Smells Like Teen Spirit


This is my great-great-great grandmother, Anna Marie Henriksen Engh, in Norway. She was born at a time when the life expectancy for women was greater in Norway than in any other country: about 52 years. She lived to be just one month shy of 64.

As far as I can tell from my genealogical record in, she gave birth to ten children. Six of them outlived her. One died at birth, one died soon thereafter, one died as a toddler, and the fourth died as a young adult. The infant mortality rate (children who die before age 5 per 1000 live births) for Norway during her childbearing years was about 18%, so for whatever reason, she shouldered nearly double the loss of infants than her average peer.

Her husband died at least ten years before this photo was taken, so she was a widow. I don’t know what other hardships she had to endure–what illnesses and conditions beset her that today are treatable or unheard of; what it took to manage a home, keep a consistent food supply, and avoid household accidents; and what it took to see at least one of her children, my great-great-grandfather, leave forever with his newfound faith, a small inheritance, and the promise of religious freedom in America. Certainly all of these things took a toll on her.

But that look on her face–the one we often assume is a grim determination, a stubborn resistance against all the elements that sought to destroy our ancestors–has nothing to do with these burdens she carried. I know that because I have had the same look on my face now for weeks. And my life is roses compared to hers.

When I risk a look in the mirror, I catch an expression that says, “The whole world stinks. My own person and everything in this world smells terrible. I am on constant defense against the offensive odors, fragrances, and stenches harbored by objects both animate and inanimate.”

Think about it. If I can be completely disgusted by all the smells my overly acute sense can detect due to pregnancy hormones, how much worse was it when there was little or no indoor plumbing, when dentists often doubled as the town blacksmith (see Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land by Kathleen Stokker pages 211-212), when food could not be refrigerated, and when the word “sanitation” had just been coined in 1848 England, of all places?

(I recall from my childhood, a depiction of 1840’s London “sanitation” in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Watching treasure sink irretrievably into a canal full of human waste inspires little hope that the world smelled anything but putrescent at that time of grim-faced black-and-white not-so-Kodak moments caught on daguerreotype.)

You may be entertained by the list of smells I find offensive right now, but suffice it to say that if you are wearing Teen Spirit deodorant, which graced my underarms at age 14, I will know. Kurt Cobain, unfortunately, could not smell it, and that is why he accidentally named one of the greatest alternative rock songs (which my parents never actually heard me listening to) after a deodorant.

As a final note, apparently the look on my face is perfect for busting a move according to this clip from Face to Face with Studio C. Start at 14:16 for this little known benefit of the “stinkface.” If that doesn’t get you to research your family history, I don’t know what will.

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