Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Memory and Smell- What I Never Want to Lose

In case you were wondering what a 
"millrace" is and how one would sit
in one.
How many of you have an active, potent, smell memory? My smelling abilities are closely linked to my ability to recall memories and emotions. Mostly positive ones, though there are a few smells that can trigger bad feelings. Smell is a gateway to re-living the pleasures of the past all over again. I wonder whether I would be able to viscerally enjoy my surroundings half as much without my sense of smell?

The smell of a river- is the smell of my childhood living across the street from one. It is the smell of languid summer days canoeing- oh how lucky I am that I got to spend so much of my childhood in a canoe with a friend gliding through dappled green glades with a wood thrush singing! My memory of having chicken pox is not so bad- because I was lying in the bottom of a boat on cushions while my mother paddled us quietly under willows and tall sycamores. There were days spent on an innertube put in below the millrace and watching startled turtles plop into the water and herons take flight and baking on top of the tube in the sun and cooling off in the deep spots by hanging on to the back and floating in the current. Or getting right IN to the millrace and letting the water flow over my head while sitting on the water-moss covered flat surface below it. 

There is honeysuckle blooming right near our backdoor right now. I pull out this invasive foreigner constantly- it likes to take over and strangle anything native that might want to try to grow- but I think I will always have to leave a little to make our springtime that much more glorious. This smell is the smell of nighttime of my childhood and teen years. Leaning out my window in the moonlight taking huge gulps of that sweetness and imagining I am Juliet and thinking about romance. The soundtrack for this memory is Mozart Concerto for Flute Harp and Orchestra in C major, K 299, Andante, which I listened to ten million times at night with the honeysuckle blooming and I still consider one of the most glorious pieces of music in existence. 

Even the faintest hint of woodsmoke in the air will summon the delights of family camping trips- especially that one in the Finger Lakes on our way to Ontario where it was freezing and and we ate borscht that my mom had prepared and frozen to be camp food. Eating hot steaming borscht when you are freezing next to a campfire is top notch. Woodsmoke is also the smell of walks in the cold air and going inside with cold noses and having tea by the fire and maybe even fresh scones and jam and clotted cream that your fabulous friend's mom made and cats coming to get in your lap. 

The hot sun warming up the plants in an Appalachian mountain clearing where there are ripe blueberries- that is the smell of family weekend hikes in our favorite northwestern NJ spots. Grass and wild onions and dirt- that's my mom digging a new vegetable garden on a windy day in early spring. Hot attic air smell- the hours I spent playing in the long huge attic that covered the length of our big old colonial house- creating huge barbie doll living spaces with a combination of 60's and 70s's hand-me-down barbie furniture and accessories from my older sisters and all kinds of other stuff found in corners of the attic. Musty earthy smell- the root cellar below the kitchen where not much was stored because it was too damp but still an interesting place to play occasionally.  There are other smells that I can't exactly identify but the memory is attached- the smell that says "Jurgen's house in Germany when I was six." Or a smell that is the smell of a loved person long gone. And smells that don't have a specific attachment but have all the good feelings- like apple pie baking in the oven makes the whole world a wonderful place. 

Bad smells? Oh yes, they exist. Formaldehyde- instant reminder of intense headaches after high school biology class dissection labs and the awfulness of death. But most bad smells aren't attached to an evocative memory, thankfully. I just hate them. Strong perfumes and air fresheners and new cars and carpets. Chemical smells. No thank you! They can be so powerful and headache-inducing that I'll do anything to get away from them. Even the most offensive natural smells are far preferable to those. Yep, a dog fart over a new carpet- I'll take it. Even though dog farts might send me fleeing the room just as much as the next person they won't give me a headache and the sensation that evil incarnate is trying to poison the world. There's a few chemical exceptions- like the smell of faint perfume and cigarette smoke clinging to clothing because that is the smell of my mother coming in to check on me after a date night out with my dad (when it was legal to smoke in restaurants so even if you weren't smoking, you still came out smelling like it), and now I could go to sleep because my mom was home. 

I like to keep my coffee beans in the fridge because when I take them out to gring them I love to inhale the cold coffee air that instantly transports me to the blizzard years of high school of endless snow-days off from school and going down to the little coffeeshop that was the hangout of local teens and opening the door and coffee smell flooding out and playing chess with my dear friend and then walking down to the river to look at the magical ice formations hanging from the cliffs  and sparkling in the below-zero sunny weather.

If I could imagine a perfect museum it would be a museum of smell. Different species of pine trees in the hot sun. Smell samples of grandparents houses. Restaurants of the world. Schools on the last day of the school year when it's hot and humid and summer freedom is about to ensue. The wooly-hay-manure smell of a sheep barn. Arizona desert after a rain when mesquite smell fills the air. Coyote bush on a hot California hillside by the ocean. 

Do you have smell memories to share? Please, do! Also welcome: ideas for the Smell Museum.

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