The other night, I opened a new bottle of face wash (bought mostly because I am a total Burt's Bee's addict and had not yet tried this product) and was instantly taken back about thirty-something years. I'm not sure what the fragrance officially is, but I can tell you it smells exactly like the Lemon Meringue doll I used to own, the one that was Strawberry Shortcake's friend. The one that when you squeezed its belly, it blew a kiss, a puff of lemon plastic air. The one that lost its hair that one fateful summer when my neighbor's granddaughter came to visit her. We ended up playing and she told me that my doll was one of those that after you cut its hair, you could pull on the ends and it would grow long again.
It was not that kind of doll.
But the memories that came back so strongly when I smelled that lemon plastic air! Memories of a summer spent playing with a little girl I hardly knew, hiding with her in her grandmother's attic four houses down from mine as we ate an entire package of Girl Scout Samoa cookies. I felt so uneasy, and she kept reassuring that "Grandma bought this for us to eat!" So why were we hiding, and why did I go home and have a nightmare? I dreamt that she and I were hiding in her grandmother's attic, the box of cookies between us, and The Incredible Hulk (the Lou-Ferrigno-as-the-monster one, not the Bill-Bixby-as-David-Banner one) was coming after us.
All from a face wash bottle.
I started thinking about smells. I don't usually. I mean, I'm thankful for the sense of smell sometimes and not-so-thankful at others, but I really don't think about smelling that often.
But I do believe it is this mostly-ignored sense that brings back the strongest memories. Memories that I don't even always know I have until I'm having them, and then "Oh, my goodness. I had totally forgotten. How could I have forgotten?"
You can't willingly tie scents to memories, at least I can't. If I could, then the scent that would be Grandma Hoeldtke would be chocolate chip cookies. There was a big crock (or two? I remember two) on our counter, and for the seven years she lived with us, she kept them full of chocolate chip cookies.
But chocolate chip cookies don't remind me of Grandma. Oatmeal raisin cookies do. We didn't even like oatmeal raisin cookies. And I'm not even sure she was the one who made them. It might have been Mom. But whoever it was, they made them very occasionally for Charlie Geoffrion. They were his favorite. They made them huge, with sugar crystals on the top.
And every time I smell an oatmeal raisin cookie, I remember Grandma and her apron and her nursing shoes, a holdover from her RN days.
And then there are those smells that you can't even identify, but they bring a rush of nostalgia. As newlyweds, Ethan and I took over my sister's cat-sitting job one night while she went to baby-sit elsewhere. We walked into the cat's owner's house, and I stopped. "That smell! What is that smell? I love that smell! That smell reminds me of my Grandma and Grandpa Easterling! What is that?"
"That smell," said Ethan, his nose wrinkled, "is mothballs."
And my mother. My mother, who has always cooked like she's serving a crowd and usually is. My mother, who knows the secret that most sickness can be healed through the stomach and can always fix the perfect delicious concoction for whatever ails you. My mother, who spends long hours at the computer and the printer and near Scotch tape and White-out and copy paper. It's not the smell of office supplies nor pastries nor even her own homemade eggnog (perfect for throats that won't swallow) that reminds me of her.
And I bet she wouldn't pick onions to remind me of her. Only I'm really glad they do, because I often find my hands smelling of onions and all of the sudden I'm reminded of getting tucked into the bed my sister and I shared, Mom at the side reading Heidi or The Chronicles of Narnia and singing "The birdies in the treetops Sing their songs, The angels chant their chorus All day long, The flowers in the garden Lend their hue, So why shouldn't I, Why shouldn't you, Praise Him, too?" and then that "Just one more" song we always got from her. I remember her leaning over to kiss us, and me complaining, "Oh, you stink! Your hands smell like ONIONS!"
I can't name the smell that is my dad. It's a very manly smell, a combination of shaving cream and aftershave and Ivory soap. He doesn't smell like that anymore. He still smells pleasant, but I think the brands and the soaps have changed. But very rarely, I will smell something that reminds me of when I was little and he was so big. Oddly enough, one of the strongest memories I have with this vague smell is one night when my mother was working at Pizza Hut, and he took me to the park. I remember swinging, him pushing and it growing dark and him saying it was time to go. I cried, and we still had to leave.
I don't even know if I was three yet.
And I am so curious. What will my smell be? In the future, what smell will make my children's eyes glaze over while they are taken back to the days I call the present and they will call the past?
It better not be mothballs. There is no reason for it to be mothballs.
That's it, really. I've just been musing over the wonder of the whole olfactory system and how it unlocks these pieces of history that would otherwise remain long gone.
I know, no pictures. My camera went missing and then it showed up with dead batteries and there you have it.
But maybe that's fitting. I don't have pictures of these memories, except for these very strong ones in my mind.
And I like them there.