Grades 5 through 9, my family lived in a house in the West Slope neighborhood of Portland (just off Canyon Drive, for those of you keeping track). It was a quite little pocket of suburbia, bordered on all sides by busy streets. Next door to us lived an elderly woman and her son. For the most part, both generations of this small family were grumpily quiet, keeping to themselves unless we actively engaged them in conversation.

I remember one day, my mom had to go over and knock on their door to ask a question. When she returned a little while later, she reeked of mothballs. The chemical smell radiated from her person as if she’d been dipped in a vat of pest killer. It turns out that this neighbor had wool carpets and her method of protecting them was simply to scatter handfuls of toxic mothballs around her home. “Take that, moths!” I imagined her saying.

This woman has been springing to mind for me of late, because this is the time of year when the William Penn House hallways begin to smell of mothballs, as people pull out their winter things and stow away their summer stuff. There are a couple of days at the change of every season when the mothball aroma seeps through the walls and into our apartment. It takes a while to identify as mothball stink, at first I just notice a slightly off scent and start running around the apartment, sniffing and trying to find an abandoned dirty sock or a rotting potato (there’s little that smells worse than a rotting potato).

Then it begins to get stronger and I’m finally able to identify it. I don’t love it, but at least I don’t have to be on guard, wondering what’s crawled into the drain and died.

However, I still don’t understand how people can live with mothballs the way they do around here (I use a combination of lavender and ceder to keep my woolens moth-free). They are so toxic and awful smelling.

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