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Goodly Fragrance

Joseph Bottum, the scent of Christmas

Dec 26, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 15 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Mrs. Johansen always complained. She’d whine about newsprint smearing. She’d grumble that I folded the paper wrong. Never mind that I was delivering to all her neighbors; she knew that some of them, most of them, were waiting for a chance to steal her newspaper, and she’d make me wedge the paper—folded in thirds—between her door handle and the jamb.

Cartoon of grumpy elderly woman

Dave Clegg

Which was fine on a Saturday. But who could get a fat Friday newspaper into that narrow space? So, every time I fumbled at the door, I’d hear her. Well, no, not every time. Memory is a boastful guide, at best. But often enough, she’d be up at six in the morning: a hatchet-thin woman with an angry glare and a terrycloth bathrobe, snatching open the door to catch me, and I’d mumble something while she snarled that her paper hadn’t been delivered earlier, folded just the way she liked.

I tried rearranging my route to reach her at different times, but it didn’t matter. She was always there, and she hated me, and I hated her as I trudged through the snow. It was dark and cold, those winter mornings: cold enough that the snow would squeak beneath my boots, and I’d leave a trail of sharp footprints across the lawns. Until I got to Mrs. Johansen’s house.

Now, this is a Christmas story—a memory that came back to me the other day as I swept the snow off my own South Dakota porch. It’s a commonplace, of course, to say that smell is the most evocative of senses, but the fact is not less true for that. Some scent I caught as I worked seemed to fish down into the ice-ponds of memory and pull up, almost intact, the fragrance of old Christmas wreaths on the doors of dark houses. The smell of newsprint. The rich ozone aroma of diesel exhaust from a school bus warming up in a snowy parking lot. The snow itself, for that matter. In those days, the world smelled different to me in snow: crisper, cleaner, harder.

So maybe it was only the winter air—the redolence of snow—that brought back to mind, for the first time in years, the bitterness of Mrs. Johansen and the Christmas morning I paused outside her house on my predawn paper route. But I had presents to open back home once the family woke, and church to attend, and relatives coming for a breakfast of eggs and toast and that awful grapefruit a cousin always sent a case of in December, which I had to drown in sugar to get down, and candles and carols and all the rest.

And so, at last, I climbed up to her unswept porch to cram her paper in the doorway. And of course it wouldn’t fold easily, and of course that gave her time to make her way to the door before I could get away, and there she was, glowering at me, in a brown bathrobe with cotton slippers on her feet. 

You know how houses sometimes have a living odor? Not foul, exactly. Just a slightly sour taint, as though the residents don’t open the doors often enough. That’s the smell I remember, as Mrs. Johansen stood there on Christmas morning. She tore the paper from my hands, glared for a second, and then shoved at me a large, round, pink tin of Almond Roca candy, snatched up from the entryway table. “For you,” she muttered. “For Christmas.” And pushed shut the door.

I don’t know, maybe she had places to go, friends and family to visit. For that matter, maybe she had them coming over, although it seemed doubtful. Almost alone on the block, her house had no decorations. The tin wasn’t wrapped, and there was no card or bow, but somehow she had gathered herself enough to go out and buy me a present, because—because I was in her life, I suppose, and maybe she didn’t have many people in her life, and it was the Christmas season when we are called to imagine a different way for ourselves, and . . . but no, I’ve never known, for sure, and I realize that a better person would have found out. A better person than I was, in those days. A better person than I am, now.

Do they even make Almond Roca anymore? I haven’t seen it in years. But the candy was crunchy, wrapped in individual wrappers, and it smelled like toffee and roasted nuts and almond extract, nibbled there in the snow as I walked home. It smelled, in truth, like Christmas.

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