Sniff, sniff . . . I watch the pool of wax on a recently snuffed candle slowly cool back into a solid surface, starting from the outer edges inwards. The wax will contract slightly as it solidifies, bowing inwards towards the center. The fragrant beeswax brings back memories of early church services when I still attended with my family. It's been years since I attended with them, but certain scents trigger these memories, and they come flooding back as if I was still wearing those poorly fitting dress shoes.
Easter Sunday is one of the biggest services of the year. Many people who consider themselves church members but don't like attending weekly services will pick that one day to show up. It's guaranteed to attract huge crowds.
One spring morning before even opening the huge oak and iron doors to the cathedral, my family was heading outside. As we approached the car, the driveway and flowerbed were soaked in rain. A strong wind was carrying the clouds away and bathing me in the scents of early blooms mixed with ozone. The clouds blew swiftly towards the west and promised a beautiful morning. I opened the door to the backseat reluctantly, knowing that I would spend it in church and Sunday school instead.
The morning bloomed on our way towards church. The oily smell of my new leather jacket mixed with the cologne I picked for that morning. My brother and I shared a collection of small bottles assembled from gifts and samples. Each time we would both attend a formal event, we picked from our collective stash and made sure to make different choices. As we decanted, sprayed or dabbled the volatile liquids, we always made some remark that the other had used too much and would overburden the air with our excessive fragrance. We didn't want to approach the pungent levels of lily of the valley perfume that mom applied, or the nauseating, dominating smell of gardenia that grandma loved.
We arrive. Opening the heavy wooden doors, a faint mildewy smell mixed with candle smoke greets me in the church atrium. A forest of candles burn in long trays, reflecting the high attendance for this holiday service. Candles lit for the dead stand in haphazard clusters, the base of each pushed into the sand of a wide brass box. Candles dedicated with prayers for the living extend in neat rows of tiered metal holders.
We squeeze through a crowd of other families, single people and elderly groups as we reach one of the remaining open pews. This spot is fairly close to the front of the church, where a grove of Easter lilies in containers surrounds the altar. We're close to this portable garden and the scent from hundreds of polygonal, trumpet-shaped white flowers reach me as we reach for liturgy books. The worn pages of these handbook-sized hymnals flip easily and their essence contrasts with the fresh notes from the living flowers.
Early in the service, the priest exits from behind the altar screen to bless the altar, images of saints and the congregation. His golden censer streams clouds of Frankincense smoke heated with miniature Charcoal briquettes. In the background, I can detect the Saltpetre fumes from this specialized incense charcoal. Along with this chemical odor, there is sulfur residue from the match struck to light the censer.
The long Easter service moves along, and the church has swelled with latecomers. As we near the dismissal, young altar servers exit from behind the altar screen carrying baskets for donation. The standing congregation rustles with activity as they reach into pockets for wallets and dip into purses for coins and dollar bills. A basket makes its way towards us, rapidly filling with donations. Even though we are close to the front, contributions are generous and a pile of singles and fives greets me.
Now we prepare to leave the church, but not before greeting the priest to receive a small blessing and piece of bread. He is a smoker, and the lingering scent of burnt tobacco counters the yeasty aroma of my small piece of loaf, neatly sliced into a cube. We walk slowly in a line towards the outdoors, passing the now-extinguished candles lit earlier that morning.
I exited those doors decades ago. Still, the faint fragrance of a bright red tulip gives me pause on my Sunday morning walks.