When I was six years old, my family traveled to upstate New York for a family reunion. After a long and tiring day, I needed a nap. My aunt, who also happens to be my mother’s identical twin sister, came in to check on me. I remember it so clearly, as she was waking me with gentle strokes to my hair—I was struck with sheer confusion. My blurry eyes told me it was my mother. My ears heard something that resembled my mother’s voice. The caring nature of which she tried to wake me up tried to persuade me that it was my mother. The one aspect that didn’t deceive me in this fog of confusion was my sense of smell. She was not my mother—my nose ultimately determined this fact. She did not have the scent that I was born knowing. I’ve been amazed at the role our sense of smell plays since that experience.
Smell has always been my most resounding sense. It’s the one trait that can pull me back to a particular time and place quicker than all other senses. When I touch something, I’m not drawn to what something felt like long ago. I taste food every day, multiple times a day, so this sense becomes a casualty of perpetual stimulation. Hearing a song or voice has a way of digging up past memories but does not reverberate as strong as hearing it that first time. The trouble with my visual sense is that it has long-term memory loss. I could look at something every day, but unless I make a conscious effort to remember details, what I’m seeing with my eyes won’t be stored in my memory. My nose, on the other hand, acts as a time machine, taking me back to all annals of my youth and memories. I can smell something and be instantly transported as though I were physically experiencing something again.
We each have our trigger smells, scents that grab our emotions and memories so strong that we’re left unable to explain them. There are also just pleasant smells that bring a smile to our face. These may not hold significance within a memory, but nonetheless, we adore them. Then there are the foul “odors” that we’ve all become accustom to, ingrained into our scent catalog, causing a hand to cover our nose and mouth immediately.
One smell that opens the floodgates to my memories every year happens during Kentucky’s peak fall season. The smell of crisp leaves on the ground, mixed with grass that hasn’t quite frosted, and the faint hint of someone’s fireplace billowing smoke … this does it to me year after year. I actively chase this scent. It washes over me like an unexpected wave when I run across this combination outside. I breathe as deep as I can when I finally experience this scent, the flashbacks of jumping in piles of leaves, sitting by bonfires, or riding on my grandfather’s tractor, these memories flipping through my mind like a Rolodex as I slowly exhale.
I’ve yet to find something as pleasant smelling as clean clothes. Something about a fresh load of laundry being pulled out of the dryer (or off a clothesline), conjures up happiness. I grew up with Tide detergent and I remember putting my face into warm towels, fresh out of the dryer, unable to pull myself away from that amazingly clean scent. Even to this day if I’m outside while laundry is going, I’ll walk by our dryer vent and appreciate the pleasant smell being expelled. Whether this scent conjures up cleanliness or organization or even Sunday afternoons is dependent on one’s experience (I can relate to all three of these), what matters is that I’ve yet to grow tired of this smell.
We all have experienced smells that we find offensive. The most universal would have to be a skunk that just bit the dust. Riding in a car without a care in the world will change in an instant when the odor of a skunk’s spray makes contact. Everyone looks around to the other passengers, trying to figure out if they smell it as well, ensuring they’re not having some type of mini-stroke symptom. This smell is unmistakable and as foul as they come. I also distinctly remember hot summer mornings, driving around Westvaco paper mill in western Kentucky. I’ll never forget the smells I had to endure during those leisure drives. The sulfuric acid wafting through the air would be enough to choke even the hardened of noses.
I appreciate all of my senses, each one playing a vital role in my experience and interpretation of my time in this world. The range of emotion that each can be induced always leaves me in wonderment. My sense of smell continues to surprise me with its instantaneous recognition of memories past. I may not always be ready to experience the wave of recall that hits me, but I’m always amazed at its ability in stirring those deep feelings within.