Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Scenting the Past

Yesterday I read an article about the perfume industry in Provence. It was a very poetic account of the art and science of creating fragrance and included a description of an expert who could tell what type of perfume would suit a person just by talking to someone who knew her well. The author of the article wrote of the sense of smell and its role in setting memories, and that got me thinking about Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and how the senses interact with experience to form lasting impressions.

Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is famous for its description of the taste of the cookie that awakened childhood memories for the narrator. There are tastes that would do the same for me, though I rarely come across things I remember eating and drinking when I was young. I was once in an old-fashioned store in Northern California that stocked the type of candy-coated chocolate balls in cellophane sleeves that I hadn't eaten in almost 40 years. I can still taste them. Finding them that day was, in a small way, like recovering a bit of the past. Other tastes that I vividly remember, like my mother's pancakes and meatloaf, both of which were hers alone, are lost to me now for good.

As for smells, my memory is full of them. One scent I recall from early childhood is the smell of Spic 'n Span, which my mother used to clean the floors. It's tied to images of my mother doing housework, with the TV on in the background. I also remember the combined scents of starch, a hot iron, and cotton enveloping me as I played on the floor, ironing board towering above me. I can still picture the living room in our duplex, with the sun coming in though a kitchen window and Search for Tomorrow's high-pitched organ music filling the air, images all tied up with those particular scents.

I continue to enjoy the smell of freshly-mown grass, which I associate with my father. I used to like following along behind him as he created paths in the yard with the lawn mower. The wetter the grass and the more humid the day, the more closely the scent matches my memory, because we lived in Florida then, and the smell of the grass there was heady and thick.

From my school days, I recall the smell of the supply room at the end of the hall where we got our paper, ink cartridges, erasers, and notebooks. It was the sweet, woody smell of pencils and paper -- the soft, pulpy kind with blue lines, on which we learned to write -- that dominated the little room, accented by the more delicate odor of ink and the rubbery essence of erasers. There's never been another room like it.

The coconut aroma of Coppertone is one of the fragments of my memories of family trips to the beach. I've become used to more medicinal sunscreens with lighter, cleaner scents, but a whiff of old-fashioned coconut lotion takes me right back to Fort Myers Beach. In addition, there was a place at the beach where you could get hot dogs, slightly leathery and sweet with ketchup, that didn't taste like the hot dogs anywhere else. The salty scent of those hot dogs filled the air near the shaded shack where you bought them and remains for me the essence of a perfect day at the beach.

There's also the inimitable smell of the downtown movie theaters during a matinee, composed of popcorn, spilled soft drinks, and a salty-sweet darkness. Connected with this is the taste of Milk Duds, our go-to movie-time candy, and a memory of dark red curtains.

What else? Well, there's the straightforward detergent smell of Prell shampoo, which reigned supreme in our bathroom, the mild smell of Vel soap (which I've rarely encountered elsewhere), my father's Old Spice, and the scent of the clothes hamper, musky, woody, and plastic, with top notes of Pinesol. I recall the smell of batter, both the batters my mother mixed from Duncan Hines or Betty Crocker in a white plastic basin, and the ones that baked under the light bulb in my Easy-Bake Oven and were entirely different.

I've been surprised to find that some of the products I remember are still around, like Prell shampoo and Spic 'n Span. I'm not sure if they're made the way they used to be, though. I think I found a box of Spic 'n Span some years ago, tried it, and didn't think it smelled the same. Of course, on a different floor, in a different home, at a different time, it's not surprising it didn't match my memories. It was working with the chemistry of a completely different environment.

The things we remember are not just discrete items but are woven into the fabric of a place and time. They interact with the items and the people around them to create something distinctive. In some cases, they're memorable enough that you'd recognize them anywhere, like a virtuoso solo performance. In other cases, they're like the individual instruments in an orchestra, bits and pieces of something bigger that seem diminished when separated. Sense memories are like a perfume: they're made of many essences, not just one.

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