blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Memory of Scent

I sometimes study and take mental notes of the way a writer describes what a character smells. But more often than not, I have to admit that I skim over these words to move onto the action. At the same time, I understand the power of scent to evoke memory. In my experience, when I am assailed with a scent that takes me back to a particular time and place in my life, it's a physical feeling as much as a cognitive recognition of a moment in my history. Here are a few that stand out for me.

1. Boxwood 
 This may well be my first scent memory.  I am a little girl and I'm standing in someone's yard.  I have the impression of  tall trees, possibly cedars or pine, a high wooden brown privacy fence, patches of sun and shade, and this strong odor. For years I didn't know what this smell was, but if I'd catch a whiff of it, I was standing in that garden, again. I have sort of a love/hate relationship with boxwood's vaguely sweet but mostly skunk-like bitter qualities. 

 2.  Lavender 
My mother introduced my sister and I to "smelly goods" early on.  Perfume and cologne were an integral part of getting dressed up. Talcum powder (whether it was baby, Bismoline or the scented kind in a circular container with a big colorful puff) was liberally applied after a bath (especially in the summertime).  One of Mom's signature scents was Yardley's English lavender. The soap was so strong you could smell the lavender through the cardboard box. Heavenly. Recently I read that lavender is supposedly an aphrodisiac for men. Which made me laugh to myself because it only evokes home and childhood for me. Then, again, also on the list were pumpkin pie and cinnamon. . .  Okaaay.  I think we're getting a little Oedipal here, and that's a topic that's not part of my essay.

3. Coconut
Yes, I realize most people think beach and suntan oil. For me, this scent is all about Christmas. This scent transports me back to being in elementary school and helping to make coconut snap cookies. Brown sugar, Brer Rabbit molasses, butter and canned coconut. The "batter" mixture was so thick, it could stop the beaters on the electric mixer. So this often required prolonged, manual hand mixing. I felt so privileged and grown up to be helping to make one of my favorite cookies. It never occurred to me that it was the amount of labor involved that prompted my mother to put me and Dad to work.  When I changed my diet about six years ago, I started to cook with coconut oil. I throw some in with vegetables or use it on the rare occasions when I fry or saute something. There's always some left on the spoon, so I stick in my mouth. Tasting and smelling coconut oil is a simulateous sensation. And I'm back in the kitchen at Christmastime.

4. Spearmint 
The smell of mint tea reminds me of summer days at my Grandmother's house. It was an old brick row house with a nice sized back yard (for the city).  Grandma had a green thumb, and so apparently, did my Grandfather.  They grew tomatoes, flowers and rhododendrons. We used to forage for johnny jump ups and the spearmint leaves that grew wild in the grass or the flower beds. We'd bring handfuls of mint to my grandmother. She'd put them in a glass pitcher, pour boiling water over them and add sugar.  I can still picture sitting at the kitchen table with its grey and white swirly formica top, impatiently waiting for the steeping tea leaves to turn the water a pale yellow.

5. "Ocean"
 I call this one "ocean" with quotes because it's that salty smell that we always started to  smell in the car on the way to the beach. (We were later informed wasn't really the ocean per say, it was actually the sewage in the water). What a way to demote a favorite childhood scent that evoked the whole vacation experience. 

6. Paint
This one is about being 14 and on my first trip to England.  I stayed with a penpal in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and her family's home was a city rowhouse and their oldest daughter's bedroom had recently been painted (or redecorated, as they described it). The odor of the paint stayed with me for years after. It still takes me back to England and the Ince house.

7. Peppermint
Again, a smell that I readily identify with a time and a place and didn't know the source of the scent until years later.  This one is from  my dorm room, sophomore year at Muhlenberg college in Allentown.  My roommate, Rachel was addicted to her peppermint chewing gum.  The smell sends me right back to that room, and I can picture all the details – the floral pattern on my comforter, my posters on the walls - (and hear Rachel snapping her gum while she sits at her desk, studying).

What smells whisk you back to your past?


  1. What a thoughtful, wonderful post! (The Marley "girls" hit these last two posts out of the park!) Lavender was a smell at Grandma's house, for she too used Yardley's soap, as well as all sorts of scented talcs--carnation and lily-of-the-valley. Pine scents take me camping, into woods on the edge of Lake Michigan. We took the scent home by purchasing a little wooden log cabin toy, whose chimney could be made to smoke with the addition of a cone of pine incense. Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  2. I can't think of any scent memories at the moment. I do know I loved this article!

  3. I am a teacher and would love to use your "Spearmint" section as inspiration for my kids as I'm getting them to write about a scent memory. I just found this on a Google search and it's perfect! Hope this is okay. Thanks :)

    1. Thanks so much for posting! I'm thrilled and flattered. Feel free to share with your students. Thanks, again! ~ Bobbi