Isn’t it remarkable what our sense of smell does for memory?
I will be in a shopping mall, or perhaps in a park, and get a whiff of a good cigar in the air and I can feel my grandfather’s embrace and hear his laughter. My grandfather was the quintessential gentlemen. He’d bounce me on his knee and show me how to make a fist and life was whole and safe.
My granddaddy was a safe harbor for an insecure little boy.
And, what about the sweet smell of a good barbecue with burgers and hot dogs on the grille on a hot summer afternoon? The official smell of suburbia someone should have figured out how to bottle a long time ago.
Doesn’t this give you the overwhelming desire to go play kickball, get out your Barbies, or haul out your Tonka toys and play in the dirt?
Memory is a remarkable thing.
Our sense of smell is an amazing memory trigger. Any time I smell rubbing alcohol, it reminds me being five and getting a polio shot. I can even feel the sting and hear my childhood pediatrician, Dr. Sartwell, “I’m going to give you a booster…” which meant a shot in the butt. Shots can be so terrifying for a child and even adults. There are those who would rather slam their hand in a car door than get a shot.
Crisp, cool autumn evenings are good for the smell of woodsmoke from fireplaces that have been snoozing all summer. It is such an incredible aroma because the smell of burning wood while you’re walking in the dusk is a smell that has been around for thousands of years. It’s the same smell George Washington took into his nose after he chopped down that cherry tree and tried to hide the evidence from his father.
And to think, all this time, I believed he couldn’t tell a lie.
Personally, I think we were all lied to about George, don’t you?
Woodsmoke was a euphoric reminder Christmas was coming. As a child, I didn’t think about that much except that smell meant a huge toy fallout on Christmas Morning with the family and not having to go to school.
The smell of burning plastic, which contains cyanide gas and is fatal if consumed in large quantities, reminds me of the apartments where I lived in the early 1960s. Our apartment complex in Laurel, Maryland had trash incinerators where tenants could dump their garbage. Each building in the Steward Manor complex had a chute on each floor. Personnel would go to the basement of each building and start the incinerator fire, then, collect the ashes later.
Problem with that logic was air pollution. The smell of cyanide gas—burning plastic—permeated the complex and probably gave tenant long issues later on. So much so that whenever I smell burning plastic, it takes me back to the early 1960s and that beloved apartment community. The EPA outlawed trash incinerators in the 1970s.
When I fire up the Cuisinart in the mornings for that first cup of coffee, I long for the smell of a freshly lit cigarette, which was lit by a match, to accompany that first cup. I’ve never been a smoker—however, my father was. He’d fire up the Sunbeam percolator. It would perk like the Maxwell House commercials, “boop-ba-boo-boo-boop-boop!” and he’d wait patiently for that first cup.
My father loved his coffee black. He also loved his cigarettes and beer. He’d light up a Salem and, my goodness, that fresh lit match and cigarette combo along with the aroma of good coffee. Always good on a cold morning.
Wasn’t long before there was a can of Bud’ sitting on his end table.
Also terrific on a cold morning was the aroma of a freshly lit gas furnace. Fall mornings when my mother would switch the HVAC system to “heat” and fire our vintage Westinghouse furnace. Dust that had accumulated on the combustors over the summer would burn off and deliver a smell signaling Halloween and Christmas were coming.
Whenever I smell green beans, mashed potatoes, and stuffing, I am reminded of a modest little apartment galley kitchen just off Route 50 and Pershing Drive in Arlington, Virginia some 60 years ago. My grandmother would be in the kitchen with a GE twin fan in a casement window roaring along on high while dinner simmered on a small gas stove. When it was time for clean-up, my grandmother washed dishes by hand. Dishwashers were considered a luxury and she wasn’t having any part of that.
My grandfather was a stickler about maintenance on anything and everything. Before he went to bed each night, he’d check the pilot lights on that petite gas stove to make sure they were lit. Sounds odd today to speak of pilotless ignition, which has been around for decades. To forget to check the pilots in those days meant the risk of a house full of highly combustible natural gas.
Why does the smell of diesel exhaust remind me of those headaches I got as a child? Perhaps it was sitting in the back seat of an old Plymouth while my ol’ man navigated the streets of Washington, D.C. on a miserably hot and humid day amid those old Detroit-diesel powered GMC fishbowl busses and all that black smoke. We didn’t have air-conditioned cars in those days. Few people did. We inhaled and had to like it.
In those days, my dad would roar down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway past the Pepsi Cola bottling plant just outside the District Line and connect with New York Avenue, which vectored us to the heart of Washington, around the Lincoln Memorial, and across Memorial Bridge to the traffic circle in front of the Arlington National Cemetery. We’d get onto the George Washington Parkway, which segued around to the west and south to my grandparents’ home in Arlington.
In the spring and summer, you could smell clover and honeysuckle and it was so intoxicating. In spring, it meant summer was at our feet. With warmer temperatures came hope. The freedom of spring and summer.
Do you remember those first heavy rainstorms of summer and the sweet smell of wet concrete as the storms unfolded? As those first raindrops began hitting the pavement, you couldn’t get enough air into your lungs. It was incredible. And, in the desert, even more incredible. Living in California, I miss those more traditional smells and climatic nuances you folks in the east experience in springtime.
I will always be an East Coast boy…
Another smell was hot asphalt being laid down somewhere in all that Washington traffic. Always gave me a headache. I guess you could call it remarkable all the things we managed to survive as kids that have fallen from grace. They’re not politically or morally correct anymore. Whenever I roll up in front of an airport terminal, there’s that diesel exhaust smell—yet it isn’t diesel exhaust. It is hot jet exhaust, which comes from a very similar fuel known as kerosene. Any way you slice or dice the smell of diesel or jet power—it still stinks.
The smell of stale perfume. Do you remember that? Man, I do…
My mother loved Wind Song Perfume by Prince Matchabelli. It must have been a combination of her body chemistry and Wind Song that made for a unique aroma that makes me ill to this day. While Wind Song might evoke sweet memories for some, all I can remember is being carsick and memories of my mother cleaning me up. Wind Song was first introduced by Prince Matchabelli in 1953. According to Wikipedia, “Wind Song perfume has a complex but balanced construction that brings together florals with fruity, green middle notes. The scent finishes with hints of musk and amber.”
Wind Song’s ad slogan was, “I can’t seem to forget you, your Wind Song stays on my mind…” For me? Memories of throwing up in the back seat of a dusty old Plymouth.