Category Archives: smells

Smells Like Memories, or, The Nose Knows

Some smells bring you to a different time and place.  Some smells can even change your life course.  Breathe deep and read on.

I was fighting a cold recently and tried some Vicks Vapor Rub to clear out my sinuses.  (I’ve had the same little jar of Vicks for at least twenty years, it doesn’t take much to do its job.)  The smell of eucalyptus and whatever else they put in there (menthol? I can’t read the ingredients any more on my jar) immediately brought back the memory of my mom slathering the same gooey pungent muck on my chest, and placing a very warm washcloth on top, when I was a kid.  Comforting, if a little uncomfortable, but a smell that brought the warm feeling of caring and love along with it.

The evergreen, resiny smell of a Christmas tree brings back memories of cheerful holiday times, and up to a week ago there were still cut trees littering the streets waiting for recycling pick-up.  I sometimes break off a branch of one on my way to the Metro in the morning, and just indulge in some post-holiday nostalgia sniffing.  I even stripped a branch a couple of times and put the needles in an open jar for a sort of homemade aroma therapy.  (I am thinking twice about this practice, though, after my husband pointed out that a dog had just peed on our own curbed tree last week before it was picked up.)

The smell of lilacs always reminds me of the big bush behind my beloved early childhood home.  In the same spirit as trying to preserve the Christmas tree smell, I used to pick the flowers and put them in a jar with water to make my own lilac water, dabbing it on as perfume.  Trying to capture spring in a bottle and keep it close to me.

I was doing some research on the National Heritage Fellows, in preparation for writing some features for our July/August guest edited issue of FACES magazine for kids 9 – 14.  (Shameless plug, sorry.)  I read the story of one of my favorite Fellows, Mike Vlohovich, an amazing boat restoration expert and man of the sea, who won the award in 2016.   He tells the story of studying to be a priest when he was younger, having received a calling.  He was walking in the garden of the seminary, and smelled the morning coffee.  The smell brought him back to his days on fishing boats, of the coffee brewing to wake up the early morning crew and keep them sharp for the difficult job in often dangerous waters.  He realized that he had another calling, back to the sea and ships.  (His version of the story is much better than mine, but you get the idea.)

Next time you smell a smell that brings you back into another time and place, go with it.  Linger over your memory.  It might change your life, or it might just bring you to a different, and hopefully better, place for a few moments.