Saturday, April 16, 2011

Olfactory Time Traveling

  I'm outside today, weeding my tiny garden.  A glorious afternoon;  bright azure skies.  Breezes just cool enough to remind you that it's not quite shorts weather, yet.  As I am picking out crunchy, expired leaves from out of my Phlox bed, a sudden aroma interrupts me in my chores.  It's a warm, moist, pleasant smell.  I can't put my finger on it, but I am instantly transported to a time far away.  I am a little girl.  I am wearing light blue cotton shorts with a matching halter.  Brown sandals.  My hair is in long braids and my bangs are cut too short. I am sitting under the big tree by our apartment, coloring.  There is a breeze.  It's much warmer then.  With the breeze comes that same aroma.  I stop coloring.  I inhale deeply.  It's a happy smell.  It's not grass, or flowers.  Maybe it's a mix of the two.  Freshly cut grass being warmed by the summer sun?  I don't know.  All I know is now, when it hits me, I stop what I'm doing and let it intoxicate me.  Funny, because I remember being that little girl under the tree and doing the same thing then.   Maybe it's God gently reminding me to enjoy the little things in life.  To stop what I am doing and breathe.  And smile.  Maybe it's my Mom sending me a sweet "Hello.'  Whatever it is, I live for these tiny moments.  And they are tiny. Gone as quickly as they flew by me.   Maybe that's why I stop what I'm doing to savor them. I almost want to run and try to chase it down.  I want to find it's source.   I look silly sniffing the air, trying to find it, again.  I'm almost sad when it disappears.  I may never smell it again.  Silly, yes.  Sue me.

In Summer, I am often brought to a standstill by what I can only describe as a sudden whiff of what Summer is to me:  grass, earth, water... and garden hoses.  Or maybe it is also my plastic swimming pool I had when I was nine?  Joyfully filling it up under that very same tree.  A hot, humid day, perfumed with Mom's flowers, the wet grass, the hose and the plastic pool.  Add in a touch of the old Coppertone Suntan Lotion and that's my recipe for Summer.  I can't wait to smell that, and see myself splashing in my pool.

Sometimes, I'll smell something and remember a specific day or person.  Like grilled cheese sandwiches.  I can remember the very first one I ate.  It was also the very first time I ever ate cheese, period.  I hated cheese when I was a kid!  I was playing with my friend, Jodie at her apartment.  Barbies.  I was invited to stay for lunch.  I guess her mom knew I didn't eat cheese.  She told me I could stay, but only if I tried a grilled cheese sandwich.  I was torn.  I was having so much fun.  I didn't want to go home!  I thought about how horrible it was going to be; everyone watching me eat something I hated... or at least I thought I did.  My nerves dancing, I looked at my sandwich.  Jodie's mom was very matter-of-fact;  either I ate it and stayed, or didn't and would be sent home.  I caved.  I took a bite.  And another.  I loved it.  To this day, I have not had a grilled cheese sandwich as good as the one Mrs. Brannen made for me that day.  It had the best aroma!  Sometimes, I'll get a tiny whiff of that same thing.  Someone, somewhere, is having that sandwich.  I'll go home, make a grilled cheese and dammit;  it's not the same thing.

Sometimes when I shower, I get a small whiff of ... what?  Soap?  Clean!?  I don't know, but it's the way our bathroom would smell when I took a bath as a child.  Clean, yet almost plastic-smelling. Maybe it was all the plastic toys I played with in the tub?   Or maybe it was  like the room had been cleaned with the old Lysol Cleaner.  You know, that stuff in the little brown bottle?  The Lysol was almost maroon in color.  God, I miss that smell!   Now, it's all fake-flowers  and 'sunshine-fresh' crap.  Last week, on a whim, I decided to purchase a bottle of Johnson's Baby Shampoo - No More Tears.  Another scent I loved growing up.  Such a distinct aroma.  I opened the bottle.  I couldn't believe it.  They changed the scent!  It now smells like ... baby powder!  UGH!   It's not supposed to smell like baby powder!  What is wrong with people!?  Can't they leave well enough alone?  If it ain't broke, don't fix it?  Damn!

Better than perfume
Let's go back under my tree.  What do we have, here?  Crayola Crayons.  Even then, when I was a little girl in pigtails and too-short bangs, I'd take one and inhale.  Like a warm hug.  I have Crayolas now.  And yes, they smell the same as they did 35 years ago.  I should write to Binney & Smith and commend them on keeping things right.  Okay so they retired some of my favorite colors (Mulberry, Maize, Thistle).  Just leave the aroma alone!

I find it really comforting; smelling those old, familiar smells.  Every once in a while, I could be doing any number of things when suddenly, I am in my Aunt Cammie's house on Crittenden Street.  We are sitting in that huge kitchen at a big table, my cousins and I.  We are cutting construction paper into shapes and Aunt Cammie is lighting wooden matches and blowing them out for us.   They had to cool first.  Then she'd give them to us so we could spread paste onto our pieces of paper.  I don't know what she had on the stove.  Maybe nothing. It's the most inviting, and ... I just can't put it into words.  It wasn't a 'foody' smell.  All I know, is that it instantly stops me in my tracks and I'm a five-year-old kid having a ball with my cousins and my Aunt Cammie.  It's time yelling "Hey!  Don't you forget about that day!  Here's a little reminder!"

Until next time, 
  Breathe deeply.  Follow your nose,  and savor those precious moments.  I won't laugh at you.  Promise. 



  1. I know what you are talking about.
    When I was in kindergarten and elementary school, I had a best friend. We used to play in his home, in our house and in the fields nearby. We let our imagination run wild sometimes. I remember those days fondly.
    Sometimes I smell something that I connect with his home. Today I know that his mother must have liked orchids. It's the same smell. And there are lots of other scents that I connect with those wonderful days.
    I have to stop doing what I am doing right then and watch those pictures in my mind.

  2. Maryfrances, you and I both must have had a great childhood! These smells, diverse as they may be -- moist earth and flowers, a plastic kid pool, crayons, blown-out matches, grilled cheese, Coppertone -- all bring you back in a millisecond to these wonderful, secure, cherished days of childhood surrounded by loving friends and relatives. (I'm beside myself that they changed the smell of baby shampoo too.) There's got to be a reason for this somewhere...the fact that we are transported by smell. That it makes us stop short and mindfully relive these times. I find few people who recall the original Lysol in the brown glass bottle and I'm surprised you do -- you look a lot younger than me! That's the stuff my mom used when we got sick, she'd wash our sheets and pajamas and towels and whatever she felt needed disinfecting. Not a good memory? Wrong! It was a time of great security, of being taken care of. :-) Thanks so much for stopping to read my blog and linking me here.

  3. Hi, Laurie!

    I am so glad that I found you and your blog! I still think it is so amazing how one aroma can affect us - can transport us to a certain time and place. I'm glad I'm not alone regarding the baby shampoo and Lysol in the brown bottle! I look forward to reading more of your words very soon. :0)


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