The Smell of a Mothball
December 1980

“The Smell of a Mothball,” Ensign, Dec. 1980, 41

The Smell of a Mothball

Mrs. Fruens used to pull her wagon from the store to her home a mile away. Summer and winter she was always dressed in black: shoes, socks, dress, and sweater. Her brown grocery bags leaned like tired sentinels against the sides of her squeaking wagon.

One day as my brother Stew and I were splitting kindling and gathering icicles for a family frolic, we spotted Mrs. Fruens on her way to the store. “Wouldn’t she be surprised if we chopped kindling for her monkey stove while she’s gone,” Stew burst out. The idea took hold immediately; we leaped on our bikes and sped to her yard.

Mrs. Fruens lived in a one-room frame house. A bed, table, chairs, a little carved hutch for knicknacks, a wall basin plumbed for cold water, and a stove for heating and cooking were all she had. Her husband had died thirty years earlier—shortly after they came to America.

Working quickly, we split and stacked a knee-high pile of wood, then hurriedly swept bark and twigs into a bucket for tinder. But we weren’t soon enough. Before we finished, we heard the squeaks of wheels coming down the street. I was anxious; Mrs. Fruens had been taunted and teased too much. Boys had thrown rocks and cans on her roof at night to frighten her. I was afraid we would not be welcome in her yard. Reaching the gate, she looked at us warily. Then her eye moved to the stack of kindling and the tinder bucket. She glowed. Thrusting her key into the lock, she set her bags inside, then hugged us. It embarrassed me, but it did feel good. Taking us by the hand, she exclaimed, “You good boys. You very good boys. You cut me kindling for a week.”

As we walked to the gate, she scurried into the house and emerged with a colorful can of hardtack candy. Smiling her toothless smile, she held out the can, which smelled of mothballs from having been stored in her closet with her woolens. “Take some,” Stew whispered, “or she’ll be hurt.” She threw us a kiss as we left. We pedaled home in silence.

At home, the kitchen was filled with smells of Christmas. A single candle had been placed near a note, and stretched across the table was a toboggan. We could hardly contain our excitement. We had secretly wanted a toboggan for years.

The note read: “To my boys who do the things I am unable to do. Love, Daddy.” Father had been ill for several months and died the following Easter. His chores had fallen to us.

It was a memorable season. We used the toboggan many times in heavy snows. We rode it hard—even damaging it so that the following season it retired to the rafters of the garage.

Years have passed, the toboggan is gone, and the neighborhood has changed. A freeway runs near the spot where Mrs. Fruen’s house stood. But my mind often floods with the memory of a grateful old woman and two zealous boys chopping wood. That wood has given warmth many times. Once when chopped, twice when burned, and again and again whenever I pass by or smell the odor of a mothball.

  • D. Michael Stewart, a historian and director of the Utah state centennial history project, serves as Young Men president in his Salt Lake City ward.