One of my fondest memories of my western Kentucky upbringing is the smell of a tobacco barn in the autumn. Those barns anchored the landscape of my rural Kentucky childhood and imprinted themselves in my memory. The thought of the smell of tobacco being fired in those old barns brings to my mind a delightful, then innocent, pleasure. That memory occupies the same portion of my mind as hog killings and sorghum mills.
My father, mother, brother, and I would travel to my grandparents every other Sunday. We drove through the Black Patch tobacco area of western Kentucky on those clear mornings. I know we did the same in other seasons as we did in the autumn, but I remember this ritual in cool weather more vividly, because of the smoking tobacco barns and their sweet, earthy scent. Leaves on the trees would be turning vibrant shades of red, orange and purple and falling while the tobacco leaves would grow darker and sweeter in the barns. The tobacco barns would smoke as if they would erupt in flames at any moment. The sun rays that streaked in long, straight lines over the frosted grass would profile the smoke seeping from the barns like some farming spectre. The smell emanating from the barns was deep, full, and ancient as if people had been doing it for millennia. One could imagine the smoke from ancient fires as the long dead Cahokians, Chickasaws and Shawnee of this area would rise and build the morning fire to warm their bodies and prepare their food. How could something so strong be unnatural or new?
The drive ‘down home’, as my parents called it, was special as well. As a token gesture to my mother, my father, who normally controlled the radio, would allow my mother to find the Princeton radio station, WPKY-AM that played gospel music. This was our church on these Sundays that Momma, brother, and I didn’t go to church. The show began with the chorus of “You Gotta Live Your Religion Every Day.” Dad was never one to go to Church in those early days. He took to church later in life, but in his own way. He never was a fan of organized church gatherings. My mother, on the other hand, was filled with Holy Spirit and loved listening to the gospel in word and song.
On these cold mornings, our red and white Ford Maverick’s heater would heat the front of the car, but leave the back chilly, so brother and I had an Aunt-made quilt to share in the back. The only thing I ever found to be as warm ever again was my Army “green girl”. I still have both of them. To find my girls curled up on the sofa with them gives me a feeling that cannot be translated. Moist eyes are all that it produces.
Once we arrived, my grandmother would add another distinctive smell for me to carry through my life, a country breakfast. Ma’amaw’s kitchen had its own special smells, mostly from a wood fired stove. The meal would consist of country ham fried in cast iron skillet, homemade biscuits that were so light they needed molasses to keep them from floating away. The butter was a large pat on a saucer dish. It had been churned by hand by Ma’amaw on the front porch while reading a book, normally the Bible, in the other hand. The ham came from the smokehouse out back and the molasses were from the mule driven sorghum mill, both of which were my grandfather’s doings. The coffee was made in an old iron percolator, but that was for the adults. Brother and I got milk from the pale. At the end of the meal, Dad would rise and pat his stomach. My grandmother must have lived for those unspoken compliments, because she worked herself to death in preparing meals from scratch on that old stove. Or maybe, it was just her own pride in pleasing, because my father wasn’t one for verbal compliments to his mother or my mother. It just wasn’t his nature, but I still remember how fondly he called his mother “Momma” just as I lovingly addressed his wife. This feeling of family warmed me then, largely unconsciously. Today, it positively radiates through my soul like that old stove when it enters my mind.
I also loved these visits, because it gave me the chance to run wild in the backwoods with my country cousins, including one who would die much too young in an accident a few years later. I was a bit of a city slicker as I lived in a town of about 25,000 people, but I was transformed into a true woodsman on those days. My cousins would teach me how to track animals, build log houses, ride go-karts, and dam up streams like beavers. The land was all owned by relatives, so we had acre upon acre to roam. These lands would also contain the barns with the heavenly smells. We would fish, hunt and swing from giant grapevines. Daniel Boone had nothing on us. By dusk, I would come dragging in with soiled outtards and clean innards. By that time, Mom and Dad would be through ‘visiting’ and we would get in the car and go home with Ma’amaw and Pa’apaw waving us off.
Dad got the radio on Sunday night and we listened to his “hillbilly” music. Brother and I would recline head to foot in the back seat with our quilt and drift off to the sound of Bill Monroe’s mandolin on WSM’s AM station from Nashville and the smell of the barns again.
Momma and Dad, Ma’amaw and Pa’apaw, and too many aunts and uncles and cousins are gone now. I live in a big city in far-away land. I don’t smoke anymore, they say country ham raises my cholesterol, and surely too many molasses and biscuits have made me top heavy, but I still love bluegrass and gospel music and home. Growing and firing tobacco is pretty rare these modern, healthy days, so are those smells. But when I do catch a whiff, I am taken back, as if God’s hand has done it personally, to a time when loved ones long gone are still present. And on cold autumn mornings when I’m driving, I’ll crack a window and pretend I am back home in Kentucky. Almost… just almost… I can smell home.
Cool image and explanation at this site. – http://members.iglou.com/perkins/newkpf/2005_09/home3881.htm