It’s hard to forget the smell.

There’s no sense rolling your eyes -I haven’t read much of it -just little bits, and those only at night when I needed to fall asleep. Proust does that to me, so I hesitate to indulge him in his Remembrance of Things Past. And anyway, the only part that I can remember, is one of his streams of consciousness about his aunt’s petites madeleines, and the memories they invoked.

I admit that I have never tasted a madeleine -and probably, if given a choice, would go for the doughnut- but it did remind me that memory is stuck to many surfaces, entrained to many masters. It usually seems to condense on things like dew on morning leaves, or Hawaiian sunsets, but the most mysterious to me, is how it can be embedded in an odour -especially one from long ago. A memory that might predate any other recollections, suddenly surfaces, unbeckoned, when I smell something similar: like the wax my mother used to polish the hardwood floor I crawled across in a house in Edmonton -inchoate to be sure, and yet a memoroid at least.

Also, the smell of burning leaves never fails to remind me of autumn in Winnipeg. I used to help my father rake the yard of the yellowing sere from the oak trees growing by the house, and then burn them in a large galvanized metal laundry tub we’d drag into the center of the lawn. Every year, the same ritual; every year, the same smell. Maybe we remember the sacred odours best.

But, I have to say that a completely anosmic article, in the BBC Future series, also dragged some unbidden memories to me:

‘What we know is that smell is the oldest sense, having its origins in the rudimentary senses for chemicals in air and water – senses that even bacteria have. Before sight or hearing, before even touch, creatures evolved to respond to chemicals around them.’ We don’t really know how to name many of the smells we can differentiate and often label them by association with what seems to create them. ‘… we generally only have names for smells which mean the thing that produces that smell, such as “cedar”, “coconut” or “fresh bread”’. I suppose that makes sense, though -even if bacteria responded to the chemicals around them, they weren’t very good at naming them -or at least writing them down for us.

‘Smell is unique among the senses in that it enters directly deep into the brain. … Rather than visiting the thalamic relay station on its journey into the brain, smell information travels directly to the major site of processing – the olfactory bulb – with nothing in between. We do not know what stopping off at the thalamus does for the other senses, but it certainly means that signals generated in the other senses are somehow “further away” from the nexus of processing done in the brain.’ And since that olfactory bulb apparently sits right next to the hippocampus which creates new memories for events, well, Bob’s your uncle, eh?

I was waiting for a bus beside a wooded park a while ago. The day was hot and although the air was relatively still, there was the occasional whiff of cedar needles composting on the soil nearby. It reminded me of the long, carefree days at a summer camp where my parents used to send me when I was a child. Whenever there was some free time there, I’d sit in the shade of a massive old cedar tree on a hill overlooking the nearby lake and watch the hawks soaring in the thermals. The world was simpler then.

Suddenly, with a stronger gust of wind, something shifted, the time frame changed, and although I couldn’t place it, I was in a different, but still familiar world. It was another odour that, for a moment, triggered something in an older me. Then, as unexpectedly as it arrived, it was gone. I looked around in the growing line of people, but I couldn’t see anything unusual -nobody I recognized, at any rate- and the compost of cedar returned so I let myself drift back to those days at camp.

There weren’t many empty seats on the bus, and I ended up standing, as did most of us in the line. In the confined space, the strange odour returned once more. I wondered where it was coming from, but more importantly, why it seemed to be so important to me. It wasn’t that it was irritating, or markedly unpleasant -just that it was something very personal from a past that I hadn’t thought of for a long time. An aftershave, perhaps -or maybe a perfume that someone I had known, wore when they were with me?

After a few stops, the crowd on the bus thinned, and seats became available. Interestingly, the odour disappeared as well, and an older man in the seat ahead of me shook his head. “Remember that?” he said to his friend sitting beside him.

His friend nodded. “Haven’t smelled that in a long time,” he said. “Patchouli oil, isn’t it?”

The first man nodded in response. “Takes you back, eh? Hippies. Long hair… Free love…”

They were still chuckling as I left the bus and the incident faded back into the dark warehouse where these things are stored. And yet it left me with a strange feeling that something once important to me had been stirred. A door had been left ajar…

But, as with many a  buried thing, I soon forgot all about it. Until, that is, I found myself sitting in a busy coffee shop months later, and was suddenly enveloped in a draft of patchouli when a woman sat down at the table next to mine. There was something about the way she moved, and the casual smile she cast my way when she noticed me, that stirred a memory. Mostly it was her eyes. Large and blue, they seemed deep enough to drown in, and for a moment, my heart pounding, I felt like Narcissus must have when he was transfixed beside the water. I knew those eyes.

The face, the eyes… images of my undergraduate days in university swept over me like a rogue wave on a ship at sea, and I turned to say something to her. But as I did, an older, gruffer face sat down beside her and her eyes froze over like a lake in winter.

I suppose some memories, like the fragile little Royal Doulton figurines my grandmother used to store well away from curious hands, are best left in the safety of a darkened upper shelf. I am sometimes still clumsy when I reach for things I shouldn’t…







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