Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Living a Scentered Life

Lilacs picked for me by a little girl named Anne

It's surprising how much memory is built around things unnoticed at the time.

~Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Have you ever been running errands about town, steeped in the mundane, almost as if on auto-pilot, when suddenly, you catch a whiff of something subtle, something so faint as to be barely noticeable, and you are taken away in your mind to a long ago carousel ride? The ride upon the pink and blue beribboned pony on a gilded pole. The ride where your brother stood crying as you came round and round again because he was too small. The ride where you decided to jump off the carousel because you felt sorry for his sense of abandonment, falling into the dirt and gravel, skinning your palms and knees.

What took you to that far-away place, to a time you thought you had forgotten? It was something so fleeting, so evanescent that your brain seems foggy as it tries to pinpoint the stimulus.

Aha. There it is. You turn around and see a small brunette girl that you had passed on the sidewalk, about five or six years old, holding her mama’s hand in one of her own and something else in her other. Cotton candy.

Smell is a powerful sense. It warns us of sour milk, rotten meat, and fermented pineapple.

For me, it is more often associated with tiny pleasures in life, those things as Robert Brault reminds us at the top of this blog, that become our most powerful memories.

My favorite scents often have root in a sweet childhood memory. Sensing them today takes me to a place of a mother’s love, a cherished friend, or a day on summer vacation.

Here are a few of my favorites.

Vicks Vaporub [being cared for by mom when sick]

Cinnamon [Mom baking cinnamon and sugar dough from leftover pie crust]

Lily-of-the Valley [grew against our house as a child]

Lipton Chicken Noodle Soup [this deserves a post of its own]

Catholic Church incense [Midnight Mass at Christmas]

Eau de Infant [or the “new baby” smell]

The air after an Iowa thunderstorm [summer evenings]

Libraries and bookstores [learning!]

Ponds Cold Cream [Mom]

Wintergreen Lifesavers [Chomping them to make sparks in the dark]

Peppermint [Christmas candy canes]

Vanilla [cooking with Mom]

Anise seed [Mom let me chew these]

Black Licorice [yum]

Baked Apple [and I don’t even like apple pie]

My dad’s spaghetti sauce [ I still don’t know how he does it]

Root beer [going out to eat, rarely, as a child]

Lilacs [my childhood home had lots of them]

Chef Boyardee Homemade Cheese Pizza [Mom would wake us back up at night to see if we wanted some]

Kindergarten paste [school]

Crayolas [ I still love coloring]

Peonies [ they say “Iowa spring” to me]

Fudge cooking [ mom’s rare delicacy]

What are yours?


  1. Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was associated with it.

    -- Vladimir Nabokov

    Yes; lilacs, peonies, church incense. And Iowa tomatoes on the vine (warm from the sun), children freshly shampooed.....

  2. Auntie M.: I love that quote! It's perfect. I don't know how I forgot Iowa tomatoes. Slicing into one freshly picked and then inhaling is one of my favorite summer time activities. Thanks for adding your favorite scents!

  3. Randi,I promise you I will try and answer this question, but there are so many! I'm a scent addict. (By the way "evanescence" is a stunning word, not used enough!)

    It's 1am here and I must get to bed, but I wanted to thank you for your loving support and kindness over at my blog. You're a genuinely wonderful lady and I hope some day we can meet.

    I'd also like to say hello to Auntie M...I enjoy it when you're over here visiting with Randi. None of my favourite aunties are still alive. You have a wonderful, caring niece, but you know that already!

    OK, just a few...
    sea breezes
    rain damp soil
    apple and cinnamon at Christmas
    freshly sawn wood in wood yards and new houses
    my daughter's hair
    laundry fresh and damp from the line

    See?! - once I start, I can't stop!

  4. To Janice:

    Hi from Auntie M.

  5. Janice: Those are some good ones! You know, I don't know if I have ever smelled jasmine, hyacinth, or honeysuckle. Deprived, I know. Dill is a good one. I love the smell of laundry too. Unfortunately I have always been landlocked so I don't know the scent of sea breeze. I'll be in Seattle soon though, so I'll check it out. And thanks for saying hello to my Auntie M. She's a treasure.

  6. Randi,

    The mechanism by which a smell can elicit a fully-populated long-forgotten scene is one of the more mind-boggling of the mind's miracles. For me, it's the smell of a freshly-waxed school corridor that brings back, achingly, memories of childhood.

  7. Robert: It's interesting that you mentioned the freshly-waxed school hall. I was going to put "the first day of school" as one of my favorite smells that elicits good memories but I didn't quite know how to isolate it. Was it the pencils, or the books that smelled so good. Maybe it was something as simple as a freshly waxed floor. You must have loved school too. :)

  8. "Unfortunately I have always been landlocked so I don't know the scent of sea breeze."

    NAWWWWWWW!!!!!!!Go soon, go now!!!!!!

    Oh my dear friend how I would love to be there the day you do, watching your face!! You have given me an awesome lesson today in not taking things for granted. It never occured to me that the distance in the US makes getting to the coast prohibitive; living on an island, I'm never that far from the sea although I'm central. I just miss it being in my town and seeing it daily like I did in Greece.

    But now that we're still in the scent zone, the Scottish sea smells more seaweedy. When you're on holiday, see if you can find some rockpools with seaweed.

    And when you come visit me in Scotland, bring a few extra dollars and we'll take a cheap flight over to Greece so that you can smell jasmine that opens up its fragrance on a sea breeze as the sun goes down.

    I have some more scents for you:
    mown grass and wax crayons from childhood
    unopened brand new magazines
    the perfume floor of big department stores
    Johnson's baby lotion
    freshly cut cucumber and melon
    garlicky meals
    waking up to bread in the breadmaker

    If you want to know how I smell (on a good day,not a stinky one)the only international fragrances I wear at the moment (we have a low cost shop here that does bargains and small bottles at Christmas ;) )are Estée Lauder's 'Pleasures', 'Pure White Linen' and 'White Linen'; Issey Miykake's 'Eau D'Issey' and Ralph Lauren's 'Romance'.I'm addicted to florals!! So if you go to a big store in Seattle, you can have a sniff and we can be scent-connected! What are your faves, Randi?

    Auntie M - If you don't mind me asking, what are your favourite classic fragrances?

  9. Ooh, I love freshly mown grass too. Johnson's baby lotion definitely. You added some good new scents. Except...garlic. :) I'm an onion/garlic o-phobe. I love the smell of baking bread and cinnamon rolls!

    While I'm in Seattle I'll have to check out those perfumes. I love perfume, but unfortunately am allergic to some substance that's in perfume. When I wear it, I get congested and sneezy and my skin breaks out where I've applied it.

    I'll take a good whiff of sea breeze in Seattle. My husband is anxious to show me his hometown.

  10. To Janice: There are scores of memorable scents, many already mentioned here by others. There are flowers and herbs,and foods and spices, and products and .... A few of my favorites that come to mind right now, rosemary (the herb of remembrance), dill, peanut butter on a child's breath, fresh cut celery (but I don't like eating it), garlic....

  11. "Peanut butter on a child's breath..." You ladies share poetry genes!

    Randi, will you do me a weird favour in Seattle please? Visit a lovely coffee place and think of me as you sip something and send a smile. It's one of my dreams to visit Seattle and drink coffee there.

  12. janice said...
    "Peanut butter on a child's breath..." You ladies share poetry genes!

    LOL. Yeah, Janice, ain't that poetic? But I do like that smell on my grandkids' breaths, from those little crackers with pb inside, or that yellow gummy cheese.

  13. Wait, wait, wait...I feel like I've missed something extremely integral to childhood...what is this Wintergreen lifesaver that makes sparks in the dark? I have never heard of these nor seen the sparks...I'm totally jealous now, have I been missing out on making sparks with lifesavers. please explain! :P

  14. Juliegoose: Indeed you have been deprived. However, I will give you personal lessons [and you are the only reader I have ever made this offer to] on how to chomp wintergreen lifesavers in the dark. You will be quite impressed, I assure you. My hidden talents are unlimited.


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