Thursday, June 3, 2010

I smelled a smell of time gone by...

It has been absolutely beautiful in Aberdeen this last week. Blue skies, birds chirping, beautiful green leaves and pink flowers blooming on the trees. And it's been warm. Not hot, not even warm enough to give you a light sheen of sweat. But its been a breezy cool warmness (nonsense sentence alert!). Because of this wonderful break in the weather, I have had the windows (and at times the doors) open most of the week, have been hanging laundry outdoors and have been spending loads of time outside.

I took a walk over lunch with a friend today in a beautiful park near school. As we rounded a bend, I was all of the sudden I was no longer in Duthie Park walking on this lovely tree lined path, but I was  at the Red Lane Swimming Pool, the pool of my childhood. (Sadly, I am realizing now that I can't remember if this is actually what it was called... Red Raquet Swim Club!!! That's it!!! That's what it was... maybe... I think... )Anyway, all I did was inhale, and I smelled the pungent aroma of chlorine and fertilizer and there I was, transported. In an instant, I recalled playing shark in the deep end, my first bikini, Dad throwing us what seemed like miles in the air into the pool, Matty complaining when he had to sit out of the water for half an hour after lunch. I remembered the lifeguards, signing in, when our favorite babysitter Stephanie would take us there in the evening, eating pizza AT THE POOL. I thought of cookouts and greased watermelons and attempting to play tennis with my friend Chandler when we got too cool for the pool. I remembered the horrible bathrooms, warm juiceboxes, waiting out thunderstorms, the nasty kiddie pool, how pretty my mom looked in her bathing suit lounging by the side of the pool, the first time I jumped off the diving board, and the slide, oh the slide!  Then, with an exhale, it was gone.

This happens to me all the time. Whenever I smell freshly cut wood or mud, I think of my Uncle Mark. He's a builder. I say 'builder' because he's not just an architect, a project manager, or a worker... no, he BUILDS stuff. He is one of those people that when you see him do his work, you realize, yes, he is doing exactly what he's meant to do. When I would get to visit his sites, or when he would come to dinner at Grandma's he always smelled like fresh cut wood and mud. Sometimes, if I am really homesick, I go to Lowes or Home Depot (B & Q over here) just to smell Uncle Mark.

Once, Mike bought Old Spice deoderant and aftershave. As soon as he put it on, I told him he couldn't wear it any more and immediately went out and bought him new stuff. I don't know if my grandpa wore Old Spice (I am very embarrassed that I don't know that) but when Mike put it on, he smelled exactly like Gramps, and I couldn't handle it. Every time I got near him, or he gave me a hug, all I could see was Grampa's big hands and tiny eyes. I would remember sitting next to Grampa and I could almost hear Jeopardy in the background, watching him doing the Roanoke Times crossword.

After college graduation, my friend Libby and I went on an epic European adventure. We backpacked across Europe, getting a taste of what life was really like after all those amazing insulated years at Witt. We went to a place in Italy called Sienna. It's the perfume capital of the world. We went into one of the perfumeries and I was attracted immediately to the rose scents. As I inhaled I was back in my grandmother's bathroom watching her put on her makeup and smooth lotion over her skin. I bought hardly anything on that trip, because all the money I had was spent on planes, trains and hotel rooms, but I bought a bottle of rose scented perfume. I hardly ever wear it because I don't want it to run out.

White Diamonds or CK Be take me alternatively to my first kiss, my aunt's house, or to college. I don't know why these three things, but it always happens. Charcoal on the grill reminds me of the 415 Stonewall Circle driveway, leather and sweat and cork remind me of my dad. There are so many little smells that have such big implications in my memory.

Because the olfactory bulb, or the cluster of nerve endings that makes up your sense of smell, is so close in proximity to the hippocampus (the part of the brain that deals with memory) and is part of the limbic system, memory is highly related to smell. The limbic system is responsible for things like homeostasis, feeling full, feeling hungry and sympathetic nervous system response. It is also the  center of emotion. Between the hippocampus and the amygdala (responsible for emotion generation), a human's entire basic response system is located here, in the very center part of the brain (if you cut the brain in half). So, it's not just some phantom thing that smell is so strongly associated with memory. Smell is PART of memory. Smell not only illicits memory, but emotional memory, almost instantly.

There are two things that facinate me about this. First, that the memories come back so quickly, so furiously, and absolutley simultaneously. It's almost overwhelming at times. The second is the combination of the biological, psychological, and the emotional and spiritual... all of which comes from the brain. This brings up so many questions... how can I better utilize my sense of smell? Should I start studying with a candle lit and then bring that candle to my viva? what smells are important? do certain emotions have smells (ie: pheremones, but on steroids)? Are there certain smells (ie: cholrine) that bring back similar memories for people across a culture? That'd be an interesting experiment...

For now, I will just be happy with my random, unexpected flashes and will welcome them whenever they ascent (PUN!)


  1. puns!

    this is great. all the time i am blown away by your insight and knowledge. smell is part of memory! so so so true. within my first year of living in NYC i was walking down the street and was struck with a manure-y smell. i was immedatly at the zoo with my dad when i was like 7/8. i missed him terribly in that instant and called and shared the experience, needless to say he laughed when i told him i had smelled poop and thought of him.

    you are a fabulous writer and i am enjoying seeing the professional come out in the creative. xo

  2. Sarah,

    Wow. You are a very gifted writer. I am so happy you are doing these journals and sharing them with us.

    This one is very touching and insightful.

    I have two vivid memories associated with smell:

    Once when I was a little girl, I walked into the dry cleaners with my mother. On the window they had a neon sign.

    Fascinated, I went over an touched it. It shocked the crap out of me!

    As a result, I hate the smell of dry cleaners and I can even feel the sting of that sign when I walk into a dry cleaners.

    Second one: My grandmother died in Detroit Michigan when I was in the fifth grade. On the trip, I became violently ill with a stomach virus.

    Now, whenever I smell a large amount of flowers in a small space, it makes me squeamish.

    (an aside to that story: I threw up on my poor grandfather in the car during the funeral procession on the way to the grave-site to bury his lovely wife!)

    Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    Much love to you