fighting 100 years of history with a cinnamon broom

Our local Trader Joe’s is located right next to my gym, which makes it extremely convenient, particularly in colder weather, to combine a workout and grocery shopping. Yesterday I had to pick up the ground beef for our tacos I forgot the day prior, and while there I succombed to the purchase of yet another cinnamon-scented broom – this time, for our living room. Trader Joe’s cinnamon brooms are particularly pungent, I think, and I hope it, combined with my new vanilla-scented candle, will do their work in an admirable fashion.

Living in a century-old house has a lot of positive aspects. My house is significantly more well-constructed than the more modern homes my friends have purchased, and the craftsmanship is stunning. “Good bones” doesn’t do it justice. It has large, airy rooms and enough cracks that we never have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. The views from the second and third floors are lovely, all church steeples, chimneys and roofs of homes built in a similar style – very Mary Poppins. Even though it’s a tremendous work in progress, I love our home and all of its potential.

But the negatives. Oh, the negatives. The closets were constructed when women owned two dresses and one pair of shoes. If a new crack in the plaster occurs, decades-old coal dust pours out. The house is well-made and long-lasting, which means it has witnessed trends come and go, including the mid-twentieth century trend of covering up, with carpeting, curtains and block glass, all that is unique and original about the home, which is also how we bought it. But, more than coal dust older than my parents or continually adjusting our clothes to fit the space allotted, I routinely find myself at war with over one hundred years and countless layers of old-home smells.

The couple who owned the house prior to us ran a catering company out of the kitchen and both times we toured, she was preparing large batches of Italian-American cuisine – vats of veal parmesan, kettles of Italian wedding soup. The scents of garlic, onion and red sauce consumed the house and gave it a cozy feeling it otherwise lacked. A general mustiness still lingered, which we attributed to the old carpeting and curtains which we foolishly assumed would be a breeze to get rid of or replace. Essentially, the smells of the house echoed the smells of the old Italian-American neighborhood we were moving into and I am not someone who generally minds such smells.

What I didn’t take into consideration, of course, is what the house would smell like afterthe owners left – like an Italian restaurant, vacated, stale onion and oregano lingering in the cold air, allowing all the other smells to surface.

People, at some point, there was a cat. Now, I like cats – it’s more their litter I am adverse to but for the most part I think cats are lovely and I actually think a cat would complete our house – this house calls out for a cat – but this cat – he must have made it his life’s work to grind his litter with his paw into every conceivable corner of the house, for when it rains the smell of stale kitty litter seeps upward from the basement and from corners on the first floor and completely combats any fresh scent the rain brings with it. It has also become evident that at some point, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago, people smoked in the house, which also isn’t a surprise. What is a surprise is how it is only on really hot, humid days that the stale cigarette smoke emerges from a piece of carpeting we have yet to remove or one of the few curtains we haven’t replaced yet.

We haven’t helped matters, admittedly. Our dog sheds profusely no matter how often I make sure he’s trimmed and now we are as likely to catch a whiff of wet dog as we are the litter of some long-deceased cat. I’ve potty trained one toddler and I think we can all agree the smells that come along with that particular chore aren’t pleasant, and I have another child that requires owning a diaper pail. In the past, though, I would have thought the smells of a life dissipated with time. Now I realize that with every tumbleweed tuft of dog hair, every apple cake baked, each accident Evangeline had on her way to the potty and every pot of root vegetable stew I make, the scents of the life we have are seeping into the cracks in the plaster walls and the grooves in the hard wood floors, and will resurge for new owners, decades down the road, on days when the wind comes from the west, or on frigid polar vortex mornings. I imagine these people, relaxing on our front porch while I’m rocking away the hours in a nursing home, noticing on warm rainy evenings the unexpected smell of butter, browning – mingling with runaway scent of diaper changed decades ago. I imagine them sighing, understanding once and for all that no amount of cinnamon brooms and vanilla candles can rid a house of history.

6 thoughts on “fighting 100 years of history with a cinnamon broom

  1. Funny – I still remember the smell of that old, red powder they used in schools with big rag mops to clean the floor. And not so very long ago, I was in an old hotel on the Texas coastal plain. The smell was so familiar, and then I remembered: my grandmother’s house.

    Whether this is of any help, I haven’t a clue, but I’ll offer the hint in case you don’t know. On old musty boats, or where someone has overfilled the fuel tank and the smell of diesel is permeating everything, shallow bowls of white vinegar do beautifully for getting rid of odor. Soup bowls are good, or baking pans, like cake pans. The depth isn’t so important as the surface area.

  2. ha! i just bought a TJ cinnamon broom as well to mask the diaper pail smell in my bedroom. it worked…but gave me a headache. the broom is now on the back porch, where my sons ride it while they jump from the roof of their playhouse hoping to fly

  3. What a lovely post about those noxious odors that won’t shift. We have a cat, of whom I am very suspicious as he lingers into old age. But the worst smell is from our vegetable compost bin, which I keep with environment-friendly pride in the kitchen. When my husband has emptied it (and often in his haste failed to rinse it out) the STENCH of dead vegetables is absolutely ghastly. I’ve yet to find the candle or pot pourri that will even put up a good fight against it!

  4. Shoreacres – I actually really appreciate that tip! I think I might try the vinegar tip in certain areas of our house. And yes, scent is so intrinsically linked to memory, isn’t it? Katy – they are REALLY strong.Mine has faded to just the right amount of cinnamon only now. Litlove – oh, compost bins are the WORST. Or at least they tie with diaper pails. But honestly I think I’d prefer the smell of the diaper pail to our compost bin if not properly emptied! Smithereens – essential oils are probably much more civilized than a cinnamon broom. I think you are due a trip to the states – I think you would love it here.

  5. This is a lovely piece Courtney. The scents of life seeping into plaster walks, ceiling cracks, and wood floors: what a wonderful, evocative thought.

    I, too, live in an older home, though not nearly as old as yours (nor does it sound as charming). I thought when we tore up that last piece of old carpet in July that the smells would go. Then, I thought it would be after the floors were sanded. While those activities diminished the smells, sometimes, on damp days I still detect the ghost of dogs past. And I’m okay with that. After all, it smells like home.
    Yet, I may think about buying one of those cinnamon brooms. I’ve never heard of them before but I can see its usefulness next time my husband burns bacon or I cook fish.

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