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Smilla's Sense of Smell

I was on the bus to work this morning, and the fella next to me, African-American, smelled like cigarette smoke. A very familiar cigarette smoke. I'm not up on all the brands of death sticks. I lived with my father for twelve years while he smoked them like I drink soda pop, yet I couldn't -- if my life depended on it -- tell you want brand they were. Same with my uncles. Yet, this morning, the guy sitting next to me smelled just like them. The flood of memories that smell brought to mind was, to say the least, quite heady.

Suddenly, I was transported back in time to sitting in the passenger seat of my dad's pickup truck. I could see the greyish-blue dashboard, look over and see him quietly driving us somewhere. We did that sometimes. Not often, though. He would consider it time for us to have an outing together, just the two of us, and we'd go to one of his favorite haunts: Taffies, Merry Ann's diner and, once, the old Mason Hall on First St. There we found my uncles, along with other folks, with the same-smelling cigarette smoke wafting through the air.

It's interesting, the ability of aroma to trigger memory. Oddly enough, the smell of dirty laundry -- in particular, the dirty laundry smell that is typical to a teenage boy/early young man -- always evokes with me memories of the times when I'd be hanging out with my peers in high school, or back to theirs after an evening at the night club, and they were often behind in their household chores. Sometimes, if the wind was blowing in a favorable way, something might.... happen, and so such a smell often has fond assocations.

Other smells can be quite evocative. If I'm ever in a hair cuttery or beauty parlor, and women are sitting under the dryers, having their hair did, the aroma immediately sends me back to the days when my mom  would have a perm. There's a certain scent (not sure what it is -- Old Spice?) that reminds me of my great uncle Robert and great aunt Betty's house. Of course, there's that certain, unknowable, smell that sometimes lingers in the air this time of year telling us that, yes, this is Autumn.

So, this morning, I was transported back in time. By a smell. A scent. Something so simple and inhaled that one can scarcely believe it to be such an effective trigger of times past. Yet, there it is. Our memories -- barring some terrible form of dementia -- are apparently always there, ready to be unlocked. This morning, I was thankful to the stranger sitting next to me for providing one of the keys. It was nice to remember.


  1. Powerful stuff. My grandmother, who lived on Lynn Street in Urbana, had a window unit air conditioner that dripped on concrete brick. The brick surrounded a petunia bed. The smell of freon draining on brick, mixed with strong summer flowers is rare, but it does come along now and again, and it will nearly knock me out.

    I love it when a scent transports me. Great, contemplative post.

  2. I can totally imagine the smell you're describing at your grandmother's place!

    Thank you for reading and commenting. :-)


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