Of all the senses, smell must be the most evocative. A whiff of something as fleeting as a puff of air can transport you right back to preschool, even before you understand what it is.
The mind makes an instant leap, disregarding the normal boundaries of age or standing. I'm sure you all have a particular memory that is forever represented by a scent in the air, for good or ill.
As children, we who were raised in Mansfield grew to recognize the fragrances of chocolate as a normal part of our lives, of our school mornings and afternoons.
It wafted on the breezes from the imposing brick building out at the industrial fringes of the downtown, and colored our days, sometimes barely noticeable, but at its most pungent, an odor that made us lift our heads into the wind as we walked home or to Scouts or piano lessons. It was the smell of our community.
For sure, in some respects our busy downtown was awash in sweetness.
We were blissfully unaware of what would eventually be the transience of our favorite haunts - Mrs. Johnson's candy kitchen at the corner of East Street and South Main, where translucent barley sugar pops in primary colors took the shapes of trains, bull's-eyed circles, or (my favorite) a cupped lady's hand; Lilly's drugstore in the Wheeler building, with its black and white tiled floors and soda fountain; and Lord's drugstore further down on the other side, with pressed tin ceilings and massive oak cabinets - and ice cream.
Even my neighbor down on South Main Street, Mrs. Foster, had marble countertops and made fudge for us all at Halloween. She was a graduate of the Fanny Farmer School, if I remember right.
The chocolate factory for me was an enigma - the source of the intoxicating brownie-a-la-mode odor, but not a place I was familiar with at all.
I don't think I ever entered its doors, although I know many children did, and I regarded its Gothic brick facade with a kind of awed fascination and no small measure of fright, particularly after the reports of a terrifying accident with a worker and a vat of molten chocolate.
But one of the spoils of having a father in the business community came in the form of solid milk chocolate bunnies at Easter, and heavy blocks of both light and dark at Christmas, marked into triangles. I have a few squares of the last batch ever made here, thanks to a friend with connections. I can't bring myself to eat it, not yet anyway.
It was only much later that I found out about the imprint Walter Lowney made on the town, and to what extent he invested in its future. As children, we knew nothing about the history. We only saw - and tasted - the results.
The chocolate company, in all of its many guises and titles over the years, flooded the Country Store with multicolored foil wrapped balls and Santas and eggs and rabbits - bitterweet and milk chocolate, peanut-butter-filled hearts, and the luscious malted milk balls that for many of us can never be duplicated.
And its influence ranged far beyond our borders -- I was amazed to find Mansfield products in an upscale and forbiddingly expensive chocolate shop in Brooklyn.
My cousin Suzanne, who lived at the end of Church Street near Memorial Park and so was very close to the plant for most of her formative years, told me recently she had met someone at a vacation on the Vineyard a few summers ago who had commented, on hearing of her roots, "Oh, that's the town that smells like chocolate!"
And one of the older staffers at Furlong's, the candy store with the candy-cane fence down on Route 1 towards Boston, told me they had always used Mansfield chocolate in all of their confections, as it was the best there is.
Now that the chocolate factory has closed its doors for good, the air we breathe uptown will be distressingly ordinary, no longer bearing the evidence of a thriving industry, of a sweet beehive churning away season after season.
I hope the old factory does turn into housing - it would be a productive end for a building that represented a huge chapter in Mansfield's past, and it deserves the busyness and life it has always known. I just bet those apartments will smell slightly like cocoa, especially on a damp fall day.
If you're interested in the Chocolate Factory, or any other part of Mansfield's history, check out the Mansfield Historical Society on Rumford Avenue. They meet every Monday from 5-7 p.m.