THE SMELL OF TOWELS

My mother was always very cold before she died, and one of the last of many purchases my father made to keep her comfortable while her mind and body wasted away was a towel warmer. Our house was freezing—my father kept it that way—and she would sit day after day in the La-Z-Boy chair in front of the TV wrapped in blankets, wearing a pair of readers that got progressively stronger and playing Scrabble on her phone, frustrated by her degenerating eyesight and memory as, unbeknownst to me, the cancer spread uncontrollably through her brain. Needless to say, she was happier than I’d seen her in months now that she could step out of the shower to a warm towel. 

Here’s how that plastic monstrosity worked: load in up to three rolled up towels and simply press the little bubbly plastic button, which turned on an electric heater that would warm the three towels to a soothing temperature. All I can remember of the towel heater is the smell; that awful smell of electric heat, like an iron in a dusty room. Our towels must have been cheap (no doubt, our towels were cheap), some synthetic blend with plastic-infused fibers that weren’t meant to be heated above the temperature of the drier downstairs. I guess to my mother the comfort of that warm towel surpassed any uneasiness that came from the smell, a smell that I experienced before in my parent’s childhood homes where space heaters often supplemented inadequate central heat supplied by oil or coal. Maybe the smell even reminded her of her childhood. I’d like to think so, anyway. 

I used the towel heater only once, stumbling around upstairs between the bathroom I shared with my siblings and the bathroom in the master bedroom (where the heater was) to try one of many novel items that had been shipped to my house in the four months since my mother’s diagnosis and rapid decline. I don’t remember much from those four months when I was 13, other than that I got my first phone and my first Instagram account and tried this towel heater and did not particularly like it. Or I guess I just didn’t see that much of a benefit to having to pre-heat a towel before my shower anyway. The forethought involved in something so routine didn’t appeal to me, I guess.  

I return every Christmas to a childhood home that has changed very little since my mother left it: the lay-z-boy has been replaced with an older chair from the basement (this one doesn’t recline) and the clutter is gone and my dog is dead too. This is the only time of year that I reliably return, as it is one of joyful anniversaries—my father’s birthday on New Year’s Eve, my mother’s on New Year’s Day—punctuated by a somber one, my mother’s death on December 28th.  I have no idea what happened to the towel warmer. I imagine it was one of the first things to go or one of the first things to break. My mother was the only one who used it anyway. Though we bought some new towels of the same quality, the old ones are still in circulation. This I know because even 9 years later that electric smell still lingers on them. I don’t avoid them—it’s hard to, and who cares—but I can’t help but notice every time I dry my face the faint distinctive smell of that towel heater that sat on the linoleum in my parent’s bathroom for only a few months. 

You forget a lot after 9 years—smiles and laughs and the feeling of hugs and I love you’s become faint impressions that you push away in frustration—so that eventually the memory of someone is preserved only in photographs and anecdotes. Memories of this kind grow vague and stale, reused and reproduced so often that they become more associated with death than life. The truth is that the smell of those towels—no matter how much I dislike it—is the only olfactory memory I have left of my mother. It still feels novel and it still feels real. I guess it’s nice to have such a vivid memory, no matter how digressive, thrown in my face every time I come home.

Andrew Thomas is a writer from Reading, Pennsylvania living and working in New York.