The Scent of Memories

Happy Little Girl Swinging
Happy Little Girl

“Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

An article in the Boston Sunday Globe discussed the theory that “smells are very much tied to memories, yet scents are overlooked as we record history.” I don’t recall much detail of the history taught to me in school, but I’m sure if you’ve ever read an account of the Pilgrims crossing the ocean in the Mayflower, you’ll understand why certain smells would forever trigger unhappy memories in the minds of those hardy souls who finally landed in America. No doubt also that the smells of other hardships, like war, would stay with the unfortunate participants and witnesses for a very long time.

Certainly my fondest childhood memories, my personal history, are tied to scent in one way or another. Even now I love the smell of new books and crayons, which were the best (sometimes the only) reason to anticipate that first week back at school after summer vacation. We always had an above-ground swimming pool in our backyard, so the chlorine wafting out of the pool room at the gym reminds me of home. Mom was and is a great cook, so the aromas of foods we regularly enjoyed in my childhood, like spaghetti and meatballs or broiled steak and french fries, still evoke fond memories. As she encouraged all five of us in the ways of cleanliness by doling out chores regularly and urging our participation in housework on a weekly basis, we became familiar with the pleasant scents of Lemon Pledge (used sparingly) for dusting, Niagara Spray Starch for ironing, Windex for sparkling, streak-free windows.

As a kid, I assumed everyone lived exactly as we did, eating pork chops or American chop suey for dinner, washing dishes with Ivory liquid, cleaning bathrooms with lemon-scented ammonia, using Cascade powder for the dishwasher and All laundry detergent in the washing machine. Walking into another family’s home  – a rarity in the days when we’d play outside all day until the streetlights came on – I recall feeling physically assaulted by the weird new smells of these unfamiliar homes. Unrecognizable food smells, cleaning products (or lack thereof), cigar or cigarette smoke (this was the old days, when people smoked in their homes), pets – all were a reminder that everyone is not the same, they don’t all live the way we do, care about the same things, have the same concerns and goals. And they probably thought our house smelled weird, too.

To this day, the smell of Lemon Pledge reminds me of home, as do the scents of Murphy’s Oil soap, Windex, spaghetti and meatballs, chocolate chip cookies, apple crisp and Christmas trees. Diesel bus fumes bring me back to the excitement of summer drum corps travel and competitions. All comforting reminders of my happy childhood, my personal history.

What scents bring back good memories for you?


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