The summer before 7th grade, I had filled out my class request for the year to include a study hall each semester to accommodate what I was sure was going to be a significant increase in homework, now that I was in junior high and all. How it went down in the school office, though, was that I received two study halls first semester, in a row, the last two periods of every school day. As it turned out, I didn’t need two hours a day to complete junior high homework; I barely needed one. So I decided to volunteer in the school library for the second period of study hall because I loved the idea of stamping cards and shelving books (what? I’m a nerd, and always have been,) and the girl I shared my study hall table with was a bully.
I did whatever the librarian asked me to do, and one day, that involved taping up new paperbacks with heavy clear packing tape in the (probably futile) hope that they’d survive use by junior high students. (It might’ve been enough, looking back; I assumed everyone used the library as much as I did, but we really weren’t ever that busy.) As I started pulling out measured strips of tape to put on the binding and edges of the covers, I was overwhelmed by the scent of the tape, like I had smelled it before, but as this was the first time I’d ever done this task, I knew that wasn’t it.
It took me a little while to place it, but finally, I did: it smelled exactly like the self-adhesive eye patches I had to wear as a kid after I had the accident with my eye. I had to wear a patch over my good eye for an hour a day or so to try to strengthen the left one. The strange thing was, I had completely forgotten that had ever happened. I had stopped wearing the patches by kindergarten, either because by then I was out of the woods, wasn’t going to improve anymore, or my mother just got tired of my vociferous reluctance and pitiful whining when I was wearing the damn thing that it just wasn’t worth it anymore; I don’t know. If someone had asked me if I remember wearing an eye patch, I might’ve remembered it anyway. But as that’s not a frequently asked question in most people’s lives, and hadn’t been mentioned in many years in my own, it had totally slipped away from me. But my nose brought it back clear as day.
I was thinking about this the other day after reading Mark Morford’s column on scent, the comments to which became a communal sharing of scents that trigger memories in a way that no other sense can, and the visceral, physical reactions that sometimes resulted. My favorite were the comments from men who said they still get a boner every time they smell something like Love’s Baby Soft or whatever cheap cologne their first girlfriend wore.
For me, the scent of oil-soaked earth will always remind me of my grandmother’s garage out in the country; I can still remember it. Sometimes, too, in the winter, someone will have their fireplace going, and it will smell just like the wood my grandmother put in the woodstove in the sauna, and I’m a little girl again, waiting for the water to be hot enough to go in and wash off a day’s worth of playing outside. I bought, and wear, Spellbound perfume because when I sniffed it at the perfume counter, it reminded me of the L’origan my mother used to wear. And the scent of damp wool can bring me back to my dating days; Scott had a scratchy wool coat he wore all the time through the Nebraska fall of our early courtship, and the potpourri of Dove soap and that coat brings me right back in the middle of many long, drawn-out goodbye kisses. Sweet memories, and so vivid.
It works the other way, too, though. I had bought some of that Pro-Activ stuff, and it arrived right after Antiguo died. I used it every day for months thereafter through what was unquestionably the worst time of my life, until I decided it was not actually a miracle cure for acne. Long after that, I was cleaning out my cabinet in the bathroom, and found several unopened boxes of the stuff that I brought to work for anyone to take, and a single bottle of cleanser I’d already opened. So I threw it in the shower to use up. The first time I opened the bottle and put the stuff on my face, I knew it was a mistake. It was as if I’d been sucked through a tunnel in time back to those awful days as the emotions just welled up inside me; I couldn’t get it rinsed off my face fast enough, and I chucked the bottle out of the shower into the trash bin (two points!) immediately.
I don’t know, but I always think the fact that scent and memory are so strongly bonded is remaining instinct, a link to our animal selves, since animals rely much more on smell than we do. If the memories are that vivid with scent, you have no need to write things down; you are there again.
What about you? (I know you’re out there—I can see your IP addresses.) Do you have any special scent/memory links you’d like to share with the rest of the class, or, rather, me, because I’m nosy? (Ha!) Comments are open.