Friday, January 7, 2011

Scent of the Past

Ever notice the connotative power of scent?  I can be going along my merry little way, when a sudden, single whiff hitching a ride on a rogue zephyr assaults my nostrils, and transports me years into the past, brings tears to my eyes, or gives me a deep feeling of sudden security.

Baby powder.  It transports me to my parents' bedroom and watching my dad get dressed for work back before we went overseas.  I can still see him putting on his brown dress socks - left foot first, scrunch the sock up into a smooth disk, then pull over the toes, arch and heel in one smooth motion.  His shoes, slightly scuffy, with their delicate brown laces, worn and familiar. 

Lumber.  Also connotes my dad.  I can't walk into a hardware store to this day without feeling like he's right beside me.  The scent of sawdust brings his swift, sure movements as he measures, cuts, and hammers in nails with confident accuracy. 

Kerosene.  A dark hut, low hanging eves coated black with the soot of innumerable cooking fires. Contented, happy faces brown and smiling over steaming mugs of tea so sweet it makes your teeth hurt.  Community, togetherness, belonging. 

Rotting vegetables.  The hot, sticky streets of Honiara, decorated red from the betel nut stained spit of countless pedestrians.  Wary brown Melanesian eyes, dented trucks chugging billows of black exhaust, all encompassed in puffs of yellow dust. 

Clinique make-up.  My grandmother in her old yellow kitchen, with its fluffy curtains and dark wood cabinets.  Her kind smile as she hands me a glass of milk.  Skittering matchbox cars across the pea green linoleum.

Plywood.  The house my parents built on Devereux Street, in the Texas hill country.  Its squeaking floors and ancient wood stove, resting peacefully among the cedars and live oaks.  Childhood safety and warmth.

What smells take you back?


  1. The smell of diesel exhaust puts me back on those ships and vomiting before we even left Honiara harbour!

  2. Sometimes I catch a scent that takes me to a specific point in time - but I can never quite work out what I smelled and why it twigged my memory.

    One favourite China-smell memory is that of over-ripe mangoes. It reminds me of Nanhu market and the fruit smoothies my flatmate and I would make - and the comment a new expat made "it taste like the market smells!"

  3. Yup, I'm with you on the over-ripe fruit! Confession: sometimes I smell fruit in the grocery section JUST to bring back that feeling of the Honiara market.