Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Smell Memory: Burnt Toast and Musty Old Farm Houses

Patience's Hazel Art
(Hazel Grayson at 104 years old - 2004)
Smell Memory.  What is yours like?  Mine is haunting in the most beautiful way.

I walked into my kitchen just now to wash my breakfast dishes and change a load of laundry.  I was pondering if there is any gardening that I can go outside to do this beautiful summer day.  Lost in a mental list of productivity options, I was about three feet from the sink when a smell memory hit me and hit me hard.  I suddenly walked into a cloud of what my Grandma Grayson's kitchen used to smell like - a combination of old musty farm house and burnt toast.  I was taken.  I stopped abruptly, doubting what I was smelling.  Grabbing a hold of the counter as though I were going to lose my balance from surprise, I inhaled deeply as the smell memory grew stronger.  Eyes closed, the vision of my Grandmother became prominent standing in the kitchen of her old farm house (not the newly built modern house that my Grandfather gifted her in her late 80's).  Her cotton dress and apron, bowed legs from childhood illness, standing at the kitchen sink laughing as she washed the breakfast dishes.  I opened my eyes for a brief moment to set my own breakfast dishes down in my sink.  The smell still overwhelmingly present, I strong cry took me over.  I closed my eyes and deeply inhaled again as the smell memory faded.

I don't know if my own kitchen tends to smell like old musty farm house.  It is very possible that is smells like burnt toast - a lifelong way of living that I need to re-address very soon.  I won't linger too long as to why this happened, but I am thankful for it.

We can easily look at a photo and say, "Oh yeah!  I remember that!"  Or, we can recollect with a friend or a relative about a shared memory and our own personal version of the story.  We can touch a doll or a blanket or just about anything and feel the sensory touch of something that has always felt that way.  But smell is more elusive.  Yes, I can say, "This peach pie tastes just like Grandma used to make!"  The pie could even smell the same.  But to suddenly be hit with a smell that is unlikely to exist in your present environment...a smell that is a combination of elements from a time past...well that is something else altogether.

Has this happened to you?

My mother used to have this wooden cabinet with glass doors that she kept as a sort of shrine to my brother who passed in his teens.  It held his favorite Dallas Cowboys t-shirt, his left-handed baseball mitt, trophies, a picture of him in little league, candles and more.  If you opened the cabinet, you would be overwhelmed at the intimate smell of the items inside, most notably the candles.  But every once in a blue moon, on a different floor of the house or in a far away room, that combination of smells would waft under your nose.  Gripping you, stopping you in yours tracks, forcing you to close your eyes and wonder.  These smells were mysteriously free of their entombed moment in time - back in 1982.

Smells from my Grandma Hazel Grayson have haunted me before.  In fact, I cannot think of any smells relative to others that have ever grabbed me like that.  Mediums would tell you that it represents that individual's spirit is visiting you at that exact moment in time and that it is "with you", watching over you and protecting you.  Whereas, neuroscientists would indicate that this is olfactory memory, where one's amygdala specifically deals with smell memory.  

Whatever the case may be, I wonder why it doesn't happen for me with smells from anyone else.  Why only Hazel?  Why not my brother's smells to me like they do to my mother?  It both examples, the smell is not negative but, it seems, a warm reminder of a loved one passed.  For me specifically, a time and a place, an age and an environment - a person who greatly nurtured me.  

While it brought me tears, my memory of Grandma Hazel this morning warmed me.  It gave me her being again if only for a brief moment.  It brought me her love and her part in my daily morning traditions.  I was happy to see her again from my 7-year-old height, peering into the kitchen while standing in the living room entry.  With the morning sun shining in above her kitchen sink, she was everything I remembered and more.  

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