I stole this column from my husband, which he wrote for his weekly newspaper column two months ago. I thought my blog readers would like it since a lot of you are like me and like the sentimental.
By Warren Howeler, originally published in The Rocket-Courier, October 2020
Everyone has those memories that are triggered by external stimuli.
It can be a glimpse of something, a taste, or, in my case, a smell.
The smell that I’m speaking of is pipe tobacco, specifically, the kind that my grandfather used to smoke while I was a child.
The smell of my grandfather’s pipe tobacco takes me back to my early childhood, before I moved to California and eventually, later, to PA.
One of my earliest memories stems from my grandfather’s pipe. I would always be greeted by that scent whenever I would enter my grandparents’ old home in Hinsdale, IL.
Since my parents divorced when I was extremely young, my grandfather was the only father figure I had growing up.
One of the most treasured photos I have is one of myself at two years old, sitting in my grandfather’s lap. He was smiling down at me, his pipe in his hand, and I’m looking up at him smiling, holding my (toy) pipe in mine.
That photo perfectly encapsulates my life—I always tried to emulate my grandfather because of how much I respected him— and I still do.
When I was younger, he was a towering giant—a man who could do no wrong. He cooked. He cleaned. He worked hard. He took care of my grandmother. He helped out my immediate family when we were struggling. He always spoiled both my sister and me when we were kids (later he would do the same thing for his great-grandkids).
My opinion of him never changed from when I was a kid. I was always in awe of him. He still worked hard in his retirement, growing a garden that was the talk of the town in South Waverly, and taking care of my grandmother, which became even more of a challenge as she got older and the Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind resulting in her becoming mostly bedridden in her final years.
My grandfather was always the first one I would go to whenever I had news to share or needed advice. In fact, my grandfather was the first member of my family to know I was engaged, and later, he honored me by serving as my best man.
My grandfather stopped smoking while I was in my five-year exile in California.
I didn’t think much about the missing pipe until several years ago when I went into his basement.
Let me set the stage—my son, Jonathan, was about five at the time, and, a couple of weeks earlier, my grandfather had drug out my old Legos to give to him.
On this day, Jonathan wanted to see if great-grandpa had any more toys in his basement. A kid can hope, right?
So, all three of us went down to investigate.
In one of the cases we opened there was a tin. Neither my grandfather nor I knew what was in it.
I opened it—and was blasted with a smell that I hadn’t encountered in decades.
The tin contained not only several of my grandfather’s old pipes but also some of his old tobacco.
I started tearing up at that point and had to settle my emotions before I asked him if I could keep what we had found. In his usual, short-on-words-style he said, “Sure.”
While my son was disappointed that we didn’t find any more toys, I was ecstatic by my discovery and couldn’t wait to tell my wife about it.
My grandfather passed away about a year later. During the funeral, I slipped one of the pipes into his sport coat.
I still have the tin and its contents today. One of those pipes is on my desk as I type this.
At times when I’m feeling stressed or can’t come up with the word I need when I’m writing, I grab that pipe and either tap the tip of it against my thumb or inhale the lingering scent of tobacco that still permeates the head of it.
The feel of it in my hand, coupled with the smell, is calming to me. But it also has another purpose— to serve as a reminder of some of the happiest memories of my childhood.