“When was the last time you showered,” Adam asked Ozzie last week while he searched our living room for the origins of an awful smell. The rest of us just sat there nonplussed. Adam does this all the time.
“Tuesday? I think,” Ozzie replied. “What day is it?”
“Today is Sunday,” Adam answered.
Ozzie looked down at his body, still in the same PJs from three days ago, tucked his nose under the top of his shirt and took a deep sniff. “I smell OK,” he said with a wry smile.
The truth is, Ozzie didn’t smell OK. He hadn’t showered in several days because days blend together during the pandemic. It’s likely that Adam already knew the source of the stench, but he wanted to hear Ozzie cop to it.
You see, Adam has notoriously impressive olfaction. I swear he’s like a bloodhound. Like a canine with its snout in the air, he’ll walk around the house taking rapid-fire sniffs, occasionally holding up clothing, towels, stuffed animals and other paraphernalia to his nose in hopes of isolating problem areas.
If there were a body in the woods, Adam would find it quicker than a cadaver dog.
Sometimes when I see him on a quest to sniff out an odor the rest of us don’t smell, I wonder if other people smell us the way Adam does. He tells me that he recalls memories by their smells. His childhood home. An old church. Locker rooms. His Mother’s break-up-and-bread-eggs. Istanbul. The delivery rooms where our children were born. Cook Forest near Clarion, Pa. His Aunt Patty’s perfume.
Each place and person and time came with unique smells that correlate with a memory, some happy, some sad, and some which would otherwise be forgettable if not for his sense of smell.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the smell of our house. This is probably because I’ve been spending 23.50 hours a day for 4-plus months banging around in it. The other half-hour is spent outside walking or chasing after our pups. Sheltering in place is causing me to really consider all aspects of the home we’ve chosen.
I remember being a little kid and realizing that each house I went into had its own smell. There was a mixture of the foods that were commonly cooked, perfumes and colognes, deodorizers, cleaning supplies, and the general habits that create the smells of the residents — things that make each family unique.
Even now, when I visit my Mom, I smell my childhood.
I’m not sure if the pandemic has changed the smell of our house, or if it’s just heightened because of the increased occupancy. I do know that Adam has invested a lot of resources into buying candles, laundry beads, air fresheners and any other masking agents he can find. He even bought a machine called an ozone blaster, but the joke is on him because no one can be in the house when you run it.
In an attempt to understand why our natural odors weren’t good enough for a man who once lived in a literal fraternity house, I started looking online. When I found this, I knew I had my answer.
“The scents that you choose to surround yourself with can drive your personal behavior in positive ways,” Christopher Bergland wrote in a 2015 Psychology Today article. “The scents that you surround yourself with are in the locus of your control. You can put yourself in the driver's seat, and use fragrance as a tool to create a particular mindset and increase your motivation to achieve a target behavior.”
Adam likes to be in control: Not in a bad way like the toxic male characters in Lifetime movies but in the way some normal people with a lot of responsibility look for ways to keep their environments from spinning out. And as things are increasingly spinning out of our control at work and in the world at large, it makes sense to me that he looks for ways to manage the little things that make him feel better.
To some degree, we all look for the things we can control or fix or manage. If Adam chooses to make the house smell like a mix between a vanilla cupcake, an evergreen forest and a marina breeze, I’m all for it.
And, it’s probably not a bad idea to make the kids shower more. Even if Ozzie’s only regular activity is watching YouTube, it’s not good to let all the hygiene norms fall away. We got lazy, we relaxed the rules, we were homeschooling and working full-time, but if we’re going to survive more months of being at home we need to prioritize some semblance of hygiene.
Besides, on the few occasions, the kids get to leave the house, their level of hygiene is more important than ever. Keeping clean and vigilance about washing hands are good ways to fight the virus.
These are the little things we can do to keep everyone feeling hopeful as our Coronavirus summer drags on. The children may not be able to control if and when they will go back to school, or see their friends, or get back the missed days of their youth, but we can make their home clean and inviting. When we bought the place we didn’t plan on living in it this intensely, but now that we are, we can choose to keep our family scent one that doesn’t give Adam nightmares, and in doing so, prosper at home.
If we don’t, Adam and his array of cleaning products and air fresheners may just move into the garage.
— Mary Beth Earnheardt is a professor of Journalism at Youngstown State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @mbexoxo.