Memory Smells

I was told to deliver to my brother the ingredients he needed in order to make my mother’s sausage and peppers recipe for the party tonight. His specialty now, he claims, after making it for other family gatherings in the past and receiving much praise for his creation. So when I came downstairs fully clothed in my uniform, polished and dressed for work a half-hour early, I was aggravated when I heard my brother’s low-pitched voice carry throughout the dining room.

“Where’s the stuff at?”

“Where’s the stuff at? I thought I was supposed to deliver it,” I said to Brandon from the kitchen. His face was still invisible to me from the other room.

“Oh, I forgot to tell you that you don’t need to take it down to him anymore,” my other brother Billy said from the other side of the room. “I called him to come down.”

“Well that was nice of you to let me know,” I said. “I got ready early so I could make it there in time.”

Joking I was, but I was also somewhat serious. I guess my mother sensed the tone in my voice, for she turned around from her stance at the stove. She had a wooden spoon in her hand, an apron wrapped around her, hair pulled back, with a wisp hanging over her eyes. The big, steel pot bubbled and whistled behind her.

“It’s Joey’s birthday today, so let’s not fight,” she said with a smile on her face.

I glared at Billy, but decided to let it go. We both stood there, watching as the water in the pot started to spill over.

“Mom, you gonna get that?” Billy said.

“Oh, yeah,” she said, and she turned around to face the stove again.

“What are you making anyway?” I asked as I neared her to take a peak at the oversized bucket she had sitting on the counter to the left of the pot.

“Crabs,” she said. “They’re Joe’s favorite.”

I took a step closer to the bucket and examined the crabs—fifty or so, maybe even more, sitting on top of each other, piled and piled. Some were moving, and others were not.

“Mom, they look so sad,” I said.

“Nat, are you serious?” she asked me. “Are you about to cry? Oh my, you are.”

“I just feel bad for them,” I said. “That one even lost a claw. There’s no way he can survive now against the other ones.”

“That’s ‘cause he’s got no gusto in him,” my mom said.

“Gusto—does that mean guts in Italian?”

Laughter ensued.

“Oh, Natty,” my mother said as she controlled her laughter and continued to pick up each crab one by one with a kitchen tool and place them in the pot.

I sat at the kitchen table and silently watched her while she continued to cook, humming now. She picked up some Old Bay Seasoning and sprinkled it over the crabs before placing the lid over them. The aromatizing smell of slowly cooking, fresh seafood filled the kitchen.

“God, I miss that smell,” my mom said.

“What does it smell like?” I said.

“My parents,” she said back. “It’s a memory smell. A good memory smell.” She smiled and dazed off for a few seconds, and I knew better than to interrupt her daydream. “I miss them,” she said after a few more seconds, and it was silent for a while.

“They make crabs a lot?” I asked.

“They used to entertain all the time,” she said. “Parties, guests. Sunday dinners. We always had company. Always had people over. But when it was just us, that’s when my dad would play with the crabs.”

“Play with the crabs?”

“Yeah, like this.”

I watched as my mom picked up her own claw and grasped a crab between the two sides and placed it on the floor. The crab immediately ran across the hardwood floor to where our refrigerator stood off to the back, claws in the air, as if in defense mode.

“He used to take them out of the bucket and let them chase us around. We were little, so we loved it. My mom would always yell at him because she was trying to cook, but she enjoyed it, too. It was a good memory. Still a good memory.”

She smiled, and I watched her smile. Soon I was smiling, thinking of my own “memory smells” I’ve collected throughout the years of my childhood—the smell of a fresh fire my dad kept lit in the winter in our fireplace, the smell of my mother cooking in the kitchen. So I almost didn’t remember the crab on the floor as I saw it run across my foot out of the corner of my eye.

“That sounds nice, Mom,” I said.

“Yeah, it was nice,” she said back. “Let’s save a crab for when Nettie comes home from daycare.”

“Are you kidding?” Billy shouted from the other room. “Absolutely not. She’ll try and play with it and end up getting hurt.”

“Bill, are you serious?” I said.

“Maybe next year,” he said back.

“Fine,” my mother said as she faced the entryway of the dining room. She turned around to face me at the kitchen table, now. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t have fun with dad,” she said. “He doesn’t know there’s a crab on the floor. It’ll be fun.”

“You’re terrible,” I said, laughing.

“I know,” my mother said. “He’s out in the backyard. Call him in.”

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