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Selected Podpieces


A friend of mine from a large city on the eastern seaboard was visiting her brother-in-law in Brewster. We met for lunch and a walk along the beach. After discussing the traffic, the state of the tide, her children and my dogs, we walked for a while in silence.

Then she cleared her throat and said, “I want to ask you something.”

My heart bonked slightly against my chest wall, whether from fear at the prospect of an acquaintance getting too personal or excitement at getting down to the nitty gritty, I’m not sure.

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m very fond of my brother and sister-in-law,” she said, “and we visit them a couple of times a year. But their bath towels always smell – ” she lowered her voice and looked to see that no one was too close to us “ – mildewy.”

“Ah.” I nodded sagely.

“Even when we come in the fall,” she said. “But I don’t want to say anything to my sister-in-law. She tends to take things personally.”

“Oh, yeah,” I said, nodding sagely again, as if I too had a sister-in-law and knew all about them.

“I mean, I’m sure they’re clean,” she said. “What is it about the towels on Cape Cod?”

What is it indeed? As far as I know, Cape Cod towels have smelled mildewy throughout recorded history, and even before. I have read that when the Pilgrims first landed at the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown, they were tempted to stay. But the local residents took one look at their luggage and told them, “Your woolen towels will soon take on the unpleasant odor of mildew, and it will never leave you. Check out Plimoth, a little farther up the coast, where towels always smell sweet.”

A few hundred years later, when I was a child spending the summer in Bass River, even though our towels were terry cloth, not wool, the slightest moisture would bring out the smell of mildew. For me, it was a fragrance redolent of the Cape itself. I suspect that, for my mother, it was an odor that embarrassed her when friends came to stay.

And these days I don’t care for it either. I have washed our towels in hot water, with extra Tide, and with vinegar, or with bleach; I have dried them with those little sheets of synthetic material impregnated with perfume, and hung them in the hot sun to dry, and folded them up stuffed with lavender wands. Sometimes, you can use them once without the mildew smell taking over; but by the second time, they’re goners. Winter and summer, it doesn’t matter: they’re clean, but they’re mildewy.

One of Olde Cape Cod's few imperfections.
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