Friday, October 22, 2010

Oh, The Smells You Can Smell

Ever have that moment when an errant odor wafts its way up your nostrils and suddenly leaps to the deepest recesses of your brain to flush out some long-forgotten memory?

Sometimes it isn't so much a memory of a person or event as it is a sense of place and time. You're going along, minding your own business, when the earthy odors of your neighbor mowing his lawn brings you back to the days when you ran through your sprinkler in your old cutoff jeans. Or you pass a vendor on a city street and, just for the briefest moment, you'd swear you were helping your Dad carry pretzels and drinks for the rest of your family back to your seats in Shea Stadium to watch the Mets.

A few months ago, while walking the dog in the moonlight along the street just in front of our house, a most specific and recognizable odor greeted me. It was there and then it was gone in a second, but in that second I flashed back to the chicken wings served up each night by the grill near the student center at SUNY Plattsburgh. They were awful -- even by drunk college student standards -- but they were cheap, available until midnight, and a short walk from any dorm on campus.

Even stranger was the accompanying trace odor of sweet-and-sour sauce. I had to look around to make sure I was still in North Carolina walking my dog and not cutting along the winding path from Adirondack Hall to the Sundowner at the Angell College Center. When I realized I hadn't dreamed the last 20 years I was relieved but also a little bit hungry for some chicken wings.

The most recent occurrence of this kind happened just yesterday as I waited for my darling daughter to finish getting ready for bed.

Ever since she was old enough to tuck in, I have enjoyed the nightly ritual of seeing her off to bed, ensuring she has what she needs, is comfortable, and all is right with the world. When she was very young, we would make up stories together -- usually the same ones over and over again -- and I would have a difficult time pulling myself away and saying good night. We've moved through the years of reading to her at bedtime and progressed to the days of telling her to put away her iPod, plug in her cell phone, and turn off the television.

Last night, after she finished washing her face and brushing her teeth and her lights were off for the night, I stepped into the kids' bathroom to straighten up. I can't tell you exactly what various elements combined to create the aroma in the tiny room -- soap, perfume, scented face wash or flavored lip balm. All I can tell you is the aroma screamed "Teenage Girl!"

Without warning, I was transported back to my Aunt's house in Baldwin, NY, where my cousins Susie and Betsy had created a similar aura of frilly girliness. And the era it brought me to was their teen years, when they changed from being kids like me and my brothers to these alien creatures that spent countless dollars and hours on achieving the perfect looks and smells. For years after, I would struggle to understand what happened to the little girls we used to play with.

Standing in the bathroom of my house decades later, in that brief olfactory moment, I saw my darling daughter's future spreading out before me and heard the rustling of the pages as the first long chapter of her life came to a close.

© 2010 Mark Feggeler


  1. I'm pretty odor-obsessed, myself (I'm not necessarily saying you're "obsessed," know what I mean). Often it's industrial-strength cleansers that trigger deeply buried memories of elementary school and other places from childhood.

    Think back to elementary school: Why exactly did it smell like THAT? My theory? The industrial cleansers.

  2. Thanks, Brett!

    And William, the smells I recall from elementary school are more associated with the cafeteria -- cheap rectangular pizza "slices," gray hamburgers on squished buns, macaroni with meat sauce (which I never once ordered). What can I say? My mind is wired for food.

  3. Ewww! I hated the smells in that cafeteria! No wonder I weighed 65 lbs back then.

  4. I'm obsessed with smells...i've planted a few rhododendron to capture the smell of 1812 park, purchased old perfumes to "relive" a time period for a fleeting moment and pulled out my baba's old recipes to transport myself back to uniondale while giving my kids a taste of my past. This really touched me and i'm now terrified of losing the clean, fresh smell of my claire's pillow...maybe i can bottle it up : ) -Kath Piz

  5. My favorite is when I've been away from home for a few days. As soon as I cross the threshold, I'm hit hard by the familiar smell of my own home.