Posted in Memory Lane

Scents and sensibility

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.



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

16 thoughts on “Scents and sensibility

  1. The strongest scent trigger for me is geraniums: My grandmother’s garden on the California coast was FULL of them, all different colors, many of them taller than I am. Or rather, taller than I was before the age of 8. We’d walk around her neighborhood, and she would stop to deadhead the neighbors’ geranuims; if she saw a variety that she didn’t have in her yard, she would break off a woody stem. Lo, and behold, that stem would root and she would have another plant in her own yard.

    Now that I think about it, my need to garden, to get my hands dirty, probably germinated in my grandmother’s back yard.

    1. For me, geraniums always bring me back to this greenhouse in Superior, WI, that my mom frequented. The guy who owned it, I think his name was Adam, gave me a geranium once. I was little–maybe 3 or 4–and I was so excited to have my very own flower. And so pretty!

  2. Powdery perfumes remind me of my grandma. So do certain foods baking (cinnamon and apples is a big one). Scents are very powerful for me too.

    1. Whenever I make a pot roast in the crock pot, when I come home it’s like driving up to my grandma’s door. She always had roast waiting for us when we’d drive across the state to see her. I like that it evokes her now, though she’s been gone 26 years. It feels like a gift across time.

  3. Also Old Spice makes me think of both my dad and Joe. It was hard for a while to smell Old Spice after Joe died. Still can make me cry if it catches me on the right day.

  4. There was a really fresh, distinctive smell I remember from childhood. It happened occasionally on dewy spring mornings in Wisconsin. I used to go outside and take deep breaths and try to save the smell. On rare occasions (rare here in AZ) I have smelled a similar scent here and you’re right….it takes me right back to those days.

  5. The AHSGR exhibits have a smell that reminded me of my Great Grandparent’s. I know some of their stuff was donated there, but I think it’s more a smell of the technology and manufacturing materials of the day, than their stuff, but it does bring back memories.

  6. Cheap cologne on the street – my first boyfriend. Cigars and wet hats – my grandparents’ house and bunny pancakes on Illinois mornings. Old Spice and flannel – Sixten when we were courting one another in the most juvenile way (arguing and wrestling over the same armchair in the frat living room).

  7. Pipe tobacco and my grandfather.

    Here’s one I’m struggling to unravel. The Chipotle closest to my house has the best smelling bathroom cleanser. I find the smell of their restrooms comforting and happy… it reminds me of something, but I can’t figure it out. Maybe my elementary school cafeteria, or the cleanser my grandmother in Dallas used… I don’t know and it’s driving me batty.

    1. You could ask them what scent it is…it might be a clue. Or just ask them where you can get it; then you can have it in your own house, and be comforted and happy there. Though going for burritos is always a plus.

  8. The smell of the air before a thunderstorm or a warm rain: from childhood, when I loved watching thunderstorms from my next-door neighbor’s front lawn in my so. Oregon hometown (she had a better view to the east; we had trees in front of our house that blocked it).

    The smell of the dirt as it’s freshly tilled or freshly watered. I have no idea what that’s from, but I’d guess it’s from all the gardening my mom did as a kid.

    Woodsmoke on a clear, crisp fall day reminds me of having to go pick up a load of firewood as a kid, from some friend of my dad’s who lived in the country.

    But bad smells? A particular odor in the mausoleum when I being given the royal-treatment tour of burial spots for Charley. I don’t know WHAT that stench was, but I about vomited when I caught a whiff of it at his aunt’s house 6 weeks later. I still would (almost vomit, that is) if I smelled it again. It was the smell that told me, without a doubt, my husband was really dead at 28.

    Ironically, Charley mentioned several times over the years about smelling my high-school perfume on other women. (I couldn’t even say what it was back then. Vanilla Fields at one long-ago, 16yo point, but I think it was the college-aged Victoria’s Secret one that hard-wired his buttons? But maybe not…and it’s not like I can ask him to confirm. ;o)) I guess that primordial brain really does go on overdrive in men. ;o)

    The “funny” thing is that I can’t really smell all that much most of the time. Allergies, small nasal cavities…who knows why. But one of the ways that I first knew, in hindsight, that I was pregnant was because I could smell my sister’s toffee nut latte from Starbucks when I was 10 feet away. I didn’t know I was pregnant yet, but it was a big “a-ha!” moment once that peed-on stick turned blue. ;o)

    1. I have been cursed with a very sensitive sense of smell. I know the milk is going bad 3 days before anyone else notices it’s a little off. There are a lot of smells I just can’t tolerate because of it. Spearmint nauseates me. Wood pulp at paper mills. Jet fuel, which means that half the time I’m already feeling ill before I even get on the plane!

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