Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Making Scents

Every home has a smell, some are pleasant, others unpleasant, most are neutral. A relative who liked to flip houses used to bake bread just before the realtor brought a potential buyer on a walk-through. Other people consciously introduce smells with air fresheners or potpourri. Most home smells, however, are an amalgam created by the ordinary activities of living such as cooking, washing, burning wood, and keeping pets. Homes in which people don’t wash or clean very often smell like that.

For years I had a paper route and on Friday afternoons, I’d knock on kitchen doors to get paid for the week. I’d be invited to stand on the floor mat just inside and I’d get a whiff of over forty homes in just a few hours. Many of my customers cooked the same thing every Friday - usually fried haddock or cod - and I’d notice if they changed routine to macaroni and cheese. There were lots of Catholics who didn’t eat meat on Fridays in those days. In summer when windows were open, I could smell homes nearly every day and I began to appreciate how a dog perceives his world with his nose in the air.
We like whatever smells we’ve been conditioned to associate with something good. As a life-long New Englander, I enjoy seasonal change and my favorite season tends to be whichever one is just arriving. Each has its own smells and it’s usually on a warm day in late February when I detect the first scent of spring. Something thaws upwind and a breeze wafts it to my nose. Though I don’t see it, I visualize a south-facing slope under a white pine with fragrant brown needles warming in the sun. A fond memory is tapped and I savor its associated feelings, but then have to remind myself that it’s a tease and more cold is inevitable before a melt can be sustained. A month later thawing days outnumber freezing ones and spring scents dominate. This March has been unusually warm and last Sunday’s gentle showers after seventy-degree sunshine Saturday re-created that sweet smell of soft rain on warm, dry macadam that usually comes only in summer.When I stopped smoking twenty-five years ago, my olfactory detection system seemed to intensify. It didn’t really of course; it just returned to normal. More memories and feelings from childhood were triggered by scents that had always been around me but were masked by tobacco smoke. The only thing that can approach the strength of smell when evoking old moods might be hearing an old song on the radio.

Fifty years ago my parents got an idea to paint the concrete walls and floor of our basement and set up the Christmas tree down there. There were eight of us kids and there would be more room to spread out all the toys and gifts on Christmas morning. Ever since, the smell of certain oil-based paints sends me right back there.
Often my childhood friends and I would build “forts” that were nothing but a hole in the ground with boards placed across and leaves spread over them for camouflage. We’d spend hours digging in the earth with our fathers’ spades. Now, whenever a backhoe or excavator digs a fresh hole, the smell of fresh dirt triggers a memory of the secure feeling I had sitting in the “fort” like a chipmunk in his den.

When catalytic converters were mandated on new cars, I recall the peculiar odor they produced compared to the exhaust from older cars I was accustomed to smelling. Now they’re ubiquitous and I don’t notice anymore. Then someone will start up an old vehicle and that old smell summons those old memories.

It’s almost a decade since I cut my firewood from the stump which I had done for two decades prior, but I only have to fire up my chainsaw, drop a tree and my nose takes me right back there. A freshly-used landing on a woodlot down the street does the same thing when I walk past it. It’s the still-fresh sawdust and the stumps still oozing sap.My favorite smell these days is the sweet scent of my granddaughter. It’s difficult to describe except to say that it’s the same smell all babies who are loved and cared for have. Together with the feel of her soft hair, her laugh and her smiling face, her smell is a reminder, a reaffirmation, a renewal.


Anonymous said...

They say that smell is the sense most closely linked to memory. Smell is the sense we use least often to explore our surroundings, so there's fewer scents in our memory than there are, say, sights or sounds. It's amazing how a single waft of some long-forgotten aroma on the breeze can trigger those memories from so long ago.

Anonymous said...

Tom finally made scents.

Keep smiling

Unknown said...


rhondajo said...

Thank you for sharing these beautiful thoughts with us.

Sam Stone said...

Thanks for a great article Tom.
I never thought about how scents trigger memories but they sure do.

Anonymous said...

A nice relief that this column did not have the usual stench of BS!

DAWN said...

what a cute baby! But there's another stench babies can have that you failed to mention :)

When I came home for a visit last summer, I couldn't get over the overwhelming smell of pine. I was born and raised in Maine and spent 40+ years there without really noticing it all that much. I guess taking it for granted.

I went for my usual morning run that first morning back and the pine scent nearly knocked me over it was so strong. I didn't realize how much I missed it.

That's one of the best things about Maine that I miss the most, and I love it when my relatives, back home, send me a pine scented wreath at Christmas.

pinko said...

You forgot to mention the smell of....leather.