By William Johnsson
I grew up in an old house by the river. Constructed of compacted earth, our home had two small rooms and a side room added later where my mom cooked meals over a wood-burning stove.
Sunday mornings I joined my four brothers, all older, playing cricket in our huge backyard. After an hour or two in the sun, the aroma wafting from the kitchen drew us inside like a magnet. We stood around, mouths watering, as mom, her face red from the heat, pulled out trays of hot scones from the oven. The scones were heavenly delicious; we wolfed them down plastered with butter, tray after delicious tray.
A low post-and-wire fence separated the house from the road. Morning glory vines covered the fence. I have in my possession a snapshot from those days: two barefoot kids with blonde tousled hair sit side-by-side atop the fence. That was my sister Margaret, whom I grew up calling Mollie. She was born a couple years before me and was kind and gentle. Her passing several years ago left a hole in my heart that has not closed over.
Across the road from our home flowed a small river, and on its banks grew a tall pepper tree that provided a hangout for the small boys of the neighborhood. Its big round limbs made for easy ascent. High amid its thick foliage, we were secluded from passersby. The long needle-shaped leaves of the pepper tree gave off a strong, fresh, pungent aroma when we crushed them in our hands.
Our hideaway made an ideal location for the heavy philosophical discussions that engage six- and seven-year-old boys—such as the strange, bewildering but attractive creatures so like us but so obviously different. High up in the pepper tree, we would discuss and argue about a matter that defied a satisfactory explanation: Where do babies come from? We’d grown beyond all that kid stuff about storks. We’d seen women with distended bellies that we knew held babies, but the question we could not figure out was, how do the babies get out of their mothers?
It was a seemingly unfathomable mystery. Where did they come out? I was quite sure that in some mysterious way a belly button played a key role. But what? We had belly buttons also, but we knew that babies didn’t come out of men’s bellies. One of the boys in our group insisted that we belly buttoners had it all wrong. He had heard on good authority that girls had a special place in their bodies through which babies passed from their belly into the world.
A special place? Where could it be. The problem was insoluble.
Noelene and I now live in Southern California. The climate—cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers—is identical to that of southern Australia where I grew up. And yes, there are pepper trees here. They have the same fat trunks and limbs, the same long leaves with the same strong, fresh, pungent aroma when crushed in your hands. On our walks together, we sometimes pass under a pepper tree. I reach up and pull down a handful of leaves, holding them as we continue our walk. The strong, fresh, pungent aroma rises from my hand, and I am back by the old tree by the river, discussing mysteries with my mates.
The aromas of life! How they enrich our existence! They bring taste to what we eat—no smell, no taste. They seep into our subconscious; they are never lost, never far from the surface of our lives. After years of apparent absence, they emerge reawakened, called forth by a chance encounter. They bring with them not just themselves but the life situations in which we first encountered them. The aroma wafts into our heads and, hey presto! we are there again.
Aromas, aromas, aromas:
The aroma of bread baking. (What a gift to come home to the smell of fresh-baked bread!)
A violet by a mossy stone. Half hidden from the eye!
The milky-sweet smell of babies.
The voluptuous scent of a lover’s hair.
The moist, mushroomy, woodsy tang of rotting leaves and humus in the forest.
The aroma of coffee brewing in the morning.
The first raindrops hitting the dust of summer, cleansing the air, breaking the heat.
Hot buttered toast.
Newly mown grass.
Smoke from a campfire.
Old books in the library.
Newspapers hot off the press.
Freshly laundered bed linens.
Aromas, aromas, aromas of life. The gift of aromas.
And so many more: bracing salt air.
New car smell.
Onions, leeks, garlic.
The healing scent of eucalyptus.
Lavender, lilac, honeysuckle.
Orange blossom, apple blossom.
Peonies, sweet peas, jasmine.
And there is more. The rose, the flower of love: pink roses for love hopeful and expectant; white for love dead and forsaken; red roses for love in full bloom.
Many poets sang about the rose, but Robert Burns sang the loudest:
“O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.”
Late after the burning heat of the day had given way to the cool of desert night, I went walking with a friend in Doha, the capital of Qatar on the Arabian Gulf. All day we had been ensconced in the luxurious Sheraton hotel, venue for the conference we were attending. Now all meetings were over for the day, and we were free to venture outside.
Close by the Sheraton, we learned, was a souk (bazaar), and we made our way to it. The souk was humming with life as the people of Doha, having slept through the hot afternoon, went about their business. We walked on and on, looking for the spice market. At last, in the oldest part of the village, we found it. The thick-walled rooms where the spice merchants carried on their trade groaned with the weight of many centuries. They seemed old enough to have welcomed the caravan of Muhammad who, prior to his role as prophet for Islam, worked for a wealthy employer, Khadija, whom he later married.
We stepped down into the stores. The scene overwhelmed us. Huge mounds of spices, each mound a different color—red, white, black, yellow, green, orange, gray—covered the vast space. Our noses twitched with the blend of cinnamon, cardamom, frankincense, nutmeg, and myrrh.
It wouldn’t have surprised us if the Queen of Sheba suddenly materialized, surrounded by her retinue, bargaining with the merchants.
The contrast was amazing: the spice souk had hardly changed in maybe a thousand years, and minutes away the glass and steel of the Sheraton rose to the sky.
Ah! The aromas of life! Simple, basic.
A simple gift.
In the Apostle Paul’s second letter to the church at Corinth, he pauses to comment on life’s aromas. He directs his readers to the Roman triumph, the grand procession of the Caesars returning from victorious conquest. The long parade featured captives and exotic animals. All along the route rose petals, imported from Egypt by the shipload, strewed the streets, imparting their distinctive fragrance.
Now the apostle drives home his point. We Christians, he says, march in Christ’s triumphal procession. He is victor, we His willing captives. And, like the roses imported from Egypt, we shed abroad the sweet aroma of life to all who come near.