The Scents of Summer

Summertime carries memories for all of us. Recently, a Consumer Reports article about sunscreens prompted me to think about the aromas that mean summer for me. Growing up long before the acronym SPF had any significance, I remember when Sea & Ski and Hawaiian Tropic marketed themselves as “suntan lotion,” a product that had more in common with basting oils than medical defense against skin damage. Still, prior to a day at the beach, we slathered ourselves with Coppertone, and the mere mention of sunscreen fragrance in that article transported me to the summers of my childhood.

With that olfactory connection in my head, I started thinking about what other scents signify summer. Certainly the smell of freshly cut grass means summer for those of us in northern states. As an adult, mowing represents an outdoor weekend responsibility, but cutting the lawn once held the potential for play. I remember begging my dad to mow the lawn in a pattern that created the illusion of streets and intersections in the grass. Occasionally, he’d indulge me, and I’d quickly follow the evolving streetscape behind his lawnmower, pretending to be driving a car down those clipped pathways.

The tang of swimming pool chlorine definitely means summer. During my childhood, I enjoyed a blow-up kiddie pool (with its plasticky aroma) and later an 18-inch-tall above-ground pool in our backyard. But it was a bigger deal to take a plunge into a real swimming pool. My best friend’s family had a season pass to the neighborhood pool and, a couple times each summer, he’d invite me to come along as a guest. I could smell the chlorine from the pool’s parking lot, and the scent only helped build my anticipation of an afternoon of water-based fun.

Taking family vacations in a succession of campers, my sister and I looked forward to campgrounds with pools. But the swarms of mosquitoes around the picnic table or campfire were something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. Still, the scent of Off insect repellent sends me back to those camping trips. A more toxic insect memory summons images of the fogger truck that traversed the streets of a campground on the New Hampshire shore every evening. I wonder how many hazardous chemicals I absorbed from that noxious cloud…

Speaking of hazardous materials, the Fourth of July held its own special smells. As I recall, my home state of Ohio made selling (or possessing) fireworks illegal, but we managed to pick up the occasional box of firecrackers or sparklers on our trips and bring them back to add to our Independence Day celebrations. Although my parents shared stories about their childhood exploits with firecrackers and cherry bombs, my experiences mostly centered on sparklers. We eagerly awaited darkness on the evening of July fourth for the chance to bring out our contraband sparklers and light them. To this day, I connect the glow and sizzle of sparklers with the chemical and metallic scent they generated.

So this summer, breathe deep, let your memories flow, and see where your nose takes you. If you sniff out a good sensory summer story, make sure to share it at America at Play: Play Stories.