Friday, January 1, 2010

Scentimental Journey

A long time ago I read an article that tried to explain why it is so difficult for us to describe scents.  Turns out that the part of the brain containing our descriptive powers is about as far as it can be from the olfactory recording department.  On the other hand, as the article went on to say, the part of the brain that is closest to the olfactory recording department is the area where long- term memories are stored.

This explains why scent may act as a sort of time machine - simply smelling a long-forgotten scent can instantly take a person tumbling back down through the corridors of time. 

When I was a little kid my parents were the proverbial poor church mice, but my mom had developed a passion for Evening in Paris cologne. This elegant fragrance was far too rich for her purse, but since she loved it so much, my dad made sure there was a brand new bottle every year, wrapped and waiting for her under the Christmas tree.  I do not remember this personally but the story was oft recounted of the occasion when I was three years old and I grabbed her precious bottle of cologne and dumped it into my sandbox because “I wanted it to smell nice like my mommy.”

I have a small cobalt glass vial of her Evening in Paris cologne, with the faded silver label and the tattered blue tassel on the cap, and I open it every couple of years – just to be able to smell my mommy.

My dad smelled like Old Spice after shave – if I am in a crowd and catch a mote of Old Spice and I am instantly flooded with memories of him – his twinkling eyes and his loving warmth and his gentle kindness.

The scent of chocolate chips takes me two places:  my grandma’s pantry where she tried desperately to maintain a supply of chocolate chips for her baking needs (chocolate chip cookies for me!) and where I constantly snuck in to steal them one by one out of the bag until it was nearly empty.

Grandma solved this problem by resorting to Baker’s Chocolate. I ate a chunk of that which stopped me in my thieving tracks once and for all.  How could something smell so wonderful and taste so awful?

The second place chocolate chips take me is my friend Keithy’s grandmother’s place.  We were best friends when I was five and he was four and she lived on the second floor of his house.  She was a seamstress who did alterations so her place was crowded with garments hanging everywhere.  On her coffee table she kept an open bowl of chocolate chips for us kids.  Her place smelled like damp wool, starch, scorch and dark chocolate. Smelling any of those things takes me right back up those stairs again.

Chanel’s Russia Leather reminds me of my best friend Patricia back at Buff State in 1965.  She wore this cologne and since it was so different than the Evening in Paris worn by my mother and the lowbrow Lily of the Valley scent that I had worn in high school – I was immediately captivated by Chanel’s exotic scent!  It was very expensive but as a reward for good grades and making it through the removal of two wisdom teeth, my dad took me to the perfume counter at Hengerer’s and bought me a bottle of Russia Leather cologne.  I still have that bottle as well as the teensiest bottle of Russia Leather perfume that I purchased years later – I open them once in a great while and I am back in Cassity Hall again!

Patchouli was the ubiquitous scent of the late sixties but it reminds me of two dear friends:  Gordon, who accidentally spilled a bottle in his closet and carried that scent for who knows how long; and Kim, who applied it every day on purpose.    Kim has been gone for almost four years now and I can still bring back a deluge of memories by opening the coffee can which holds a collection of bits and pieces of her old jewelry she gathered and brought to the shop to reuse for crafting.

One other odd scent takes me back to my childhood and the house on Bowen Road in Elma where my grandparents lived.  The house was ringed with Grandma’s crowded gardens and huge ferns and bushes and trees and only a little bit of grass for Grandpa to mow.  The back yard was so filled with garden there was barely a space to set out a chair or to hang laundry. 

There was a dark area on the North side of the house, however, where no matter how hard they tried, there was always a patch of mud in the middle of the path through the ferns and the lily of the valleys.  Some times of the year this rich slippery black mud had a mossy tinge to it and although I have never been able to come up with an adequate description of this earthy aroma, once in a while I will step into a patch of mud around my own house and I am instantly transported to that long-vanished pathway in Elma.

The nose knows.