The ability of scent to evoke long-forgotten memories never ceases to amaze me. Walking along, busily going about my day, I am occasionally stopped dead in my tracks by my nose. I sniff the air again to be sure and then a flash of memory (sometimes brief and hazy and at others prolonged and detailed) comes and burns itself to the back of my eyelids.
External stimuli are shut out as my mind desperately attempts to grab at the bucking legs of these memories, lassoing and then corralling them for safekeeping.
Likewise, the power of the memories to evoke emotions I thought I’d lost or buried is something otherworldly, a process that I don’t mind if I don’t understand, for its mysteriousness is part of its magic. A scent is like a time machine — a heartwrenching, joyful, vivid time machine that transports us back to places, people and states of mind that we may never visit again or recapture otherwise.
The heady musk of leather, manure, sweat and oats instantly transports me back to the stable on my family’s farm where I spent hours upon hours with my dappled Appaloosa quarterhorse, Applejack, brushing his mane, picking rocks and dirt from his hooves and feeling the soft velvet of his nose as he nuzzled my carrot-proffering palm.
The scent of apples, hay, rain and musty library books brings me instantly back to 10 years old, holed up in my ‘reading nest’ in the barn, where I went, always with book and apple in hand, to be alone, to dream, to think, to cry, to explore and imagine.
Cinnamon and crayons finds me sitting at our kitchen table, munching on freshly-baked toast sprinkled with brown, spicy goodness and a large sheet of drawing paper before me, my mother humming at the sink.
The stale, sterile smell of surgical dressings, iodine and medicine permeating my nostrils and my brain as I struggled to acknowledge that my little sister’s illness would soon make me the youngest.
More happily, the scent of lemon candies and coconut always bring her to mind as she was before cancer so cruelly whisked her away in its own time machine. In my mind, she is forever five, sleeping serenely in her lavender room.
One whiff of Avon lotions and potions sends me straight back to my grandmother’s house, where boxes of makeup and creams sat piled up in the Secret Mamaw-Only Room, waiting to be loaded into her car and delivered. Also, cold glasses of milk and Cheetos. The juxtaposition of the neon orange fingerprints against the pure white liquid in the glass was an artform that only Mamaw appreciated.
Inhaling Old Spice in the crook of my father’s neck as he folded me into Daddy’s Girl bear hugs over the years. Oh, what I would give some days for a hug from my dad.
I can’t inhale the fragrance of honeysuckle now without remembering recess in my first year of elementary (primary) school. The fragrant plants that surrounded the swing sets were there when I forged my first friendships and took increasingly steadier steps towards independence.
Dirt, taffy and hot dogs = the Little League ballpark. Keeping score up in the booth overhead on long, hot summer days; the beginnings of interest in boys; and probably the first place I was allowed to go without adult accompaniment.
Obsession cologne. My first huge crush wore it and I kept a sample card sprayed with the scent between the pages of my poetry journal. Years later, after the card had fallen out, the pages still gave off that distinctive odor as they were fanned and thumbed through. The smell of puppy love.
Even today, I am forging new associations between certain scents and memories. My latest one is a honey and lemon bath milk from L’Occitane that my husband bought me for Mother’s Day last year. I used it for the duration of my last pregnancy, every time I took a bath, which was almost daily towards the end. I used up the last of it recently but couldn’t bring myself to throw away the bottle. I sat there with the water running, eyes closed and a smile on my lips, as I held the empty container to my nose and inhaled deeply. That smell — like a giant cup of sweet-smelling tea — will forever be deposited into my olfactory bank and when I next detect it in the air, I will be eight months pregnant again, running a hand over my protruding belly and dreaming of meeting my darling son.
Noble Savage is a fusion of commentary on leaving the motherland, parenthood, culture, world news and feminism, written by a freelance journalist, expatriate and mother of two.
Photo credit: ben-sci