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Odor-Initiated Memories

My wife recently bought some electric plug-in room deodorizers for our house. She asked me to install one that she had laid out for the purpose in our guest bathroom.

I dutifully picked up the glass, perfume-filled container and walked into the guest bath, removing the cellophane cover as I did. The label on the deodorizer said its fragrance was “Fresh Bamboo.” Never having grown up in or visited the Orient, where bamboo is typically grown, I had no idea what fresh bamboo is supposed to smell like.

I finally figured out that I had to remove the lid by turning it clockwise, rather than the more logical counter-clockwise, like all normally threaded jar lids, and plugged it in. And then I waited for a few moments for the pleasing aroma that I expected soon to caress my sensitive nostrils. I smelled nothing.

So that’s what fresh bamboo smells like, I thought. Like nothing! I much prefer the eucalyptus of previous deodorizers.

But a few days later, when I walked into that bathroom to fetch a new box of tissues from beneath the vanity, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a memory sparked by the smell of, not fresh bamboo, but flowers. And not just any floral smell but the smell of the kind of bouquet that my mother used to put into my hands just before I boarded the school bus, a bouquet I was to give to my teacher.

I was a bit embarrassed whenever Mother gave me flowers for my teacher. No other boys–or even girls, for that matter–did that, I argued. If I had to take my teacher something, why couldn’t it be an apple? At least people might think it was for my breakfast or part of my lunch. But I could never win an argument with Mother, so flowers it was. I dutifully took the bouquet and endured the inevitable taunts from the other boys on the bus and in the classroom.

“What are you doing, trying to get in good with the teacher?”

“Teacher’s pet! Teacher’s pet!”

“Look at the sissy–carrying flowers to school!”

Thankfully, by second or third grade, Mother had gotten beyond having me take flowers to the teacher. Or maybe she was just too busy trying to take care of my younger sister to think about gifts for the teacher.

But to this day, a certain smell instantaneously takes me back to those flower-delivery days of yesteryear. Like the smell of fresh bamboo, or at least what is labeled on that deodorizer as fresh bamboo.

It’s funny how a simple whiff of something can spark a memory from long ago. A rubber bicycle inner tube. Rotting compost. Fresh-cut hay. The soil after a rain shower. Salt air. I often can’t recall what I had for breakfast, but I can remember people, places, or events of days long past simply by smelling certain odors.

I once gave my writing students an assignment in descriptive writing. “Make me hear when I read your essay what you heard at the time,” I encouraged them. “Make me taste what you ate. Make me smell what you smelled.”

When I collected their papers the next day and sat down that afternoon to read them, I expected to see not only a lot of adjectives but also precise nouns, vivid verbs, and other colorful constructions. But I hadn’t anticipated what one student placed at the end of his essay: a scratch-and-sniff sticker.

He deserved an A just for having employed such a creative imagination.

Smells spark memories. So do sounds and other sensations.

What spark ignites your memory machine?

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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