There are smells that trigger powerful memories from my childhood. Some of these smells include the aroma of sautéed onions. I am right back in my grandmother’s kitchen. The earthy smell of fresh mushrooms puts me back at summer camp in the forest. There are also sights that stop me in my tracks — white daisies bring back memories of the dress my mother once wore, a simple polyester burgundy dress with the daises printed on it. This was the dress she wore on the plane from Italy to New York when we emigrated to the United States.
But as strong as these memory triggers are, the sounds of my childhood are somehow even more cherished because they were different from the sounds of growing up in the States; maybe sharper is the wrong word, but more distinctive is closer to the truth.
In Minsk, I was the only girl in my grandparents’ apartment building, all other kids my age were boys. There was Oleg, the smart one, stocky, solemn and solid. Sergei, the handsome one, and his younger brother, Valera (who once told me that although I was a Jew, I was “all right for one.” I took it for a compliment that it was intended as) — both boys lean, with sandy blond hair and sky-blue eyes, and angular faces. And then there was Victor, the frail, short boy who the bullies instinctively zeroed-in and picked on. Victor had to be protected by me, by all of us. I was fearless at the time, since being a girl afforded me protection in the super-patriarchal society that was Soviet Union. One day he were chased by some bullies, until he was cornered. I was the one standing between Victor and these three older boys, probably 16-year-olds, who were intent on beating him up — I clenched my fists and yelled at them to “Get away!” to “Get out!” And they did. I still remember Victor’s wheezing, ragged gasps as he had been running away from them for blocks. I remember how he sounded, standing behind me, breathing hard. And in spite of his loud breaths, I could swear that I could almost hear his heart hammering in his chest.
My grandparents’ two-story apartment building and the building next to it were joined at a right angle, with a row of small garages creating another barricade against the street and boxing in the yard, with a small, dingy-white bomb shelter in the center of it, rising from a sparse patch of weeds. It was usually our home base whenever we played war. Since I was the tomboy who kept up with the boys, I was always in the thick of the game, but because there were double standards (as above, my protected status of a girl), I was usually either a nurse or a spy instead of a soldier. Because my mother was a nurse, I typically had access to a roll of white bandages, and inevitably would bandage up someone’s arm of leg. I have seen my mother do it often enough and was skillful. I would carefully wrap the “wound” and at the end, rip the bandage in half, taking one half around the appendage, then tying both ends together. It looked professional, godammit … at least to our kid eyes. The sound of that bandage ripping, whether I or my mom was making it, is one that is a large part of my childhood.
Once we moved out of my grandparents’ apartment and got our own place, I made friends my age from the nearby apartments — the neat, identical rows of them rising from a new development. We lived on the second floor of the four-story building, and very soon I could tell my father’s stomping the snow from his shoes in the downstairs lobby from everyone else’s. These sounds of the snow and others also comprise the great majority of the sounds of my childhood. The way snow crunched underfoot on cold days, the snik-snik sound the cross-country skis made against it when I was on them, the muffled quiet when it was falling, thick snowflakes dancing around me.
In the summer I used to play hopscotch with friends. We used a round tin from hard strawberry candies, which made a metallic sound as it skittered and click-clacked across our chalked squares on the sidewalk. Like the crisp sound of hard-soled shoes or clicking of elegant high-heels on a sidewalk, the sound of that tin is still one of my all-time favorites.
Not all sounds that please me are this simple, though. Some sounds of my childhood were much more complex. I started taking piano lessons when I was 6-years-old. My parents enrolled me in after-school music lessons, where we learned about the great composers and listened to classical music. I fell in love with the music, enchanted with the spell it put me under. Mozart was my favorite. I am in my mid-fifties now, and enjoy many types of music, from the Beatles to Beyoncé, but classical music still lets me breathe deeply, moves through my bloodstream, and calms me like meditation does for some people. Thirty minutes of Mozart is like therapy for me, and much cheaper than counseling.
Everyone has different sounds that can transport them back to their childhood in a blink of an eye. These just happen to be mine.