Last night, Laura gave us the following prompt:
Smell, the sense that triggers the richest, most obscure memories during the most awkward times. Write about a time when a smell triggered a deep or odd memory. What was the smell? What was the memory? And did that recollection cause you to do anything in that present moment.
I was completely stymied by this prompt. I had no idea what to write about. I sifted through memories of a variety of smells—ranging from pleasant to repugnant—but nothing moved me to write. Then a faint recollection tugged at me.
I don’t recall how old I was, but I do know that I was fairly young. I was with my mother, and she was running errands around town. She took me into our local Filipino grocery store with her, and right when we entered, an odor akin to rotting fish assaulted my nose. I gagged, and I really thought I was going to vomit. There was a bathroom in the store, and I may have run into it to retch over the toilet.
I told my mother that the store stank and that I needed to leave. She took me outside and had me wait in our car while she finished shopping. When she finally returned, she made no mention of what had happened. From then on, I would wait inside the car whenever my mother needed to go to the Filipino grocery store.
This went on for years until I was a young teenager. One day I decided that I was bored waiting in the car, and I went inside the store. The air was slightly humid and smelled of rice, bamboo, and plastic packaging. I enjoyed looking at the posters for Filipino movies that you could rent, and I picked out some rice candy.
After that, I accompanied my mother whenever she needed to shop at the Filipino grocery store. My mother made no remark on the change.
Years later when I was an adult, that particular store came up in conversation, and my mother said with anger in her voice, “You told me the store stank.”
It was only then that I realized the pain and embarrassment that my mother may have felt when I told her that I didn’t like how the Filipino grocery store smelled and even how it made me physically ill. Was it a signal to her that I was rejecting my heritage and possibly rejecting her?
I never had any issues with being Filipino, but I did often feel estranged from my culture. My parents never taught me how to speak Tagalog. We never talked about Filipino traditions or history. I wonder if mother consciously held back from teaching my about being Filipino because of what had happened in the store. Keeping me ignorant was punishment for my apparent rejection of Filipino things. Or maybe my mother was shielding herself from further disappointment.