Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Nose Knows

Lately I’m understanding dogs more. When I see them with their heads gleefully stuck out the window of a car at forty or fifty miles per hour and facing into the wind, I believe they’re reveling in all the smells they’re taking in. They seem to enjoy it immensely. The first thing dogs do when they’re let outdoors is put their noses in the air and take in whatever smells may be available. They react either with contentment — smiling with their eyes almost closed as if they’re pondering something pleasant, or with anger — baring their teeth and growling with menace.
Though smell isn’t as dominant in my sensory repertoire as it is with dogs, it’s quite active on occasion. My nose verifies seasonal change, for example. Warm spring air feels good, but its smell is even better. The aroma take me back to all the sixty-plus New England springs in my lifetime and the feelings of hope each brought. Standing for a moment on the porch to enjoy it makes for a good start to my day and I understand why dogs do it.
Bug Light Park
The morning air outside our South Portland house takes me back to the neighborhood in Medford, Massachusetts where we lived before I turned four. The few visual memories I retain of 36 Light Guard Drive in Medford, Massachusetts are vague, but I remember the smells vividly. We lived near the tidal Mystic River there until April, 1955 and it smelled just like South Portland does. It’s been more than sixty years since we moved and I haven’t been back to that old street, though I did look at it recently on Google Street view. Except for some trees that have grown up, it hasn’t changed much. I plan to go back soon — the day after this column comes out in newspapers actually — to “see” if still smells the same.
Bug Light Park
Our South Portland house is half a mile from the sea, and when the tide is out the smell is stronger. When tankers are tied up at one of the Portland Pipeline facilities, there’s a hint of petroleum with it. I remember that from Medford as well, so there must have been petroleum products delivered there too. My wife tells me she doesn’t detect any of it and looks at me funny when I tell her about what I’m smelling and how intense the accompanying memories are. Dogs would understand though, I’m certain. My daughter, Sarah, would too. Her olfactory powers are even stronger than mine as everyone in the family knows. Whenever my wife handed her a pile of her folded laundry to bring up to her room, she’d bury her face in it, then look up, smile, and say, “Thank you, Momma!”
Sarah nursing Alex
Old memories intensified as I spent several days sorting through old photographs my mother had accumulated during her 91 years. I’d thought I was finished, but then learned there was another suitcase and steamer trunk full of them in her basement. These were older and musty-smelling, not having seen the light of day for decades. The oldest was from 1918 and newest from 1977 or so. Where I’d had only one photo of my grandfather, John Haggerty, I now have six. I have one of my mother’s half-brother, Henry who died during WWII before I was born, and a 1918 photo of my great-grandmother, Kate Fitzgerald, nee Carney, an image of whom I’d never seen. She’s pictured smiling as she picked up a handful of seaweed on Cuttyhunk Island in Massachusetts.
Kate Fitzgerald, nee Carney

There were faded black-and-white photos of my siblings and me as children which I had never seen. I’ve already scanned them onto my computer, then cropped and edited to render the best image possible. Soon I will arrange them with their identifying information into some logical format and share it with my extended family. It’s all fascinating to me, but I’m a history geek. Not everyone is interested, I know, and I just don’t understand why.
Rusty, Kathy, Elaine back row
Me, Mary Ann, Danny front row

Every home has its own smell too. Though we split our time between two of them, each has its own fragrance, so it’s not us or our lifestyle that produced them. Part of the South Portland house smell comes from an old chest of drawers made of cedar that my wife purchased at an antique shop. We’ve been going there a couple of days a week for four years now, and I’ve noticed that the smell changes from winter to summer and back again. The same has always been true for our Lovell house since we built it more than thirty years ago. Those smells also bring back memories as soon as I walk through the door and breathe.
South Portland house

Thankfully, the memories are good.


Peter said...

They say that smells are the strongest trigger to old memories of all our senses, and this certainly seems to be the case for me. Through smells I can be instantly transported back to my grandmothers basement, my old summer cabin, etc. Walking through the woods with my dogs I find myself sniffing almost as much as they do. I am also one of those book-sniffers, some of which smell better than others. I enjoyed your column.

Marty said...

Tom could you send me a high res scan of that picture of Nana, I would like to make a hard copy of it for mom. Warren