s father and worried about how she would survive in 1949.
Her eldest child was a 27 year old school teacher supporting a wife and toddler, her youngest, 9. Her three oldest children no longer lived at home. She had five children in her house and no income.
Even though all her children stepped up and contributed, this was not a woman who felt she could burden her children. She had bills to pay and it was 1949. Sears was calling in the balance due on the card, and no, they didn’t extend credit to women, especially widows of poor dead coal-miners. So she sold Avon to not be totally dependent on her children.
I have no idea whether she actually earned any money trying to cash in on a pyramid scheme that was rigged to make money for a corporation that had just gone public on the New York Stock Exchange two years earlier. Selling in a mining camp to folks who often had no shoes for their children could not have put her on the fast track as a top seller.
What I do know is that in 1965 she was still misting herself most mornings with product left from her days as an independent beauty consultant. That scent of Avon’s base product – the ‘perfume’ long gone– remains the scent of my mother’s mother’s hugs. When I catch that smell ? it’s like she’s in the room.

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