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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Smell memories

I've been thinking about the nature of olfactory memory lately. Not just remembering what things smell like, or being able to identify something through smell alone (although that's kinda fun) - the smells that take you back to another time and place, or that are forever associated with a specific person or place.

My great-grandmother (technically my step-GGM) lived in Vermont. We'd visit every couple of years, usually in the summer. But for some reason, fall leaves and maple sugar, which is a spring smell, always remind me of her house. So do Blue Willow dishes, although that's another story.

One of my grandmothers wore Estee Lauder Youth Dew when I was growing up. And I completely embarrassed myself in college by commenting to a classmate who wore Youth Dew one day, "You smell like my grandma!" It wasn't meant as an insult, but that's how it came out.

This morning, I unscrewed the top on a bottle of moisturizer and the smell took me back to my other grandmother's house. It was plain, classic Olay. I can still picture the square glass bottle of pink lotion (back when it was still called Oil of Olay) sitting on Gram's vanity, with the pink nearly blending in to the pink tile on the wall. The other fragrances that take me back to that bungalow, especially in combination, are Virginia Slims or Kool cigarettes, Emeraude perfume, and butterscotch chip cookies. And don't forget the sawdust smell wafting up the basement steps from Grandpa's wood shop.


Gnightgirl said...

Final Net hairspray, window A/C dripping on flower beds, and the smell of lipton tea take me to my Grandmother's house.

Lugnuts said...

The olfactory memory resides in the top of the brain stem and is one of the most ancient senses of our ancient existence. (Hey, it was a doctor who told me all this so you'll either have to just trust me or go look it up.)

The olfactory trigger, the doc said, was part of our caveman days when the smells would trigger the fight or flight response - Ockburt might remember that the sabre-tooth tiger that ate Ockbertha smelled like last week's tuna casserole. When he smelled something like last week's tuna casserole, he took off so he woulnd't end up like Ockbertha.

There are certain smells that instantly take me back to certain times and places, too. I used a certain type of penetrating oil when I started taking apart my first Model A Ford, and when I catch a whif of it, I'm instantly transported back to the garage and the car I still miss.

There is a certain perfume that is popular with teen-agers and my high school sweetheart wore it. When I catch a whif of that, it instantly takes me back to homecoming and prom.

The smell of pine being cut on a table saw takes me back to The Old Man's workshop in the basement.

And fresh break baking...not all breads but certain ones...take me back to Grandma's kitchen - home of the best fresh white, whole wheat and raisin bread ever made anywhere. (Mom and my aunt were never able to duplicate it, either.)