I plucked the tomato from the potted plant vine, pressed it to my nose, and inhaled sweet memories. A plump, juicy time machine just in time. On our backyard deck this week, I breathed in the aroma of a fruit small as a golf ball. The memory was top flight.
More than a half-century after my 88-year-old, Sicilian-born maternal grandfather took his green thumb to that wonderful garden in the sky, it felt like he was beside me. Liborio Monteforte, a giant in my eyes, holding my hand tight and my attention tighter as he offered his 7-year-old grandson a daily tutorial in olericulture in his backyard field of bounty.
Science describes the neuro-pathways between smell and memory with terms like amygdala and hippocampus. In laymen’s terms, if our other senses are narrow roads with slow-moving traffic, our sense of smell is the Autobahn while the rest of the world sleeps. I was reminded of that with one sniff.
I went out to our deck for some air. Pulled up a chair and watched a family of deer nip at tree leaves. A red fox watched from nearby but didn’t join us. I turned to my right and spotted the ripest tomato hiding behind a few inner leaves. I picked it as I was taught by the master. I held it in my hand.
I held my grandfather’s with the other.
With one long, intoxicating sniff, I was transported back to gramp’s big yard that, to a young me, felt like there were 107 tomato plants to weave through. Back to the days when gramps sported a vented fedora, long pants, white shirt, and dark suspenders on a 100-degree day, telling me about his red beauties. Schooling me on how mixing eggshells in the soil helps keeps the rot away. Instructing me on the proper way to pluck one off the vine by pinching the stem with one hand and turning the tomato with the other, as if slowly turning the dial of an old radio. Telling me how pruning the dead leaves will increase the yield. Showing me how just a tap of the tongue on the tomato will prevent the salt from sliding off. And after the picking, pruning, and teaching was done, gramps resting a hand on my shoulder, leading me back to the house for a game of cards and an ice-cold Coke. Pretty cool.
I’m sure many of you have had a similar experience with smells, be it the fragrance of perfume reminding you of a lost love or frying bacon returning you to a seat at your late mom’s breakfast table, or cut grass transporting you back to ball fields of your youth, when the only thing longer than the days were the smiles.
Upon hearing my tomato story, a childhood friend said the smell of burning leaves in autumn rekindled memories of his own grandfather. They would sit and watch the leaves burn in a large rusted barrel in grandfather’s backyard while he shared stories of growing up poor in the old country.
“He’d talk about coming to America by himself, and then sending for the rest of his family,” my friend recalled. “I remember asking him if he was scared coming to a country where he didn’t know anyone, or have a job lined up, and didn’t know the language.
“I’ll never forget what he told me. He said, ‘Always look at the unknown as an opportunity few may be brave enough to take.’ When the fire went out, he’d take me for ice cream.”
Cesare Pavese, the 20th Century Italian novelist, wrote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
Mostly with our noses.
The Autobahn to the heart.