Most of us keep memory tidy, or try to, so that whenever we visit those side-pastures of the mind where the past still grazes we will find lilacs and summer meadows and like that.
But of course other things keep getting through the fence, so to speak, and if the truth were told, almost everybody remembers Thanksgiving for scents far more persistent than roast turkey.
Thanksgiving never comes around but I can catch a whiff of turkey, all right, in my memory. But mainly where the turkey used to live under the back steps. For me, and I presume for millions like me, the season means roasted robin, wet dogs, the immortal scent of camellias and the equally eternal (if less elegant) perfume of burnt rags to disguise a feast of chitterlings.
Not everybody remembers Vernon, of course, the man who worked in the garden and took care of the turkey until he chopped its head off for Thanksgiving, but I certainly do, and I suspect most kids knew some heroic Bunyan-type lord of Vernon's type.
He was a naturally exceptional man, the first black I ever knew with white hair and he had a presence that is all there was to it. There was always a flurry in the kitchen when he came in the house and the cook used to mutter a lot about him, but any child could see this was much like complaining that when the president visits your house you have all that fuss with the Secret Service.
His most startling performance of the year, beyond any doubt, was killing the turkey, which he did matter of factly, as if the turkey were merely some Scottish person who transgressed against the great Elizabeth.
Almost anybody who remembers Vernon, I suspect, turns naturally to comparisons with royal dramas and high concerns of state, because if Vernon merely ate some collards and neckbones it was carried off with some solemnity.
His view of the truth was not confined to paltry record-keeping. Some would say he stretched things.
"Used to be a sinful man, boy," he said from time to time. But one day in the river bottoms a Bible fell out of Heaven at his feet open to some significant passage which I am sorry to forget. I think it was Isaiah, but no matter.
"Vernon, did you bring the book?" I used to ask him. I wanted to see the one that fell from Heaven. He never did. I, a sinner, wanted to see if the Bibles of Heaven were published in New York or London like all the rest.
The turkey -- and some years there were two, though I cannot now think why -- lived under the wooden steps that led from a pantry off the kitchen.
They had butchers in those days and we all grew up in awe of Mr. Charley who ran the store where you got meat, though you never got vegetables there, you got them from Mr. Fred. All through the 1930s, however, you never bought turkeys at the meat counter, you bought them live in early October and housed them under the back steps, the one open side of which was wired for the purpose.
The place where the turkey lived had a depraved smell, which is not a good description but that's how it was. Gertrude Jekyll, the writer, once said the roots of some flower she admired "were redolent of a dirty henhouse," and I think the turkey place may have been like that. Both I and the family dogs were interested to visit the turkey several times a day. The dogs were unusually wet.
After Thanksgiving one year I shot a robin with a slingshot and roasted him under the steps and burned a wool vest I was wearing.
The combination of heartlessness toward birds (a serious enough offense in itself) and nearly burning the house down combined to give me one of the worst whippings I ever got. Peach switches were best, my mother always maintained.
Beside the steps, where the turkey-robin-peachtree traumas occurred, was a Japanese camellia with deep rose-colored flowers and a great boss of stamens in the middle. It only grew there later, not in my early childhood, but its closeness to the steps led me to identify its remarkable scent to this day with all those first Thanksgivings.
The Japanese, I was interested to learn later, always keep those camellias on hand to remind them of the terrible fate of decapitation awaiting samurai, so you see there is some precedent for my dark feelings for that flower.
Once we went to Louisiana for Thanksgiving.
Aunt Fadra had goose-down bedding in all the bedrooms. What incredibly luxury.
"You spend a third of your life in bed," she said, "and you may as well enjoy it."
Returning home to Tennessee, we found the house reeking with burnt rags. Someone had been cooking foul-smelling chitterlings and burnt the rags afterward to improve the air -- much as misguided people to this day sometimes burn scented candles. The house never smelled as bad as scented candles, but it was pretty bad all the same for about five days.
As I grow older, though still young, mind you, I think I might exert myself to make the glorious scent of the camellias stand for Thanksgiving, as lilacs stand for April, and dismiss the burnt rags, wet logs, roast robin and so forth, as not being sweet.
Not much luck thus far.