Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Scents and Sensibilities

Last week's Life Writing class homework ended up as something entirely different from what I'd started out to write. Here it is, courtesy of a rather pushy muse:


On the Internet there are pages and pages of articles about olfactory memory. In one of those articles, “How Smell Works," Sarah Dowdey wrote:  “A smell can bring on a flood of memories, influence people’s moods and even affect their work performance. Because the olfactory bulb is part of the brain’s limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it’s sometimes called the “emotional brain,” smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously.”

Boy, is that the truth! Except for familiar pieces of music, nothing else takes me back in time faster than smells I recognize from my childhood. I’ve made a list, incomplete and off the top of my head, of scents that embedded themselves deeply in my youthful brain, so let’s try an experiment. Whether you’re listening to my list with your ears or reading it with your eyes, pay close attention to what’s happening with your nose. See if it remembers smells like these:

• Rain, its pleasant scent especially noticeable when there was no thunder or lightning and I was allowed to carry an umbrella and walk at the edge of the street to the end of the block and back, bare feet splashing in the narrow stream of rainwater that flowed against the curb.

• Lilacs and roses, the most fragrant of all the blossoms in my grandmother's carefully tended flower beds.

• Clover, growing wild in the yard or picked by little girls and woven into chains.

• Ripe tomatoes and tall stalks of corn growing in my grandfather's garden, their separate scents as pleasing as the taste of their juices mingled with salt and butter on my plate after supper. I'd stay at the table until everyone else was gone so I could tilt my plate and drink that juice.

• Cinnamon, sprinkled on sugar cookies my grandmother baked mid-afternoon, stacked in her big, porcelain dishpan, covered with a tea towel, kept warm until my sister and I came home from school.

• Crispy, juicy chicken Mammaw fried after church every single Sunday.

• Hamburgers at Taylor's Drive-In, where Mother would take us after a show or a circus. They were made with thin, thin meat patties and dressed with mustard, sliced dill pickles and onions. Their distinctive smell must have been due to the onions, because Taylor's was the only place I'd eat them.

• Baloney sandwiches unwrapped from waxed paper in the school lunchroom; also Fritos, pulled from the same brown paper bag.

• Popcorn in downtown movie theaters--the Landers, the Fox, the Gillioz--to which we rode the city bus on Saturdays to see matinees, black and white newsreels, and colorful Disney cartoons.

• The school smells:  chalk dust, crayons, wood shavings in the pencil sharpener, white paste, oilcloth brought from home to cover desks during art projects, and purple-printed, mimeographed pages to be taken home to our parents. (Of all those items, only the white paste tasted as good as it smelled.)

• Telephone poles. I sniffed them at every inconspicuous opportunity after I discovered that their smell reminded me of the monkey enclosure at the Springfield Zoo. Only later did I learn that that smell was creosote, painted on telephone poles and the wooden posts of the big wire cage as a preservative.

• The healing scent of Band-Aids and adhesive tape and the sinus-clearing smell of Absorbine Jr. rubbed lovingly onto a sprained ankle or Vicks VapoRub spread on my chest under my cotton pajama-top.

• Ivory soap, the big bar that floated in the bath water in the claw-footed tub.

• The cherry-almond fragrance of my grandmother's Jergens hand lotion.

• The lingering smell of shaving cream on my grandfather's cheek when he hugged me soon after a shave.

• The Evening in Paris eau de Toilette I bought for my mother at M. L. Hunter's 5¢ to $1 Store--the smallest, cheapest, deep-blue bottle of Evening in Paris the store sold and the only one that fit my budget.

• The fresh smell of laundry starch being cooked on the stove to be carried in its pot gingerly, with pot-holders, down the basement stairs and poured into the tub of the old wringer washing machine.

• Sheets and pillowcases that had hung all day on the backyard clothesline to dry in the sun and wind.


Some things stink; it's a fact. Not all the smells that stir memories are pleasant ones, even if the memories themselves are nice. Here are some not-so-nice smells that have stayed in my brain in a good way:

• The dank mustiness of the basement when my sister and I played down there to beat the summer's heat.

• The chlorinated water of the swimming pool at Fassnight Park and that same strong chemical odor, diluted by a mere hint of urine, in the bathhouse next to the pool. Those smells meant cool water on a hot day; it was easy to tolerate them.

• My own perspiration on my fingertips after I'd sat outside on the front-porch swing in summer, arms crossed over my chest, hands tucked into my armpits. There was a time when I thought my sweat smelled like corn silks, but that changed well before junior high.

• Dirt kicked up by children's feet on dusty playgrounds. Along with bruised arms, dust in our nostrils was the price we paid for Red Rover, Red Rover.

• Lightning bugs. Their odor wasn't noticeable unless a bunch of them were collected in a jar or a lighted tail was crushed and spread around the base of a finger to make a glow-in-the-dark ring.

• Sneakers and socks, wrapped in gym clothes brought home for laundering after five days crammed in a school locker.

• Rotten eggs, previously hard-boiled, dyed, and surrounded by jellybeans and chocolate-marshmallow goodies in an Easter basket, then hidden by me for more than a week behind a rack of winter coats and a big trunk on the floor of the closet underneath the stairs. My Uncle Joe never found my basket, but I had to throw out more than he would have stolen.


Good or bad, smells are powerfully evocative. My sister and I once traveled together to a family reunion in Springfield, Missouri. That was in 1996, nearly forty years after we'd moved from there to Texas. About thirty miles before we reached our destination, Judy opened the sunroof and a forgotten but familiar fragrance wafted into the car and hit us right in our hearts. The scent was so compelling that nostalgic tears began rolling down both our faces. We never did find out what unidentified substance our olfactory bulbs had picked out of the Southwest Missouri air; none of our relatives who lived there noticed any unusual or distinctive scent at all. Whatever it was, it smelled exactly like home.


One purpose of the Life Writing class exercises is to remind us of stories we might not otherwise think to write. After finishing the homework piece above, I realized that there's at least one story to be written about every item on that list of remembered smells. I may write them--using the list as a meme for blog posts--when the current class sessions end.

Now it's your turn:  What smells from your own childhood have stayed with you?

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