What’s that smell?

It started with this musty smell in the kitchen. We first noticed it earlier this summer. It was worst on humid days, and strongest near the trash bin. Taking the trash out didn’t help, and neither did scrubbing the plastic bin, itself. So yesterday we (well, David) removed the wooden frame that slides the bin under the counter, and all the other drawers in that cabinet.

When we shined a flashlight into opening, we found some very, very dirty floorboards. But no dead mouse or decomposing peach. (I should probably mention that we have an old kitchen. We think the last time it was updated was 30 years ago. The bead board  and most of the drawers and cabinetsdate back to around 1900, when the house was built.)

We (well, David) scrubbed the floorboards with a bleach mixture, and then with a wood cleaner. The rinse water came up just as filthy each time, but after several go-overs we (well, David) decided enough was enough. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.

My real point, though, is those drawers. Having them sitting out in the open gave us a chance to really look inside them – something we haven’t done since we moved in, four years ago. The silverware and food wraps and dish towels each have their own space, and that makes sense. But three other drawers hold our over-stock of spices – jars and boxes and bags that don’t fit in our go-to cabinet beside the stove.

“Maybe this would be a good time to do some weeding,” David suggested, and I reluctantly agreed. And oh, what we found.

–The last teaspoon of herbes de Provence from our South of France vacation in 2006.

–A vanilla bean from the house in Rochester David’s parents sold that same year.

–The lifetime supply of dried chiles given to David by my mother, who in February, 1999.

–A  jam jar filled with black salt, an ingredient used in Indian cooking, though in none of the recipes we ever make.

–A  jar of chervil from which all scent expired years ago. Ditto a jar of green peppercorns.

–The same plastic container of garam masala David and his parents used to secretly plant in each other’s possessions – a game no one has played in at least five years.

I could go on, but you get the idea. We threw some stuff away, though probably not nearly as much as we should have. The whole exercise reminded me – a little too much – of a scene from LITTLE GRANDMA’S MIRROR, the novel my agent is currently shopping. Adam’s mother has died, and he’s hired Kitty Klein, a professional estate liquidator, to help him dispose of the family home.


Kitty Klein wears a fancy gray hat and shiny black boots that hug her calves like ballroom gloves. Her long red fingernails make it all the more unbelievable when, after her I’m-sorry-we-couldn’t-meet-under-happier-circumstances handshake and before Adam finally manages to jimmy open the door he has never before had any trouble opening, she announces, “I’m a roll-up-the-sleeves gal. Do everything myself. If you want something done right, you know what I’m saying?”

Inside the kitchen, she pulls a notebook and a pen from her suitcase-sized handbag and starts opening cabinets and drawers and stirring through the unopened mail. “Your mother was sentimental, wasn’t she?” She says delicately extracts from the paper slush a laminated name tag Mouse wore at a convention she attended sometime in the nineties. “A keeper.”  Kitty’s nose twitches. She sets the name tag back down as if it were some frail archeological shard. “They’re the hardest.”

“The hardest in terms of what?” Adam asks, helplessly tracking her tight-lipped inspection of the aluminum-foil pans amassed against Armageddon, the expired spices in their dusty bottles, the ten-year archive of handwritten holiday menus hanging beside the stove from a grease-encrusted string.

“Letting go.” She writes something down on her pad, then taps her perfect white teeth with her pen. “The kitchen definitely has potential.”

“For what?”

“To be something really special. A little paint. New appliances. Reface the cabinets. But the buyer would have to have some imagination.”


Adam and Kitty are products of my imagination, but the kitchen is definitely my mother’s – which sometimes smelled a little musty, too. Some things just linger, no matter how much you scrub.

One Response to “What’s that smell?”

  1. Amalia Gladhart Says:

    I have some of those spices. I always buy saffron when I go to Spain–it seems the thing to do–but I don’t always remember to use it. Friends had house-sitters last summer and were alarmed to discover they’d thrown out their aging herbs, as if scent or flavor were some incontrovertible proof of worthiness.

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