Monday, November 7, 2011

Smell-O-Vision

Hank had some new playdough the other day, and I sat down at the breakfast table to open it up with him. I opened the first jar and held it up to my nose. I took a sniff, and as I did, I saw a face in my mind. It was as clear as could be, like a picture flashed on a screen. An older, almost elderly lady with white hair in an old-fashioned bouffant style, a smiling face, and crinkly eyes. Who was that? I closed my eyes and sniffed again. Same face in my mind's eye.

I lost track of what Hank was saying for a moment as I thought about that face. I was searching my memory for who that could be, or I don't know how to describe what I was doing. It was that strange mental operation you carry out when you're trying to place someone, a process that seems like feeling around in the dark, but which must have some logic and method that is hidden from us.

Very quickly it came to me that in my Kindergarten class, there had been an assistant teacher, and it was her face I was seeing. I just knew it. Now, I remember my head Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Gainey, very well, even though I was just four years old when I started school. But I swear to you, in thirty-some years I had never thought or remembered that there had been another teacher in the classroom that year. I couldn't remember her name and I can't now, but it was like the memory warmed in my hands and I knew it was right.

I've read here and there about smell being the sense most strongly linked to memory, and especially to long-term emotional memories. Something to do with the olfactory organ being part of the limbic system. I have often had a smell remind me of another time and place, but I have never had an intact, out-of-nowhere, and wholly forgotten memory surface like that.

I've smelled playdough countless times in my life. So what brought up her face right then? Maybe it was the added nudge of sitting down at the table with a little child? I don't know, but it is kind of mysterious and wonderful to me, the way the mind works.

Just the day before, I'd had one of my standard conversations with Laura, along the lines of, "Right now your brother worships you, and when you are both old, he will be your best friend. Daddy and I will be gone and you and Hank will be the only ones who remember each other as children. How you treat him now will matter all your lives. If you are dismissive of him or contemptuous of him on a regular basis, now while he's little and you have all the power, he might not exactly remember later but he will put the feeling in his heart."

Okay it reads a little heavier than it came off. But Hank overheard part of this and said, "What do you mean put feelings in your heart?" So I tried to talk about how we remember and learn from feelings and experiences that happen even when we're just babies. So then the playdough moment happened, and I thought, "Do we really forget anything, or is it all still there in some occult way?"

Anyway, this is fascinating to me. Has something like this happened to you? Tell me. Or write about it on your blog and come tell us so we can go read.

xo
B

23 comments:

Amy said...

Oooo! What a great post. I totally know what you're talking about! I've never read up on it, but it's funny how certain smells can trigger such powerful memories. For me, there's a certain smell sometimes I get in cities--I'm not sure exactly what it is. Some kind of cocktail of exhaust fumes and maybe garbage, and it's like--bam!--I'm transported to a specific day in Nairobi when I was in college. Like you say, it's things you didn't even know you remembered!

The brain really is an amazing thing.

delaine said...

I totally know what you mean! It could be that everything IS captured in our memories if only we could access the memories. For me, that sensation is very strong. Maybe as you age it becomes more frequent? Whenever I smell modeling clay, the old fashioned kind, I am transported back to first grade. That was a very long time ago, but I can SEE the classroom, the tall windows, the kids, the teacher. It is an amazing thing to relive a moment triggered by a smell. Also, I love what you said to the kids about their relationship. Now, that's precious.

Hootie said...

I had a very similar conversation with my oldest son the other day, only it came out, "Stop poking your brother with that spatula."

There's eloquence in brevity.

Holly said...

Just yesterday, I was using rubbing alcohol to clean something and the smell instantly hit me and I thought "Wow, this is triggering some childhood memory." It took me a minute, but I then remembered putting alcohol on my earrings when I first got my ears pierced when I was seven. So that's what I still associate that smell with!

Michele R said...

Hootie's comment is funny. But true and a good example of balance between how my Hubs comments when I bring up the same type of conversation about wanting the boys to know that they will only have each other one day and I want to make sure they are tight. They assure me that they will, and so does Hubs as they see by example sib adults having good get togethers, with cousins having fun. I don't get why they are the way they are now, and in my Hubs' case each younger bro had to literally beat up the older one as some sort of rite of passage. And they are close now. Or maybe it is because they all married strong, good women...
A whiff of something blooming at night will take me back in time. That and Love's Baby Soft.

AlGalMom said...

Beautifully written post, Becky. I didn't have any sisters growing up, but I am raising four girls, and I hope so much that they all love and care for each other when they're adults--it boggles my mind when I imagine what it would be like to have three best friends who share most of my memories and know pretty much everything about me and love me anyways. I would die to have that. Sometimes, when I'm a "C" parent (you know, if we got grades) I lecture my oldest "I always wanted a sister and never got to have one--you should appreciate how lucky you are to have three sisters!" Maybe I'll up my game and bring out the "put feelings in your heart" line :)

Veronica said...

Wow, that's a heavy conversation!

When I was little, our family often went to this one particular bagel bakery, and my dad would always park in the parking lot just down the hill -- so then we would have to walk through a little alleyway next to the laundrymat that was adjacent to the bagel bakery. The alleyway was full of that soapy, laundrymat-y smell. To this day, every time I walk by a laundrymat, I have a craving for a bagel. I guess that is a bit more of a Pavlov example, but it does relate to the smell thing...

Alison Hipp said...

Great post...And it was just by happenstance that I was on Boston.com this morning, I mean, ahem, working very hard getting my end of year proposals out, and discovered that there is now a PLAY-DOH COLOGNE!
http://www.perpetualkid.com/play-doh-cologne-spray.aspx?utm_source=googlebase&utm_medium=cse&utm_content=FRAG-0170-37&utm_campaign=googlebasecse&gclid=CL-F6tevp6wCFQUKKgodqkEE3w

Elle said...

Becky, I absolutely believe that kind of metavisceral (if I may turn a phrase) language rings in an extremely meaningful way for children. I think that it gives them something whole & textured -- kind of like a tapestry of values -- that they can hang where they like and see or not see over their lifetimes, but which will show wear that will reveal to them what they know in their own experience to be true. I always feel like the artifact of integrity will be found there.

I am always yammering on about longings predicated by scent. It should not surprise you that I also have a blog post somewhere titled smell-o-vision. But I also have a similar Buffalo-Springfieldy unraveling of issues provoked by visuals, which always maketh me feel a little cuckoo. For example, here. http://bit.ly/bXR3vj

Keep on keeping on, Becky. If yr NaBloPoMo were a song, you would def be warming up to the bridge xox

M said...

A sense powerful enough that at birth infants can discern their own mothers by smell. I worked at Crabtree & Evelyn during grad school and learned a lot of fascinating stuff in my time there. I highly recommend the chapter on smell in A Natural History of the Senses by Dianne Ackerman if you want some good reading on this topic.

Patrick said...

My recent dug-up memory was in the doctor's office, but it was visual. I noticed a painting on the wall that I knew I'd seen but couldn't quite place it. It was some trees on a street. I looked down and looked back up and noticed the feelings it created in me, and then I knew: it was one of the pictures grandma used to have in her living room in Brookhollow. It may even still be hanging there; I'm not sure. Not quite as subconscious and utterly visceral as smell, but it still momentarily transported me back.

My Kids' Mom said...

Loves Baby Soft (hee hee).

Once a preschool boy in my class snuggled up close to me and told me I smelled good. I sat there wondering if someday he would meet a woman and not know his attraction, but that it would be someone who wore my perfume/deodorant/shampoo or something.

Kelly said...

My kindergarten assistant was Ms. Prince and she had the most distinct perfume smell. Anytime I smell it I think of her! She wore a bubble necklace around her neck and anytime we did something good she blew bubbles for us!

Rebekah said...

Great post Becky. Looking forward to seeing you on Signal for Thanksgiving!

Beth said...

Wow, you have great commenters, Beck.

Hootie is hilarious, and Elle is profound.

I can't think of any memories right now I associate with smell, but I can verify the way an emotional experience can imprint a memory. I am terrified of spiders. Literally. Once, I was walking down the soda aisle of the grocery store and I nearly walked SMACK into a large spider that was hanging from the ceiling. (Yes, I know, how long must that web have been?) It really threw me for a loop. This was probably 10 or 15 years ago, and to this day, every time I enter the soda aisle of any grocery store, I get anxious and stressed. Sometimes I even find myself unconsciously looking for a spider in the air, or just looking to make sure I'm not walking into something unseen. It's crazy.

Also, Steve & I often comment on the fact that our boys will know each other longer than any other single person their entire lives-- longer than us and longer than any spouse they might marry.

Amy said...

Awesome. Post.

Best. Comments.

There's a certain library-book smell that gives me the same surround-sensation experience Delaine describes: the public library in the small Indiana town we left when I was 4, and the way the light came through the tall paned windows into the stacks.

Hootie, ha. (per usu)

I'm resisting the temptation to go wake Megan up to tell her exactly the words you said to Laura. As always, you capture it so dang well! xoxo

Amy said...

Yeah I got all excited about the smell and memories thing and forgot to say, YES! to the siblings being so important to each other thing. Do you remember how Mom and Dad used to tell us that when we'd fight? "You'll know each other and be friends longer than you'll know anyone else, long after we are gone." And they were right! Now, I'll have lifelong friends and siblings to squander my inheritance with!

But seriously, I tell Ava and Nate the same thing...but I love that line about putting the feeling in his heart...SO going to use that next time.

Becky said...

I do have great commenters. Probably the best in the whole internets.

I love that post, Elle. Your 27 boxes from offsite storage, delivered to your mind. Yes. Picking up your analogy of people mutually curating a house of memory, I wonder if you feel the anxiety that I know I get sometimes, like, "Am I the only holder of this experience? Can someone else verify/affirm/underscore the details?"

A big yes to Love's Baby Soft!

Play-doh cologne...hmmm. Can't think of the perfect person on my xmas list for this.

yelladoesstuff said...

Love this whole situation. I'm all about the scent-y memory phenomena. Before my hubs and I were married we went shopping for cologne and perfume that we would start wearing on our wedding day and continue to wear exclusively through the first year of our marriage. We settled on two from Penhaligon's of London (they make perfumes for the royal family) since we knew they still be around in 50 years. Now, when I smell them I'm totally thrown back to our honeymoon. So cool.

Play Doh though. Whoa. Don't get me started on all that. Play Doh issues. I got 'em. Here's what I have to say about that, http://yelladoesstuff.blogspot.com/2011/11/play-doh-crack.html

Allison said...

You do have great readers leaving excellent comments. I have one relative left, my brother. So, yes, be kind to your sibs, they may be all you have in the end.

Allison said...

You do have great readers leaving excellent comments. I have one relative left, my brother. So, yes, be kind to your sibs, they may be all you have in the end.

Bonnie said...

Great post, and great comments, I agree. But not even one mention of Marcel Proust?

Elle said...

Yk, Becky, I am usually the friend who is able to access the fullest rendering, which is why no one knew how to act during the Joe Mengele confusion.

That was such a departure for me, being so in the dark in my own mind. There would be these patches of luminescence, like a firefly scraped on the wall, but no matter how I tried, I couldn't light anything. I had never had that happen to me -- even when I was drinking, I could always depth-charge my brain for the memories, usually in the shower because it's like yr mother said, it's all in there.

It was tremendously frustrating, but it gave me a lot of compassion for my less-memorizing friends. Then once eveything was revealed to me (that came from a visual cue, too), it made perfect sense why I sent his boxes to Siberia -- even though I never realized I could be so discriminating. That guy, whatta [insert yr favorite compound-word expletive noun from The Sopranos right here]!