The Perfume of Memory

AP-avatar Cara/Andrea here,

O'brian-book-cover I’ve bee re-reading some of the early Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, savoring not only the rousing descriptions of naval battles during the Napoleonic Wars, but the far more nuances textures of character that he creates. Friendship, fear, love, loss, bravery, boredom . . . O’Brian is a wonderful writer, with wry wit and black humor interspersed with lyrical observations of nature. But for me, what makes his prose even more memorable are the short passages—a paragraph, perhaps—where he suddenly makes me stop and take a deep breath, for the words evoke such a visceral reaction.

Here is a passage where Stephen Maturin, the strange, secretive ship’s surgeon has just smelled a certain scent of perfume on the coat of his best friend—the distinctive scent worn by the woman he desperately loves.

“It is unspeakably childish to be upset by a whiff of scent; but I am upset. . . He poured himself out a wineglassful of laudanum, closed one eye and drank it off. ‘Smell is of all senses by far the most evocative: perhaps because we have no vocabulary for it—nothing but a few poverty-stricken approximations to describe the whole vast complexity of odour—and therefore the scent, unnamed and unnamable, remains pure of association; it cannot be called upon again and again, and blunted by the use of a word; and so it strikes afresh every time, bringing with it circumstances of its first perception . . ."

I found this very poignant—and true. Scent stirs such sudden, visceral memories, perhaps even more so than pictures, touch or words. After I read this, it got me to thinking about my own reaction to scent. . . and here are a few of the smells that trigger strong memories from the past

Grass New-mown grass: When I was a child we lived in a house built into a hill. My little bedroom had windows high on the wall that were barely above ground level. In summer, my father would mow the lawn in the early evening, and the scent of the grass, lushly sweet with the sun-warmed perfume of the long, lazy day, would flood the air. I’d watch his legs and the mower go back and forth, and then usually run out to walk along with him. A whiff of fresh cut grass carries me back to being seven or eight, and the simple delights of a summer evening.

A&D-beach The brine of the sea: I loved taking my bucket to the beach and exploring the tidal pools, finding all sorts of fascinating snails and minnows and mussels (that prompted turned into a noxious ooze when I brought them home.) But I loved the sense of wonder, of discovery, and I would happily putter for hours . . . cracking oysters to look for pearls . . . digging for pirate treasure. Today, the fresh scent of salt and seaweed conjures up memories of those afternoon adventures.

Apples Apples: We had orchards near us, and fall always meant buying baskets of fresh picked apples. When I went away to college, my parents would always bring me and my roommates a big basketwhen they visited . . . the crisp scent of Macs, rosy with the first touches of cool air, always remind me of freshman year in Vanderbilt Hall.

Wisteria Wisteria: The first house I owned, a quirky little weekend cottage with lots of eccentricities, had a huge screen porch, covered with wisteria vines. In spring, the flowers would bloom and the scent enveloped the whole house in a fairytale sweetness. Wisteria still reminds me of my first step into real adulthood.

ELauder Estee Lauder Super Cologne: My mother wore one brand for years, and somehow it seems to pervade all her possessions—books, papers, clothing. It was simply part of her, part of her essence. Nowadays I sometimes open a box of journals or photos, or storage bag of gloves and hat, and it’s there, still lingering—that soft swirl of scent that makes me stop and smile.

Toward the end of the book, Stephen walks through the woman's deserted house—she's run off to be the mistress of a rich, handsome man.

“In the waste-paper-basket there were some balled-up sheets, the only imperfection, apart from the living clock, in this desert of negation . . . they were lists in a servant’s hand, quite meaningless . . . He tossed them back, stood for a long moment listening to his heart, and walked straight into her dressing room. Here he found what he had known he should find: the stark bareness, the pretty satinwood furniture huddled against the wall was of no importance, did not signify; but here, coming from no particular shelf or cupboard, there was the ghost of her scent, n
ow a little stronger, now so tenuous that his most extreme attention could hardly catch it."

So what about you? Have you any special scent memories that conjure up vivid emotions?

A Bang-on-the-Mark Christmas

Cara/Andrea here,

As you may have noticed, the Wenches are doing celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas with daily little snippets from our childhood holidays. It's my turn to share, and as I cleaned up crumpled wrapping paper and tangled ribbons this year's holiday, it got me to thinking about presents past.

It’s funny how certain things stick in one’s mind . . . When I was very young, Christmas morning was always such a magical time—the tree glittering with its colorful lights, the stockings bulging with sweet treats, the presents beckoning with hand-lettered name tags. But there’s one present I remember above all others.

Cowboy-Christmas I was three, and as I had an older brother, I wanted to imitate everything he did. So it goes without saying that dolls were not on my wish list. (Like Pat, I never grew to like girly things. I was always a complete tomboy, and to this day I’d probably choose L.L. Bean boots over Manolo Blahnick stiletto heels) In any case, my brother wanted a cowboy outfit, so naturally I did too. My parents, to their everlasting credit, did not object to this gender-bending request and saw fit to grant my wish. Well, as you can see by my picture, I was one very happy buckaroo that morning.

 But it’s memorable for more than that one moment. For some reason, that outfit really sparked my imagination. I spent countless hours creating elaborate stories and acting them out. (The poor family dog, who was very patient with me riding him bareback.) I become immersed in my own little  world . . . and was inspired to AD-horses-book-cropped write my first book about the Wild West! (Even then I was a horrible speller, but alas, Crayolas didn’t come with Spell-Check. I took many years of kidding about ‘horeses’ from my family.) I guess what I’m getting at is that present triggered a passion. The West gave way to Regency England, but my love for losing myself in my own make-believe world and spinning stories with people and events that came to life in my own little brain was a gift that stayed with me for a lifetime. I’m forever grateful for that beribboned box that held a pint-size ten gallon hat and fancy boots.

So how about you? What’s the most memorable gift you ever received? And did you ever get one that sparked a lifelong interest in something? 

Happy Holidays, everyone! May you all have a happy and healthy 2011.

Plenty of Room at the Inn!

Nicola3 Happy Boxing Day, everyone! I have very few photographs from when I was a child but I have managed to find a photo of the family that was taken by my grandmother on a sunny Christmas Day. You can see the balloon decorations in the window! I'm the smallest person in the picture, with a cute hairband. I love my aunt's glamorous 1960s mini kilt and my mother's tartan dress! And the boy with the cat is my cousin Neil who I hero worshipped!

My parents divorced when I was about five and after that I rarely saw my father but I did spend one memorable Christmas with him and his new family when I was about nine years old. My father was the sort of man who might be called a raconteur – he was a great story teller and I often suspected that those stories had received a considerable amount of embroidery and polish. But after my experiences that Christmas I never doubted him again.

On Boxing Day, December 26th, we all set off to drive to the English Lake District for the day. It was Scafell_pike beautiful sunny weather, cold but clear, and my father fancied a bracing walk on the Fells. The Boxing Day walk is a British tradition. We arrived in time for lunch at an inn in a village called Ambleside and most of the adults then went off to climb the mountain Scafell (in the photo), leaving me with my step-cousin Wendy and her mother for the afternoon. By the time that they returned some five hours later it was dark and very cold and the beautiful clear day had turned into a snowstorm with huge flakes falling. We set off for home but after about an hour we had barely gone a half mile. Then we drove into a snowdrift and were completely stuck. It got colder and colder. I remember my father wrapping me in a rug before he and his brother in law went off to fetch help. After about three hours we were rescued by a farmer on a tractor who dragged the car out and towed us back to the inn at Ambleside, where they revived us with Scotch Broth soup and mulled wine (very exciting and intoxicating for a nine year old!) The landlady put me to bed in a huge fourposter with a fat mattress and five hot water bottles. And when I got home the next day and my mother asked me how I had got on, I told her it had been the most exciting Boxing Day I had ever known!

Have you had a Christmas experience that didn't quite turn out as planned?

Wench Memo:

The Word Wenches will be giving away a fantastic prize on January 1st 2011 – a Word Wenches Library containing a book by each of the Wenches! For a chance to win, all you have to do is comment on one or more of our December blog posts. We'll gather the list of names on January 1, 2011 and pick a winner! (If you've already posted in December, you're already entered — comment again for more chances to win!) Good luck to all and Happy Holidays!