Old Building and Dampened Woods: A Memoir

Kholisa Dwi Hutami


Did you ever sit still and noticed that the place you were at had its certain smell? Smell that would not come up, unless you were at that place? Place, so significant to you, that its smell always lingered and followed you anywhere you go? Place, so close to your heart, that wherever you were, whenever it happened, when wind carried the smell and it ran under your nose, you would suddenly be taken back to that place? No? Let me put up a good example.

First, hospital. This could be the hospital where your mother died, or where your sister gave birth to another human being. It did not matter. We all knew too well that hospital had that overly-cleaned, simultaneously sterile, sad, sick, chloroform, hand anti-septic scent. We knew that too well, so, every time our friend handed out their hand anti-septic our unconscious mind would recognize that smell and somehow it would remind us about hospital. Place where you were hospitalized for a surgery and you started feeling shiver down your spine because it was not a pleasant memory, or where you accompanied your friend for a blood test and you let a sigh of relief because she is well now. Okay, enough rambling. You got it now, didn’t you?

I happened to notice that the place where I spent my happiest days as a child, my grandparents’ house, in Pekalongan to be exact, also had their special smell. It was weird at first, because I thought that it only worked for common places that everyone would be familiar with; gas station, McDonald’s, graveyard, toilets. But as it turned out, no. Pekalongan to me smelled like dampened-old woods, it is a smell that came when rain first hit the dry ground, it was soothing and warm; the atmosphere, and another thing I knew was that (although I had not been there, yet) I swear it smelled like rainforest. In short, it put you at peace.

I had lost count as to many times had I visited this place, though I do remember that I stopped coming before middle school. It was almost 8 years yet I never forgot how it smelled. There were times when I would lay in my queen-sized bed, with my legs up against the cold, yellow-colored wall, closing my eyes and out of nowhere the smell just came up. I let it take me back to the time when I was just a child running around in the backyard with my cousins. My grandparents’ backyard was very expansive, wherever my eyes went all I could see were old trees, standing tall and proud, solid to the ground.

When I was little, a trip to Pekalongan after Eid Mubarak prayer was both an exciting and important matter to me. The first trip I still remembered clearly was the one where I, my dad, and my brother went by train. My mother did not come with us because she just gave birth to my baby brother. I remember the seat to be comfortable, but it was freezing so I had to snuggle inside a thick blue wool blanket the train provided for the passengers. We did not talk much because well, we took a night train, we mostly just ate what my mother had packed for us and minded our own business. I laid my head on my dad’s thighs and slept my way through the trip.

When we arrived and got out of the train, we immediately walked to the parking lot because my uncle was already waiting there to pick us up. It was around 3 to 4 a.m in the morning, but it was not cold at all, and that was what differentiated Pekalongan to any other city I had visited around Central Java. The weather was not too hot that it suffocated you nor cold like Bandung, it was just warm, like the city was welcoming you with a hug. I sat in the backseat of my uncle’s minibus with my brother, we rolled down the window and as the breeze slowly blew into the car, the peculiar scent also came along, infiltrating my lungs with warmth and soothed me to sleep.

As I opened my eyes, the sound of dawn’s call for prayer could be heard. It took another 10 minutes and we arrived, that was kinda a long ride I thought to myself. The car stopped in front of the gate out the house, and we let ourselves out of the car to get our belongings before going into the house. I smiled as I waved to my cousin, Agun, who had been waiting for our arrival on the front porch. I walked on the stone footpath that stuck the sole of my feet through my thin flip-flops and it hurt me a little when I ran into the house.

I really loved the house as a child, still did now 15 years later, it was a traditional Javanese house built with a lot of windows therefore it never got stuffy inside. I mean, I got it, my grandparents had 15 children with my father being the second youngest child so they needed a lot of space and a lot of fresh air to breathe. Not only that, my late grandmother loved to garden. It made the area around the house very pretty and fresh, the air that surrounded the house was very natural and green and clean. I loved staying outside the house, sitting by the porch.

Inside, in the living room, there were my uncle and his kids already in a deep sleep. They pulled out a bed from their room and put it in front of the television, made a bedroom there. My aunt welcomed us I could see that she was sweating a little on her temples, she hugged me and she smelled nice and also delicious; she smelled like onion, no.. actually, it was Tempe Mendoan, because turned out she just prepared those and hot tea for us. My father was still outside, catching up with his older brother. My brother went into the bathroom to freshen up and to change his clothes, and so I did the same. I laid on the mattress while eating Tempe Mendoan it was not crispy like the ones in Bandung it was half-cooked like it was supposed to be. The lights were yellow and dimmed in the living room. My brother and Agun had also fallen asleep, I finished my tempe and went to sleep as well.

The sun rose and its light came peeking through the windows’ sheets of curtains. My aunt woke us up to let us know that breakfast was served. She prepared Sego Megono, Tempe Mendoan (this was always mandatory), fried eggs, and sweet hot tea. We ate together and I knew this was also one of the things that I loved the most about being in this house. Breakfast was always made fresh and served while it was still hot and we would gather around and ate together. It was not a big deal but it meant the world to me.

After we finished, my father told my brother and I to take a shower before we play. I did it rather in a rush because I had missed my cousins a lot. I dressed up and went to the backyard to hunt for an insect called Undur-undur in the dirt. We found some and we kept them for a while to name them before we let them free again. My nieces were playing hide and seek and I chose to play on the swing. The swing was made of old wheel that was cut open and hung to the tree’s branch. I sat back and relaxed, enjoying the cool breeze which one again brought that certain smell together with it. I took a deep breath in to let the smell spread into my lungs, I closed my eyes and I muttered, “I don’t want to go home”.

Photo by: Kholisa D. Hutami

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