I find myself at my childhood home under the worst of circumstances: a family emergency. Fortunately, everything is OK, or soon will be, but there are things to do in the mean time. As I do chores I used to try and weasel out of, I find waypoint after waypoint of familiar smells that trigger all sorts of crazy nostalgic flashbacks.
The dish soap somehow hasn’t changed in 20 years. How is this possible? In a market filled with the latest pairings of fruit and flower — cucumber jasmine, apple rose, orange grean-tea-leaves — somehow my parents have hung on to the last gallon of the generic, non-descript-smelling dish soap that I grew up with. Its fragrance brings back memories of impatience — the dishwasher has finished washing, and nothing happens unless it is emptied and refilled with the day’s dirty dishes — no playing video games, no playing with friends outside, nothing.
I cook breakfast for the kids; something my mom has done thousands of times. Breakfast in my family has always involved garlic-rice-with-something, so I find myself pulling out the canned-olive-oil-plus-minced-garlic and start it sautéing on the gas-burning range. The smell is intoxicating. Imagine every morning you’ve ever lived compressed into one long whiff, and the realization that that tradition is carrying on even though you’re not there to experience it.
The laundry detergent permeates everything. The cloth I use to wash the table smells so much like I remember, and that smell follows me to the shower where the towel I use has a noticeable fragrance that is familiar, yet indescribable. It’s probably similar to what the towels at my apartment now smell like, but infinitesimally different and unique — that one smell existing only in one time and place.
I think back to when I was a little kid and we went to my Granddad’s house when he was in the hospital. Which smells were my dad reliving like I was now? What emotions did they evoke?
I think forward to the people and places I’m living with in my adult life. What kind of strange brew of fragrance are we creating, and who will smell and relive them far in the future like I am re-smelling my childhood now?
Smell is not something we value the same as pictures, or written history, but it is just as powerful and just as evocative.