We started up our fireplace insert this week, at last. We had put up with the chill for long enough, I suppose. That first intake of wood smoke sure does cause the memory floodgates to open. I am always fascinated by how our olfactory sense can be so keen and so complex. One scent of a particular odor and our minds fly — to places, people, times — all of it. Until recently, the human olfactory sense was relegated to a low rung on the list of ability. But new studies are revealing that we actually may be able to detect trillions of various scents. Trillions! Our dogs and cats still beat us paws-down, but we are actually far more able than what was once believed.
Our olfactory sense is connected to our memory center, of course, which is why we are sent on an instant journey at the whiff of a lilac or the lingering scent in the halls of our elementary schools. The human brain is such an amazing blob of gray. When I am taking in one of those “memory smells,” I like to try to experience the entire memory. I go down the path and try to revisit the place or time or person in detail. It’s fun.
A freshly cut slice of onion takes me home again, as a kid, in a bustling kitchen with my family. Surrounded by my older siblings and parents, I recall weekend summertime meals. Grilled hamburgers and Wise potato chips, plus security and warmth in that small kitchen or on our screened porch. It doesn’t matter how many times I smell a fresh onion (which I don’t like to eat, by the way), I almost always conjure up that moment in time. Funny how that is.
The fragrance of cut flowers can take me to a number of places, but most immediately I am transported to the RenRoy Flower Shop in Cumberland, which my Uncle Jack and Aunt Jo owned for ages, and where we would go to visit them and breathe in that thick smell of so many flowers. Then we would shop in that city. And yes, it seemed to me to be a true city — the first place I saw a “walk” sign to cross the street, and where I might even get a rare ride in an elevator if we happened to go to Peskin’s to buy shoes. And in that elevator was an attendant — a very small woman, I believe she was a Little Person in fact, who wore a special hat and jacket and operated the elevator for us, closing the silver gate and locking us in that box for a few magic moments. The whoosh in my belly always made me grin a little, even if I wanted to be cool about the whole thing.
An odor that causes a cascade of nervous memories is that of ether. One doesn’t encounter that distinct smell very often, but it is used in aerosol cans for work on engines, for one thing. So every now and then, I have smelled it. There are two places I go, and neither is a particularly good memory. First I can see a mask coming down to my face and hear a man telling me to count backward. I was 5, and my tonsils were about to be removed. It was a surreal experience, going to Garrett Memorial at the crack of dawn, I think, and wondering just what was going to happen to me. The very next memory is of a similar mask and a similar request, to count backward. That was much later, when I was seven months pregnant with Michael and my appendix went haywire. I was terrified for my unborn son, but I was longing for the thorn to be removed from my side, too. What a strange time.
I have cooked eggs for meals surely a million times. But there is a fragrant moment in that process — when I add pepper to the yolk and the toast is just out — that makes me think of Mary Largent, my cousin after whom I was named. She loved eggs, and her childlike glee over a good breakfast was contagious. She was in her 60s when I was born, so she was an “old lady” to me, but she never acted like that. She played cards with me all the time, even when I was a wee little kid, and she seemed to do it because she really wanted to, not because she was catering to a child. She told me stories and gave me gifts; she made me laugh. Mary was full of whimsy, and I loved her. She had suffered with polio as a child and had a shortened leg as a result, so she limped. But I never really noticed that so much. I mostly noticed the way she seemed to enjoy life and art and games and fun. And eggs.
Ah, the places we can go with just a whiff! Take a jaunt with your own nose today. Just for fun. We all need a little fun.
A&E Editor Mary Sincell McEwen can be reached at 301-334-3963 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.