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?