April 18, 2005

Time. Memory. Smell.

I blatantly stole this from someone. Not specifically this exact same thing but the general concept. So, to whomever that is, my bad. Between conducting meetings, overseeing a team of 15 people on one project, four on the other and somehow crossing stuff off my "to do" list, the fact that I caught up on any blogs at all is somewhat amazing to me. But I digress.

Seems to me - and I'm no scientist - that the mind is like an incredibly small but efficient filing system. But instead of being fuelled by data or paper, its shaped by senses. Each piece of information you gather about the world is tagged and filed away for later use.

Growing up, I used to make the journey from Texas to Ohio to visit my father's parents. I have literally no memory of how we got there and back but I'll never forget their house, primarily because of the way it smelled. Were it music, I'd have some technical jargon to throw at you that could describe how something sounded but not how it felt. I've never really thought about the language used to describe smells before but I do realize that my vocabulary is ill-equipped to describe odors of any sort. You'll just have to excuse me for that. Maybe it was the vegetables they raised and - in the great spirit of the Midwest - canned. It could have been all the strong German food my grandfather insisted on eating. Or the beer he drank, a mug a gulp. It could even be the attitude in that house - one of startling indifference and pent-up anger on my grandfather's part and cool consolation on my grandmother's. But none of those things seem right.

Whatever it was, I've never experienced the smell outside the context of my grandparents. And never expected to, frankly. A few years back, I heard they were moving into a smaller place. My grandfather's health had started to slide and my grandmother, who was still insisting on performing a true spring cleaning every year, warmed up to the idea of something more manageable. My first thought wasn't oh how great or it'll be so nice for them to have a new place. No, I worried about the smell. I thought it would be lost to me forever. I needn't have worried. It followed.

My grandfather now lives in a nursing home. He's suffering from Alzheimer’s and can only get around in a wheelchair. Although I hear he does pretty well with that and no one need feel sorry for him on that count. He doesn't speak English anymore, favoring German instead. He acts, for the most part, like a child. My grandmother copes wonderfully. I suspect she's finally happy to be out of his shadow, although I know she'd rather have accomplished this any other way. She visits him every day and writes notes to Beth and I about how much we should value our time together. She should know. But, even knowing what I know now and seeing what I've seen, the smell of their house takes me back to a day many years ago. A day during which my grandfather fired up his riding lawnmower, put me on his knee and drove me around his neighborhood waving to everyone.

There's probably some deep and startling parallel between the riding lawnmower and the wheelchair or the fact that all he can do now is wave. I'm sure I could dig deep and pull some Hallmark worthy stuff out but that seems cheesy at best. No, just close your eyes and, as counterintuitive as it may sound, picture a smell let it trigger a memory and follow it back through time.

Posted by Chris at April 18, 2005 5:10 PM

My grandmother used rose scented soap, and German cologne, 4711.

It's the same cologne my mom would shake a few drops of the citrusy refreshing goodness into the water she used to wipe us down when we had fevers. The scent is so mild, but it refreshes like nothing else.

They don't make the soap any more in Thailand, but they still sell the cologne. I own a bottle now so I can sniff at it or put on a few splashes when I get home sick.

Scent is truly the memory trigger. *sniffle*

Posted by: Oakley at April 18, 2005 5:39 PM

My mom had a bottle of 4711 in her bathroom cabinet.

But the smell I wanted to comment on was the freshness of the peas in my grandmother's vegetable garden. I remember helping her pick the pods and shelling them. I used to eat the raw peas. She never reprimanded me for that.

Posted by: Alison at April 18, 2005 5:48 PM

you should be on the next right gaurd commercial. Scent is the strongest sense tied to memory" maybe right guard can make a grandparents scent deodorant. :-P

Posted by: shaners at April 18, 2005 6:30 PM

There are some smells that I remember that I didn't like, like the smell of my one friend's house. I know my grandparents' house so well, there's different smells for each room.

But no matter how your grandfather was, sounds like he was proud to have you for his grandson.

Smart guy.

Posted by: alektra at April 18, 2005 7:22 PM

It's funny you mentioned the lawn mower -- the smell of freshly cut grass always makes me think of summer in the first house my family lived in.

Taste can often do the same thing--I visited the Rodenbach brewery in Belguim during my honeymoon and the sour-cherry taste of the beer will instantly put me there... one of those days that you remember incredibly vividly.

Posted by: susannah at April 18, 2005 8:03 PM

sometimes, i feel the same way about weather. i'll be outside, here in seattle, and all the sudden it will feel like spring in grand junction, or fall in tulsa. and i won't know why, but it does.

Posted by: jodi at April 18, 2005 9:15 PM

Your grandfather, as the oldest memories become the clearest memories, is probably experiencing a similar thing. Lovely post. Thank you.
I remember the smell of my grandparent's farm- German, Protestant- in Jerry City, Ohio. Specifically the steer barn: I was 5 and my 5 year old cousin, Patti, and I would press hard against the wall on the far side of the barn from the stalls in order to get to the ladder to the hay loft where there were always tiny newborn kittens. I remember the smell of the snort and huff of those steer...

Posted by: vicki at April 18, 2005 9:18 PM

Smells, food, taste...all brings you back to a day. Memories are good, some times I think it has been so long since I lost my grandmother that I can't remember her...and then a smell will bring me back, a feeling on the wind, the look of the sky on a summer day, another woman her age that I remember, and it comes flooding back. Time is fleeting and it all goes by so fast...but hopefully memories will always be there. When my grandmother was nearing the end, she remembered clearest the days when she was young...the process of moving on is strange, it brings us back to the beginning.

Posted by: Gypsy at April 18, 2005 9:53 PM

You know that smell right after the first spring rain? How it brings out the smell of the trees and the grass? Yeah, that always brings me back to when I was little, when my grandmother would let me run and play in the rain, and I knew it was spring.

Posted by: amber at April 19, 2005 12:03 AM

Glad you didn't lose the smell.

When my maternal grandfather moved from his rambling house to a smaller apartment, it was never the same. Esp. as a little kid... it was like he was on vacation or something because it never again felt like "grandfather's house."

Posted by: Mala at April 19, 2005 10:09 AM

My Grandmother's house was the same way. It had a distinct smell that I associate with my memories of her. It was a sweet smell of her old wood buffet in the dining room that floated throughout her house. I also remember these strange aluminum cups that she used to feed me the best vanilla ice cream that has ever passed my lips. She too went into the nursing home and has since passed away. I prefer to remember the happier times when she was a strong, beautiful woman who showed me nothing but love, kindness and grace.

I'm sorry to hear of your Grandfather's declining health.

Posted by: Gweny at April 19, 2005 12:26 PM

Wow. Talk about taking me back. We used to travel from Michigan to Massachusetts to visit my mom's parents. They lived in an apartment house. Not an apartment building, but a house carved into many small and large apartments. Their apartment was two floors, the second and third floors of the house. The apartment had a front staircase and a back staircase.

When we arrived, we always went up the back stairs to their apartment and there was this smell, always familiar, even if it had been four years since we had been there. I can't describe it, probably never could. I don't think it smelled like anything in particular. It was just the smell of Gram and Gramp's house. You knew you were there when you smelled it.

Gram and Gramp have been gone for 15+ years. I went by the apartment house about six years ago when I was on a business trip. It wasn't the same because I wasn't able to go inside. I wonder if it still smells the same.

Posted by: Carolyn at April 19, 2005 1:09 PM

Aromas will trigger certain time periods in life for me. A certain perfume might remind me of high school or yellow cake batter reminds me of making cakes in our old house with my mom...

Now I'm going to be thinking of cake for the rest of the day. Great.

Posted by: Snidget at April 19, 2005 4:20 PM

I'm a bit behind on my blog reading... also, I've never delurked on your blog before, but this post just touched me.

My Grandma died this past December, and the most overwhelming part of the grieving process was going to her apartment to clean it out. The smell of "Grandma's house" hit me in the face the moment I walked through the door... it was like she was still there. I'm like you, I can't describe the smell. I couldn't even describe it when I was standing there smelling it. It was clean and gentle, just like my grandma. The saddest moment was leaving her apartment for the last time and knowing I would never smell that smell again.

Thanks for this post, I know just what you're talking about.

Posted by: Noelle at April 19, 2005 7:15 PM

Not that you should worry about trying to sound “Hallmark-y,” but I think this post sounded BETTER than Hallmark. Hallmark is too "mass-produced." :)

I love how people have their own scents, too. :)

Posted by: Zandria at April 20, 2005 2:27 PM